The comfortable command post: Ensuring ergonomic integrity in the mobile command environment

Some of the most frequent workplace injuries in public safety can result not from threats inherent from the dangerous job itself

By Randall D. Larson

Public safety Incident Command Posts (ICPs) take on many guises, from the clipboard-and-cellphone of a shift commander first on the scene through a fully outfitted, state-of-the-art mobile command bus. No matter what the shell of the command post looks like, there are key functions, equipment and procedures that are essential for operational success. An aspect that may not readily come to mind amid a critical incident is ergonomic safety.

Staying physically healthy in a work environment may be easier said than done in the uniquely critical operational world of the first responder. Risk factors in the mobile working environment are particularly enhanced in public safety. The immediacy of response and activation of numerous pieces of specialized equipment pursuant to the activation of a mobile command center (MCC) during a long-term event necessarily contributes to an increased risk of strain and injury. Awkward postures, necessary bending, reaching and lifting, insufficient rest breaks, excessive noise and improper lighting all can contribute to ergonomic wounds.

Television cameramen walk by a Fort Hood Police Mobile Command Center near the Lawrence H. WIlliams Judicial Center as a pretrial hearing gets underway, Tuesday, July 9, 2013, in Fort Hood, Texas.
Television cameramen walk by a Fort Hood Police Mobile Command Center near the Lawrence H. WIlliams Judicial Center as a pretrial hearing gets underway, Tuesday, July 9, 2013, in Fort Hood, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

This article reviews some considerations for developing an ergonomically safe mobile command post and offer some thoughts to maintain safety and comfort in three different types of on-scene MCC apparatus.

Light Trucks/SUV Command Posts

With many first responder agencies shifting patrol sedans to SUV configurations, these “light trucks,” as they are designated in the USA, combine the four-door bucket and bench seats of the sedan with an oversized station-wagon type cargo area.

With the SUV as a field commander’s workplace, the ability to provide basic mobile command post functions increases simply by the architecture of the vehicle. The rear space of the unit offers the ability to host radio heads and computer docks, as well as “pull out” whiteboards and even LCD screens. This size of vehicle and configuration allows on-scene co-location with allied agencies; police and fire vehicles parked side-by-side or back-to-back, for example, allows joint incident command staff to interact in sharing situational awareness and tactics, maintaining the common operating picture.

Having to stand at the back of the vehicle for long periods is the necessary ergonomic issue here. The pull-out boards or cabinets may increase the need to stretch across the box to retrieve radios, markers and other items, which can cause repetitive motion injuries. Sitting in the cab isolates the incident commander and loses the opportunity to work with support personnel at the back of the vehicle. Working outside, leaning against the pull-out board or the side of the vehicle offers only slight relief; the opportunity to take a break and walk around for a bit may help if support staff is sufficient. Support or rehab units may provide folding chairs to alleviate the standing stress of the ICP but are usually awkward when needing to access the whiteboard, and they don't always paint a good operational picture for the watching public.

Heavy-Duty Trucks

Moving up the scale and complexity of the mobile command post, heavy-duty trucks such as the Ford F250 and F550 or the Chevrolet Silverado 2500 or 3500, while originally designed for transporting heavy loads, have also been configured for command support use. The larger size and wide bed of the truck allow the vehicle to carry more complex communication and observation equipment such as antenna masts, CCTV cameras and satellite phones. As vehicles grow, additional features such as solar panels or onboard generators can be incorporated for self-sustainment.

The same ergonomic issues as the SUV apply here – standing room only. Also, the bed of the truck is usually higher than that of the SUV, increasing potential motion-related injuries as personnel reach to access or activate equipment.

When operating inside the driver’s cab of an SUV or heavy truck serving as your command post or support unit, strain injuries can occur from being in a seated position for an extended length of time. In addition, operating the mobile computer from the awkward configuration of the driver’s seat, which usually requires one to twist sideways and reach across to type on the keyboard, can result in reach complications; eyestrain can also occur due to insufficient lighting of the keyboard or computer screen.

Dedicated Large Scale Mobile Command Center (MCC)

For larger municipalities, as well as county, regional and state organizations, the use of a refurbished bus, motorhome, or a custom-designed and dedicated mobile command center designed and built by public safety specialty vehicle manufacturers have proliferated largely due to grant funding sources and validated need since the September 11 terrorist attacks. These usually range from 30 to 45 feet in length, with some at the state level configured on tractor-trailer chassis.

These MCCs essentially function as a mobile EOC and Communication Center on wheels, providing long-term incident command and support at the incident scene. Equipped with the latest in modern technology, the MCC can now do everything a fixed site location can do including the kitchen sink. Key components of a large command post usually establish a degree of separation with functional areas for operations, communications, and plans.

Depending upon how often the vehicle is used – which can vary from weekly to rarely depending on how the MCC is managed – agencies may consider assigning a team to activate the unit when it is called for. The more familiar the crew is with activating the unit, the safer the deployment will be and the fewer ergonomic injuries will occur due to that awareness.

As with any office environment, the mobile command unit shares similar kinds of ergonomic concerns, from the ever-present repetitive motion injuries to concerns specific to the unit in question. Working space is narrow, even with the popularity of pull-out extensions on the sides, and overcrowding can hamper operations; if not careful, it can be easy to trip climbing into the vehicle up metal stairs, whether of the built-in or extended down variety; the equipment that needs to be set up when the unit arrives can be daunting for those unfamiliar with the process, and accidents or malfunctions can occur. If the unit is equipped with wheeled workstation seats, they can roll about unsteadily unless set into a track in the floor.

In each of these cases, recognizing and understanding the risk factors is the first step in avoiding injury. Some of the most frequent workplace injuries in public safety can result not from threats inherent from the dangerous job itself, but through seemingly inconspicuous repetitive motion injuries. Situational awareness is a key factor of public safety responders and support personnel alike. Know your risk factors and learn how to avoid them in your workplace, whether that's in the streets, in the office, or in the mobile command center. 

About the author

Randall D. Larson retired in 2009 after 20 years in public safety communications, serving as a shift supervisor, trainer and field communications supervisor for the San Jose Fire Department, where he helped develop and maintained the department’s mobile communications unit. He went on to found the annual California Mobile Command Center Expo (formerly “MCC Rally”). Larson was also the editor of 9-1-1 Magazine from 1995 to 2009 and its online version from 2009 to 2018. He currently resides among the northern California Redwoods writing in several fields of interest.

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