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Johnson County Command-1

Author: Ellen Rempel and Joan Burkett

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

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Originally Published in our March 2005 issue.

Ellen Rempel and Joan Burkett, Johnson County Emergency Communications Center, Kansas

The Johnson County Emergency Communications Center (ECC) dispatches fire and medical assistance to the 458,000 citizens of Johnson County, Kansas, an area of 475 square miles.  In addition, the ECC dispatches fire service to 70 square miles of neighboring Miami County.  Johnson County is part of the Kansas City metropolitan area and borders both Kansas City, MO and Kansas City, KS.

The ECC provides dispatching services to 14 fire and EMS departments, using a Tritech Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system integrated with Automatic Vehicle Locator (AVL) software to manage incidents and dispatch emergency units from more than 50 stations.  The ECC's 29 employees dispatch more than 37,000 calls a year.  Dispatchers, known as controllers, work 12-hour shifts.

In January of 1993, a Mobile Communications Unit designated “1070” was placed in service, available to respond to any major fire or EMS incident to assist the command staff.  The ECC had established an Incident Dispatcher program in the mid-1990’s, a program that evolved into a more effective, improved team by early 2003.  The Tactical Communications Team (TCT) was using an old ambulance that was retrofitted with a generator and radios to act as a small communications vehicle during deployments of the Tactical Communications Team.   These "On-Scene" dispatchers are specially trained in the Incident Command System, and help the Incident Commander coordinate on-scene communications, vital to the success of any fire or rescue operation.  By 2003, with county command staff recognizing the value of on-scene communications support teams and realizing the limitations of the existing Communications unit 1070, started the process of acquiring a new, larger mobile communications vehicle.

At the same time, the EMS provider, Johnson County Med-Act, felt that the county as a whole needed some type of a platform for mobile command.  The ECC felt that it made sense for the Communications Center to provide the structure for the command unit instead of each fire department going out and getting their own and then the ECC trying to work in it to support their mission.  The ECC would then have their own mobile tactical communications and command vehicle, a concept that is unique for an independent, standalone communications center. 

We have found the most important part of the development process was to ensure that not only the appropriate communication center staff is included, but that a representative from each respective agency that you dispatch for be invited to participate in the process.  It is essential in the specification process that the individuals who are going to be requesting or responding with the unit have input to what goes in it.  Once you put together the core group of individuals that have agreed to spec out the unit, then it is important to meet on a regular basis and bring ideas to the table.  You basically want to take the dispatch center and the commander’s vehicle and combine them into a functional, mobile working environment.  In regards to equipment, you need to think audio/visual needs, CPU/printer equipment, and portable and mobile radio equipment.  Other items that we considered were radio antennas, external computer speakers, spare radio batteries, battery chargers, and amateur radio.


The total cost of the unit was $535,495.  A U.S. Department of Justice interoperability grant purchased $222,775 worth of radio equipment to be installed in the unit, with Johnson County kicking in the remaining $312,720 out of its general fund.  In order for us to make this a win-win for everyone involved, we made a commitment to operate the command unit regionally.  Our mobile command unit is the first piece of a regional effort in emergency communications interoperability throughout the Kansas City (MO & KS) area that is hoped to expand in the coming years.   Funding came through in autumn of 2003 and, after several months of research and site visits, Farber Specialty Vehicles of Columbus, Ohio, was chosen to build the mobile command unit.

Equipment Arsenal

The 40’ unit is 8 feet wide, 12 1/2 feet tall, and weighs about 29,000 pounds.  The back of the vehicle contains bench seating and a table, along with five television monitors, and a myriad of radios and satellite units.  All the cabinetry is finished with dry-erase boards in the middle.  The mid-section contains a computer and telephone server storage area, a bathroom, workstation and small kitchenette equipped with a tethered-down coffeemaker, mini fridge, microwave, and sink.  The front of the unit features several more communication workstations with radios, fax machines, computers, closed-circuit television, and other features. 

The 260-horsepower, turbocharged diesel command post is equipped with a 20-kilowatt generator and can function in place for three days without another source of power.  Comm 1 contains eighteen two-way radios and five communications workstations.  The unit has a weather station to monitor and relay local weather conditions – a valuable component in an area where grass fires and storms can be very problematic for first responders.  A 40’ antenna mast enhances radio and cellular communications in and out of the unit, while a separate 25’ mast hoists up a CCTV camera that can rotate 360 degrees and has infrared night-vision capabilities.  It can read a license plate number on a car parked blocks away.  A Panasonic LCD TV monitor was installed on the exterior of the unit to broadcast local news media as well as the unit’s own CCTV images to personnel working on the outside of the unit, which also helps cut down on the amount of people trying to get inside the unit.  The unit also has a Microtouch™ Ibid digital whiteboard inside the unit for command personnel; this whiteboard is hooked up to a computer and can save, printout, or project on the exterior monitor whatever is drawn on its surface. 

