SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- As a hurricane passes and the dust begins to settle, a rapid response vehicle arrives on the scene like a beacon in the aftermath. As it approaches the thick of the damage, it’s time for the Deployable Tactical Operations System team to get to work.
While operating as a mobile U.S. Army Corps of Engineers command center, DTOS teams are ready for hurricanes and other disasters thanks to a cadre of Corps custodians who work year-round in preparation for that call of need.
These Corps volunteers are part of a nationwide Custodial District Support Team that deploys to significant man-made and natural disaster zones and provides power response teams with a mobile platform for critical operations and communications. Custodial teams typically work 12-14 hour days while deployed to areas ravaged by tornadoes, floods, storms and more.
To ensure readiness, the team not only conducts monthly maintenance on a fleet of 15 mobile emergency command centers, but they also hone their skills during periodic simulation exercises.
Team members from the Portland (Oregon), Los Angeles, Mobile (Alabama), and Sacramento districts recently gathered at Black Butte Lake near Orland, California as part of their biennial DTOS West Coast Exercise.
At the center of the exercise are the mobile emergency command centers, designed for redundant communication—meaning teams can use satellite, radio, cellular and Wi-Fi connections—to communicate with local, state and other federal agencies. The exercise is an opportunity to inspect the vehicle’s equipment, gain familiarity with system adjustments and conduct refresher training.
“From a personnel standpoint, this event provides a venue for the deployment teams to ask questions, make suggestions, and learn from one another in a safe, non-emergency setting,” DTOS National Team Leader Terrell Bosarge said. “Our goal is to leave knowing that the readiness and posture of the teams and the equipment has been improved because of the event,” he added.
Exercises also allow new volunteers their first opportunity to interact with the vehicles and equipment.
“When you look at the same thing every month it is easy to start overlooking things, to get in to a pattern of familiarity that may cause you to miss important things, like loose door locks, rust in an area you may not check, or a light you thought was supposed to always be on,” said Sacramento District’s Josh Jimerfield, who also serves as the DTOS custodial operations manager.
The DTOS program was officially formed in 1997, but many early prototypes for a communications system existed in the early 1990s after Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida.
According to Bosarge, the earliest mobile command centers were usually nothing more than box trucks or trailers with folding tables, chairs and desktop computers.
“The idea for the system was born out of the need for workspace and communications in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew and this originated with a small group of logistics and emergency managers who mostly worked for the Mobile District,” Bosarge said.
In 1999, Sacramento became one of 10 DTOS custodial districts. The district currently maintains three of the mobile command centers, which are positioned regionally to be able to respond to a disaster event as quickly as possible.
The DTOS management team is based in Mobile, which is also home for six of the vehicles—the most of any location. The remainder of the mobile command centers are located at Corps districts in Baltimore, Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Nashville, Portland and St. Louis.
Jimerfield described the exercise as a success because it provided a taste of what a deployment might be like.
“We usually get deployed to the hardest hit areas so that people working in the field at these disasters have a safe working environment with all the modern conveniences,” said Moe Adams, a Sacramento District construction representative who’s served on DTOS teams since 1999.
“The most rewarding part [of serving on a DTOS team] is when a field team says, ‘Thank you for providing me a safe place to work. See you on the next one,’” she said.
To learn more about DTOS, visit https://rsc.usace.army.mil.