Matanuska-Susitna Borough

Command Van brings faster communications

Mat-Su | Patty Sullivan | Monday, December 18, 2006

MAT-SU—Local authorities took possession of a $410,000 field command vehicle Friday. The federally-funded MAT-SU Multi-Agency Mobile Command Van will serve as a forward command post during emergencies, drills, and large-crowd events.

Its first event will be a mass dispensing drill on Nov. 9 at the Wasilla Multi-Use Sports Complex.

Central MAT-SU Fire Chief Jack Krill said the command van will provide communications faster when time is critical.

During the flood disaster in August, scouring rivers cut two phone cables. For residents from Willow north, cell phones and the Internet didn't work at one point. Flood responders had fewer paths to communicate through as well. Krill said he and others drove up suitcases of radio equipment that had to be set up in Talkeetna. "We did it piecemeal," Krill said. "With this, if communications are disrupted, the command van can fill that void. We can take it anywhere in the Borough and have an already-established communications operation."

The command van has enhanced communications equipment. It will be equipped with an Alaska Land Mobile Radio system and the computer-aided dispatch capabilities of both Palmer Police and the MATCOM dispatch in Wasilla. Cell phones with a greater strength will be on board and a satellite phone capability as well as a wireless router for the Internet and land line phones.

The command van was purchased with a 2003 Homeland Security grant and will be available to multiple agencies including: the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Department of Emergency Services, Houston Police, Palmer Police, Palmer Fire, Wasilla Police, and the Division of Forestry. The vehicle will be housed at Station 6-5, Cottonwood Public Safety Building.

"The Borough will be the keeper of the vehicle and authorities will check it out much like they would a library book," MAT-SU Emergency Services Director Dennis Brodigan said.

Friday, at Central Fire Station 6-1, fire officials were the first to walk through the van and get quick lessons in its generators, radios, and various network jacks and patch panels. "It's something we've needed for a long time," said Fire Service Area Trainer Johnny Murdock.

The command van looks more like a truck with a motorhome on its chassis. Its Mercedes Benz diesel engine has a high clearance. The rig is 13 feet, six inches high. Its four-wheel drive capability is unusual for a vehicle with its bulk. It gets about six miles to the gallon. It is 42 feet long and weighs 31,000 pounds, according to Tom Kelley, the delivery trainer who drove it from Ohio to Seattle, where it was ferried up to Whittier and then driven to the MAT-SU. Kelley works for Farber Specialty Vehicles. Its subsidiary is the more well-known Custom Coaches. This is the first mobile van that Farber has built for Alaska, Kelley said.

Among other features: It has a telescoping camera that pans 360 degrees for monitoring outside the van. With recording and playback ability, authorities can examine and document an event that is unfolding. Four flat television screens can tune into the local scene and television stations. In the back conference area, a SMARTboard can help display maps and images on an interactive whiteboard during command staff meetings. A dry-erase marker in an electronic pen shows up on the SMARTboard and simultaneously transmits to the computer that is displaying the data.

For more information, contact Fire Chief Jack Krill at 373-8805 or Deputy Director of Emergency Services Clint Vardeman at 373-8804.