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Big is an understatement.

A one-of-a-kind behemoth large enough to give a ladder truck a Napoleon complex, the 74-foot mobile incident management unit is the newest addition to the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department's extensive fleet.

The command center was designed as a rolling disaster headquarters, and Emergency Preparedness Chief Marty Senterfitt said the unit was activated in May in anticipation of hurricane season. But it's been in the making since 2005.

"When we helped out for Hurricane Katrina, all we had were SUVs," Senterfitt said. "Then when we worked the T2 [Laboratories] explosion, we stood outside and worked on the hoods of our trucks. This facility completely eliminates the problems of the past in that we can bring all of our resources straight to the scene."

The $850,000 unit was funded by a federal grant from the Urban Area Security Initiative, and a planning committee was assembled two years ago to sketch out the details. The unit's construction was a collaborative effort, as committee members assembled a wish list of vehicle specifications and equipment.

Some wanted the vehicle to serve as a nerve center for emergency planning with unlimited access to Internet and phone communication. Others wanted a multi-faceted base of operations that could accommodate more equipment and manpower than any other department asset.

Both sides got what they wanted.

"The final result is a combination of all these different ideas," Senterfitt said. "We wanted to be ready for every situation, and this definitely fits the bill. I don't think any other agency in the country has anything comparable."

Communication

No matter how isolated the scene, the mobile incident management unit was built to be within range of a signal. An array of satellite receivers topping the trailer ensure the incoming and outgoing lines of communication are always open.

The team inside the vehicle can monitor media coverage of an ongoing disaster or weather conditions through seven HDTV televisions lining the walls of the interior work space. Emergency managers can alert their teams to pertinent data or plan strategies with two large-screen projectors that can be attached to the outside of the trailer.

Employees have unfettered access to that information with 45 Internet and phone-enabled work stations.

"If you're able to communicate with the rest of the world, you're able to survive any catastrophe," Senterfitt said. "Sometimes disasters necessitate that you go to areas with infrastructures that can't support an emergency operation of this size. But this unit gives us a base of operations anywhere."

Versatility

The outside might resemble a souped-up big rig, but the inside is all business. There's enough room to fit about 50 emergency responders with room for some equipment.

While it is self-contained enough to sustain a large-scale emergency operation for days, it's also built to utilize outside resources. It can hook a hardline up to existing communication networks, which puts less of a drain on the unit's 60,000-watt diesel generator than operating from satellites.

And the generator also is able to power a "tent village" complete with electric hookups.

It's far from a rolling hotel, though. The vehicle was made with function in mind, so the comforts of home, such as a bathroom or kitchen, were left off the final product.

Mobility

It's not built for speed, but the unit is unique in that it can be piloted straight to the action. Most emergency-operation centers are fixed points where supervisors relay orders to first responders at the scene.

But this facility allows them to uproot the main headquarters at a moment's notice and unite workers and managers under one roof.

It's only been as far as South Florida for a few trade shows, but that's likely to change soon, Senterfitt said.

The rolling facility was devised as an asset to not only the First Coast, but to the entire Southeastern portion of the United States. If a Katrina-level disaster happened again in New Orleans, he said the unit would be mobilized in short order.

The only thing slowing it down?

"It's a big vehicle, so we'd have to fuel it up like crazy."

matt.coleman@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4654

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