You've got NERV: Emergency interoperability on wheels

The Cisco NERV uses an IP-based network foundation, and meets or exceeds the National Incident Management System (NIMS) standards for type II mobile communication centers

On the Expo floor at the 2011 APCO Conference in Philadelphia earlier this month, I visited with Beverly Slocum and Dan O'Malley, Product Manager and Senior Product Manager (respectively) for Cisco’s Physical Security Business Unit. The primary purpose of our meeting was for me to see a demonstration of the Cisco IPICS (Interoperability and Communications System) Module and the Cisco ISSI (Inter-RF Sub-System Interface) Gateway, which together enable interoperable communications between LMR (Land Mobile Radios), P25 (Project 25) radios, 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) mobile devices, as well as POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) lines. Ah, uh... gulp.

While the IPICS / ISSI demo was incredibly compelling (read here for more on that stuff), it is little wonder that I was easily distracted by something mentioned almost as an aside during our discussion — the Cisco NERV. Officially dubbed the Network Emergency Response Vehicle, this rapidly-deployable mobile command and communications resource is supported by a highly-trained team dedicated to establishing interoperable communications for public safety personnel in mass-casualty and mass-emergency situations.

If you’ve never heard of the Cisco NERV, that’s perfectly okay, because in a sense, the high-tech communications vehicle flies — uh, drives? — largely beneath the radar. Here are some of the highlights you might find of particular interest...

Technical Specifications
The Cisco NERV uses the IPICS and ISSI suite to achieve an incredible level of interoperability among a wide variety of devices. In effect, this combined Cisco solution takes radio transmissions — whether they’re digital or analog signals — from the radio tower and feeds those signals into a router that then converts the voice radio traffic into IP. It can also conduct this “translation” to IP from cellular telephone towers, as well as traditional POTS (plain old telephone service) “land line” telephones. The NERV also has TelePresence (live video conferencing), video surveillance, Wi-Fi, satellite communications, and IP telephony on-board, to give emergency managers and on-site responders significantly enhanced situational awareness.

There are a few of these trucks stationed around the Unites States, ready to roll to any type of major catastrophe, from a natural disaster to a terrorist attack. According to Cisco literature, the Cisco NERV uses an IP-based network foundation, and meets or exceeds the National Incident Management System (NIMS) standards for type II mobile communication centers. When deployed to an incident with its NIMS-certified team, the NERV can help public safety organizations by:

Conducting disaster-response communications missions for up to 72 hours of continuous operations, allowing for immediate action without impacting existing resources
Operating seamlessly with police, fire, emergency medical services, National Guard, and other responders within an incident command system or unified command structure
Receiving 24-hour, proactive intelligence and logistical support from the Cisco Tactical Operations Center in Raleigh, North Carolina

Great Resource, when it’s USED
The Cisco NERV has been instrumental in ameliorating the difficulties related to inter-disciplinary, inter-agency communications interoperability in large-scale disasters such as the October 2007 Harris Fire in southern San Diego County. Tragically, four of the estimated 1,200 firefighters who battled the deadly blaze on Mount San Miguel died during their heroic fight to save lives and property. That loss, however, cannot be connected in any negative way with the presence of the NERV.

Closer to home — quite literally — the Cisco NERV was called into action again on September 9, 2010 in the aftermath of the San Bruno gas line explosion and fire, which happened about dozen miles south of the PoliceOne offices in San Francisco. I didn’t know until my Philadelphia visit with Dan and Beverly that the Cisco NERV was even in the area during that incident.

According to the post-incident debrief conducted by a task force comprised of public, private, governmental, and academic sectors — under the leadership of the Carnegie-Mellon University's Disaster Management Initiative — “Communication among professional groups initially was with face‐to‐face meetings. Initially, they drove in trucks from the ICP to EOC to show the Google team maps to the EOC. They later communicated with email.”

The Carnegie-Mellon report stated that the NERV was activated very soon after the emergency began, and then — inexplicably in my opinion — cancelled by CALFIRE prior to arrival on scene the night of the conflagration. According to the debrief documents, the Incident Command Post was aware of the NERV’s activation but unaware of its cancellation. The NERV was subsequently reactivated by NCRIC a day and a half later (on Saturday), long after the flames had been extinguished and the initial confusion and mayhem of that incident had naturally transitioned into a calm and managed response.

Just prior to completing this column, I connected via email with Rakesh Bharania, Tactical Operations Support Engineer at Cisco. Rakesh was part of the Carnegie-Mellon task force that developed the technical debrief of the San Bruno disaster.

“Communications are always vital. During natural and other disasters, however, they become an absolute necessity. Cisco has made significant efforts in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as internationally to break down the different silos between private sector responders, the traditional government response community, NGOs, and VOADs such as the Red Cross and the Academic sector to help respond to emergency situations as efficiently as possible.”

I couldn’t have said that better myself.

Check out the below video in which Cisco’s Bob Browning explains how the Cisco NERV works during large-scale, mass-casualty emergencies.


About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, responsible for providing police training content and expert analysis on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. An award-winning columnist — he is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column — Doug has authored more than 900 feature articles and tactical tips. Doug is also responsible for planning and recording the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, as well as being the on-air host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug also works closely with the PoliceOne Academy to develop training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.

Doug regularly represents PoliceOne as a public speaker in a variety of forums and is available for media interviews — he has appeared on numerous local and national radio and television news programs, and has been quoted in a host of print publications. 

Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Contact Doug Wyllie

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