A Raytheon JPS ACU 1000 interoperability unit was purchased to ensure communicability with and between the various emergency agencies in Johnson County.  There are more than one hundred different law, fire, and EMS agencies in the area, and a significant number of radio systems – including Motorola 800 MHz, EDACS 800 MHz, VHF and UHF.  Providing interoperability among these diverse systems and agencies was a big selling point for the mobile command unit.  In addition to the ACU 1000, the unit contains virtually every possible radio frequency, allowing the right channel(s) to be quickly dialed up when the unit arrives. 

The unit is equipped with a satellite Internet connection.  We are now working on an option that will allow the unit to have a satellite connection to the ECC’s CAD system.  In the meantime, FieldSoft’s tactical CAD software systems, FDOnScene and PDOnScene, have been installed to provide a degree of computer-aided incident management and support in the unit.  The unit is also equipped with AVL, as are most of the County’s fire and EMS apparatus, so it can be tracked in the CAD system. 

We equipped the unit with everything from county and metro area maps to dispatch aids such as address and response plan books.  When the unit arrives from the vendor, it comes with what you required on the specifications, so it is important that you think about additional items that you’ll need when you get called out on a scene for any period of time.  You have to think of the large items right down to the smaller items that almost seem incidental in the dispatch center.  Ensure that first aid supplies and a large supply of office supplies are in the unit, including batteries, video, and audiotapes that are needed for both types A/V equipment recorders onboard.  Also, don’t think that there won’t need to be modifications and repairs when the unit arrives. 

After the unit was delivered, a few additional modifications were made to address issues that came up while using the unit.  Computer jacks were installed on the outside of the vehicle in the telephone boxes, so individuals who are on scene needing a computer connection can just hook into this and have a workspace outside of the command vehicle.  We also installed headset jacks at the workstations, as well as putting five battery charger banks in the unit.  


Field Operations

Because the mobile command unit serves the needs of many different responders within the county, many of them have their own ideas for using the vehicle.  Generally, it is deployed automatically on second alarm structure fires, on larger incidents like grass fires and the like that will require an extended period of time to mitigate.  The unit is also automatically dispatched on high-rise plans and MCI events countywide.  The unit can also be activated, of course, at the request of an Incident Commander at any time.


Placed in service last August, 2004, the unit is housed at the Consolidated Fire District No.  2 (CFD#2), Station 1, across the street from the ECC in Mission.  On deployment, either a tactical dispatcher from the Center will drive the unit to the incident, or, in the majority of cases, one of the CFD#2 firefighters will respond with the unit to the scene and off-duty TCT members will meet the unit at the incident.  The eight TCT members are notified by an automatic page sent out by the CAD system.  The duty officer for the team will then determine who, based on location and scope of the incident, would actually respond on the call.

The mobile unit was designed to serve both as a command post and as a tactical communications unit, since it is supporting law enforcement as well as fire, EMS, and emergency management agencies countywide.  The Sheriff’s Department will use the unit for hostage negotiation calls and the like, in which case the staffing configuration of the unit might change from how it would be set up for a fireground emergency. 

The advantage to both incident command and field communications support is already being felt in Johnson County.  Mobile command and communications vehicles are no longer considered a “luxury” but an essential part of the public safety arsenal. 

Ellen Rempel is the Operations Supervisor and Tactical Communications Team Coordinator for the Johnson County Emergency Communications Center in Mission, Kansas.  Joan Burkett is the Center’s Operations Manager.



Johnson County’s Tactical Communications Team

The command post is operated and maintained by the Tactical Communications Team, the only such group in the Kansas City area.  This small group of Fire/EMS dispatchers within the ECC operations staff is specially trained in all aspects of incident management and scene operations.  Their training includes fire ground communications and operations, incident management and emergency vehicle operations.  The team is also trained to operate Comm1’s specialized software, which is designed specifically for large incident management.  The team consists of a Coordinator, Deputy Coordinator, and Tactical Dispatchers.  Each member of the team is required to pass forty-hours of TCT training before being released to a scene to function without a training officer.

The team and the unit are capable of providing unified command support for police, fire, and EMS.  The command unit is also capable of supporting ECC operations in the event of radio failure or evacuation and at community events. 

The expectations of our users have grown considerably through the years.  When there is an event that involves multiple units and sectors, an incident command structure is formed.  For that to be successful, effective communications must be an essential component.  At times, incident commanders, the chiefs who need to be thinking about the big picture, are assuming tasks that dispatchers do best – managing incident communications.  Dispatchers are the communicators, listeners, and the ultimate multi-taskers every day they come to work.  If the human communications component is delivered right to the incident scene, to work hand-in-hand with incident command staff, we could be even more efficient and effective, and potentially lives and property could be saved. 

Having dispatchers in the field also takes a huge burden off the Communication Center.  Just because a major incident is working, doesn’t mean the rest of the emergencies stop!  If our tactical dispatchers are on scene and handling the incident, then the load is lightened on the staff inside the Communications Center. 

- Ellen Rempel, Tactical Communications Team Coordinator, Johnson County Communications


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