The satellite dish-equipped vehicles we might all rely on to coordinate earthquake relief efforts gathered in a Moffett Field parking lot over the weekend -- and some of the lessons learned were surprising.
The four-day event was a Silicon Valley style technology meet-up for state and local government agencies -- the first gathering of its kind for California.
It turns out that some of the trucks could not send emails to each other and others were using different radio frequencies. It was better to learn that now than during a disaster, said Martin Griss, director of Carnegie Mellon University Silicon Valley, which organized the event to establish itself as a partner in emergency response technology.
The vehicles that showed up included everything from state-of-the-art big rigs with video conference rooms and four-story antennas to someone's backyard creation, a satellite-dish equipped Lexus sedan, which illustrated that going big isn't always necessary.
Palo Alto's brand new $1 million dollar truck caught the eye of Mountain View Council member Laura Macias, who works part time as a Carnegie Mellon consultant.
"Palo Alto said we could share theirs, but you know, I just think we should have our own," said Macias, who noted that half of the cost of Palo Alto's truck came from a Homeland Security grant.
Palo Alto's director of Homeland Security, Ken Dueker, said the truck doesn't just sit around waiting for disasters. It was used, for example, to coordinate the police escort for President Obama during his recent visit to Facebook, with video and data displayed on a large screens in a conference room that expands off the side of the truck. In the back is a mobile 911 call center and dispatch center. Dueker said the truck could connect to nearly any communications network wirelessly or via land line.
Griss said taking a class with Mountain View's Community Emergency Response Team helped him realize how little he knows about emergency response. Likewise, emergency responders are realizing how important the latest and greatest technology can be, such as ultra fast wireless data connections that make it easy to transmit video.
Some said cell phone photos and videos are causing public safety departments to view the populace not so much as a crowd to control but a source of valuable information.
"These phones might be the greatest new deterrent to crime that we know in our lifetime," said Don Stabler, of the California Fire Chiefs Association.
Stabler and others mentioned Hurricane Katrina as "a wake up call" that a transition to digital communications is necessary. The lesson is that "if you can't get access to the Internet, you are pretty much dead in the water," said Catherine Nelson, a Cisco Systems network engineer.
The newest vehicles, belonging to Monterey County and Palo Alto, took design cues from none other than Silicon Valley's Cisco, which has developed its own jet black "tactical operations" truck as a philanthropic endeavor. "Cisco has access to technology most people cannot get their hands on," Nelson said.
With the help of four-story telescoping antennas, some of the trucks can send a WiFi signal as far as the Santa Cruz Mountains, Griss said.
Rumor has it that Google is considering its own emergency vehicle.
By Monday's end, disaster response operations across the state appeared to be more on the same page than ever.
"This is what "interoperability" is supposed to mean," Dueker said.