Steamboat Springs The bus hums to life as Tim McMenamin flips the switches arranged like a cockpit dashboard. One by one, the components of the 12-foot-6-inch-high and 35-foot-long command center light up in the shiny new bus behind the Routt County Sheriff’s Office.
The new mobile command unit, a four-wheel-drive, $351,716 mobile operations center, can be used by all local law enforcement agencies during emergencies ranging from wildland fires to rescues. Bought by Routt County, Routt County Search and Rescue and a federal grant, the center will allow emergency responders to communicate, plan and escape the elements during prolonged operations.
“It cuts down on the workload in the communications center” during operations, Communications Director McMenamin said. The mobile center of operations also will increase the range of communications radios with mobile repeaters and will give emergency responders a centralized location.
Packed with four dispatch centers at the front fitted with radios and work spaces, the bus also could be used as an emergency communications center if the dispatch room in the basement of the Sheriff’s Office had to be evacuated, McMenamin said.
The bus can be plugged into phone lines or can use cell phone service, it can pick up Internet from a satellite dish or from nearby buildings, and it’s fitted with antennas on top for the VHF and 800-megahertz communication bands used in Routt County.
Perhaps most important, it has space at a rear table for emergency responders to lay out maps and discuss strategies, Search and Rescue President Russ Sanford said.
“When you’ve got the proper space to lay everything out and be able to look at multiple maps without having to unfold them and fold them, and do it in an environment where you’re warm and dry, it’s going to make things more efficient,” he said, leading to “better planning, better decision making.”
Former Search and Rescue President Tim O’Brien said the mobile command center is the result of six years of preparation and planning. O’Brien said he designed the bus, in cooperation with former communications directors, to be useful in the first hours of operation and for extended periods.
Search and Rescue volunteers have been using a converted 1978 school bus — bought for $1 about 20 years ago — but without the communications features, and with mounting problems, O’Brien said the bus was rarely used.
“It’s a dangerous vehicle, and of course, it’s not four-wheel drive,” O’Brien said. “You don’t know if it’s going to start or not start.”
Because of its problems, it was rarely used in the first eight to 12 hours of a search or rescue operation, Sanford said.
“The bottom line is when we can’t use our rescue barn as our command center (when the search is farther away), and when we’re forced to go out in the field as a command center, the blue bus just wasn’t getting the job done for us, so we were weren’t even getting it out,” he said. “It’s cumbersome, awkward and a little dangerous.”
The old bus used a split transmission that made it difficult to drive. The new mobile command center will require drivers to have a CDL-B certification, but it has an automatic transmission. The old bus will be donated to another search and rescue chapter, if possible, Sanford said.
All law enforcement agencies in Routt County will be able to use the mobile command center as needed, McMenamin said, and drivers will begin training on the bus soon.