By Ed Brock

Hazardous materials leaking from a train derailment force an evacuation of the Clayton County 911 dispatch center, but no call for help goes unanswered.

Instead, they load up into the Clayton County Police Department's newest mobile unit and answer calls from there. The $175,000 RV-style vehicle, dubbed the Mobile Inter-operable Communications Services Unit, can go to a previously prepared location, Clayton County Police Capt. Jeff Turner said.

"We'll have phone lines forwarded there," Turner said.

Or the dispatchers can hitch on a specially designed trailer that includes a generator and 50-foot broadcast tower.

"We can take it to any high point in the county, park it and crank up the tower," said Tom Foster, project manager for Clayton County Technical Support. "It's an idea I've had for a long time but we never could make it work because we didn't have the money."

A grant from the Office of Domestic Preparedness in the Department of Homeland Security, distributed by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, paid for the unit.

"GEMA is really building a powerful infrastructure for Homeland Security," Foster said.

Inside the main vehicle, along with the usual camper comforts of a kitchenette and bathroom, are five radio stations where dispatchers can answer 911 calls and contact the appropriate emergency personnel.

Eventually they will be able to do that using a cellphone interface that will allow for wireless operation.

The trailer also includes a power generator with a 40-gallon gas tank that can be refilled while running, a lighted windsock in case a helicopter landing zone is needed and 30 portable radios tuned to the same frequency. The radios can be distributed to emergency personnel on the scene of an incident involving different agencies that use different radio frequencies.

"Then they're all talking together," Foster said.

That's important because the mobile communications unit, as part of the GEMA Homeland Security infrastructure, can be deployed anywhere in the state.

"If there was something critical that happened in Valdosta we could drive down there and help," Foster said.

Stormy weather that hit the area last week almost presented the 911 communications department with its first opportunity to use the new vehicle. A lightning strike knocked out power in the police headquarters building on McDonough Street in Jonesboro where 911 dispatch is also housed.

"If we couldn't have brought the service back up we could have moved out here," Turner said.