Alberta city leverages surplus IT for mobile HQ

Mobile emergency command trucks for police or fire departments have become an essential part of the fleets of large Canadian cities in recent years.

Unfortunately, for small towns they can be unaffordable, particularly if officials want the vehicles to have cellular or Internet connectivity.

But a small city north of Calgary has found a solution: Link the vehicle to the municipal wireless system.

That’s what Airdrie did when it built what it calls a multi-partner mobile command centre late last year around a former ambulance that includes a Wi-Fi hot spot for emergency responders.

The spur was an August, 2010 train derailment north of the city of 43,000 that was carrying eight cars of potentially hazardous anhydrous ammonia.

At the time, recalls Paul Hurst, the city’s network administrator, it took several days for the municipality to assemble a mobile command centre for numerous city departments to deal with the crisis – and with the financial help of local businesses.

Afterwards, “we saw a need, between the fire department and IT, for a vehicle that is ready to respond in the event of a disaster.”

The key was to use as much of the city’s surplus equipment as possible, starting with using a former ambulance. It is stocked with a computer, a video camera for recording witness statements and an 802.11 access point with a 150-foot radius for police, fire or any other emergency support staff with a portable device that can use Wi-Fi.

Hurst said he didn’t have permission to name the manufacturer — although he did say there’s some amusement that an access point that looks like a fire detector is being used in a former fire department vehicle.

The access point connects through a crossover to a device from ESTeem Wireless Modems to the municipal 2.4 GHz wireless network for communicating to municipal and fire officials.

Through an Astaro Security Gateway, there’s also remote connectivity to the Internet. Astaro GmbH is owned by security vendor Sophos Ltd.

 “That allows us to filter malware, antivirus is in there as well as content filtering, Hurst said. “We’re able to reduce the amount of advertising and content that would maybe slow down what users were accessing.”

The advantage of using the municipal network rather than a cellular connection is there are no data fees, Hurst said, yet security is still there. That was a weakness in mobile command vehicles assembled by other municipalities that were studied.

“We didn’t see a lot of municipalities do it the way we did it, he said.

By using equipment on hand, Hurst estimates the city saved $3,000 – not including the former ambulance.

When not being used for emergencies, the command vehicle is used daily to support community service and safety inspection duties.