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Police Roll Out New Bus

Mobile Command system to allow greater communications at crime scenes, disasters.

At first, it looks like a souped-up RV, a camper with a TV on the outside. But Arlington police say the police department’s new mobile command center (MCC) is central to future county safety.

The department rolled out the $650,000, 39-foot communications and command vehicle on Thursday, March 4, replacing a 12-year-old command bus. The new vehicle, which will get its first test run this weekend at the Ballston Shamrock Fest, is “state of the art,” said Matt Martin, police department spokesman. “I know it’s a cliché, but it has everything you would have if you were ordering one today.”

That includes a communications mast with a camera, multiple radio systems to coordinate communications between all of Arlington’s emergency responders, and video-conferencing capabilities.

<b>BUT THE MCC</b> is more than just a neat new toy, said Kim Smith, co-chair of the Arlington Civic Federation’s public safety committee. The committee scrutinizes fire and police department purchases of equipment, but they’ve found little cause for complaint in the recent past. “Most of the time what they’re getting is very well thought out, which is important to us: Have you balanced out what you need?” said Smith. “I love the idea of a mobile command center.”

Funds for the mobile unit came from a grant from the federal State and Local Emergency Preparedness program, funds allocated in the wake of Sept. 11. On the scene at the Pentagon 30 months ago, the police deployed their older command bus. But it was not effective in overcoming the biggest disadvantage that police and firefighters faced on the scene: radio systems separated by wavelengths and decades of technology.

“It was more of a mobile command post,” said Martin. “It gave you the opportunity to get inside, somewhere, and talk.”

<b>NOW, POLICE COMMANDERS</b> can communicate with other area departments during a massive incident, plan out SWAT team deployments on a light board and use video-conferencing equipment to talk with local and national media outlets or hold discussions with police officers across the country.

It will regularly be on site for annual events like the Marine Corps Marathon and Arlington’s Neighborhood Day, said Martin. But it could also be used on crime scenes like “a barricaded suspect,” or in situations like Sept. 11 or the sniper investigation, he said. “Something where we’re going to be on-scene for a long period of time.”

In addition, the MCC could be useful in extreme weather. “Like Hurricane Isabel: There were times when the power went down in the Emergency Communications Center,” said Martin. “Since this runs off diesel, we don’t have to worry about external power sources.”

Those are arguments in favor of the MCC, said Jim Pebley, like Smith a member of the Civic Federation’s public safety committee. “This is the sort of thing we need here in Arlington. When you consider how close we are to nation’s capital, and the dignitaries that visit, I can’t imagine that they don’t need it and need it very badly.”

The fact that the command center was purchased with federal grant funds makes it an even better deal, said Pebley. “Considering the support we provide for the Pentagon, that’s an appropriate use of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars.”

The fire department is expecting delivery of a similar mobile command post this summer, which will fill a hole that became obvious on Sept. 11, 2001.

“The fire department, at that point, did not have one,” said Steven Holl, deputy police chief detailed to the county’s emergency planning office. “As the situation stabilized, they used the Fairfax Police Department’s command truck.”