Rolling command center

Loaded with all of the bells and whistles, a new command vehicle is going into duty today at Ashland Fire & Rescue and the new equipment should increase the department's ability to handle larger incidents more safely.

The 2011 Chevrolet Suburban was purchased at the beginning of this year, and after spending the last eight months in a City of Ashland shop, getting a makeover to fit the job, it's ready to go, according to Ashland Fire & Rescue Chief John Karns,

"Basically it's just a regular vehicle," Karns said. "But it's the componentry inside that separates it from the rest of what we have."

The rig's mobile data terminal — a Panasonic Toughbook mounted to the dash — is fitted with a program that is synchronized to the department's dispatch system. It allows firefighters to communicate with dispatchers through messaging on the computer, and have the capability to continually receive information from dispatch that normally wouldn't make it to the scene of and incident, Karns said.

The vehicle, costing about $72,000, is also equipped with multiple radios, so that its operator can monitor and stay active on more frequencies than in the past. One of the vehicle's highlights is behind its back door, where a multi-compartment, custom-built box folds out into an in-the-field briefing area and command post.

"Communication continues to be the Achilles heel of emergency response," Karns said. "With this vehicle, everything is in one spot, and it just makes things run a lot smoother."

Before coming to Ashland, Karns spent 25 years working his way through the ranks at the City of Beverly Hills Fire Department. That department had multiple command vehicles like Ashland's newest, he said, and the idea of bringing one to the department hit Karns shortly after he took the job.

The same summer he took over as chief in Ashland, the 145-acre, home-threatening Siskiyou Fire broke out above town, and that did it.

"We were working off the hood of an Explorer," he said. "and that's no way to skin a cat."

Eventually, emergency response teams moved to a command post provided by the Jackson County Sheriff's Department, but Karns thought Ashland needed a fleet it could rely on independently.

"When you are coming into an incident with a minimal number of people you need all the help you can get," Karns said. "Most departments have something like this; we're just catching up a little bit."

The vehicle was purchased stock for about $32,000. To save money, Karns had City of Ashland mechanic Wes Hoadley install the lights, electronics and compartments.

"It might have taken a little bit longer that way, but places will charge $100,000 to get these vehicles equipped, so we saved quite a bit I think," Karns said

Hoadley, who has been working with the city for six years, puts together most of the new police and fire vehicles. The mess of wires feeding the components in AFR's new command vehicle, as well as waiting for custom-built parts, made it one of the most challenging he has done, he said.

"I don't mind doing it at all. It's a good sense of satisfaction knowing that I put together the emergency vehicles," Hoadley said. "It's nice for those guys too, because they get to have a little more influence on the way stuff is setup."

Karns said the most important advancement the vehicle brings to the department is "without a doubt," its new mobile technology, and the ability it gives firefighters to communicate with dispatch. He said the department is waiting to hear back on a grant from the county that would fund the purchase of seven additional Panasonic Toughbooks to be put in other vehicles. The new Suburban has the only one at the department.

"Technology is one of the most important things for us to consider," Karns said. "You can get so far behind it that you'll never catch up to the cost."

Karns said the new command vehicle should last about 10 years, because, by that time, he expects it to be outdated.

"Right now it's one of the best ones around," he said, admiring the glossy red paint, "but, no, we haven't waxed it yet."

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytiding.com.

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