When Every Minute Matters: Why Nomad GCS Uses Cisco in Mobile Command Units


It was the turn of the 21st century, and the peak of fire season. Firefighters were running into the rugged forests of Northwest Montana daily, carrying people, equipment, and other materials into battle with the elements. There were lives, homes, and personal property at stake, and crews faced a huge challenge: They had to worry about printing out paper fire maps of the area in question.

These papers would have to be scanned and printed off early in the morning, and then delivered to colleagues located anywhere from 80–100 miles away. By the time most of these maps were printed and delivered, the fire situation had almost certainly changed; sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. 

In an emergency, mobile command centers are a lifeline between frontline workers and the outside world.

In an emergency situation like wildfires, mobile command centers are a lifeline between frontline workers and the outside world. But in the early 2000s, fully-equipped and connected mobile command centers didn't exist. And this disconnect made work infinitely harder for the people who needed to communicate in a harsh environment.

From Obstacles Come Innovations

At this time, four friends fresh out of college transitioned from working as raft guides during the summer to working in remote wildland fire camps during fire season. They modified the buses typically used to transport clients to and from the river, and used them to run equipment and personnel to and from the front lines. 

Will Schmautz, one of the four, was astounded by the archaic, printed maps and lack of connectivity on wildfire lines, so he and his friends bought and gutted a trailer to build an internet café of sorts. They added a couple of workstations, installed a satellite dish on top for internet connectivity, and purchased an enormous printer. The concept behind Nomad Global Communications Solutions (Nomad GCS) was born.

Fire season wasn't as dire the following season, but other public agencies started reaching out to the team for help, so they pivoted to different use cases. They purchased and gutted more trailers, each becoming a personalized mobile communications asset for emergencies. 

Today, Nomad GCS vehicles and trailers serve a wide variety of industries, including police, fire, public safety, military, DOD, and even utilities and telecommunications. We outfit our solutions with the best routers, switches, and wireless capabilities on the market. To date, every single customer asset we've built is still on the road. If this isn't a testament to the quality, I don't know what is.

An Internal Network Overhaul

The motto at Nomad GCS is "When Every Minute Matters." For EMS and other emergency workers in unpredictable stations, there's not enough time to call tech support if equipment fails. Public safety officials need the best, strongest, most reliable equipment on the market that can also withstand extreme field conditions. For the Nomad GCS team, choosing the right equipment for emergency trailers was an easy choice: Cisco.

I've worked with technology since I was 10 years old, helping my folks manage their computer store after school. I worked for an ISP here in Montana for many years and moved to Nomad GCS about seven years ago. As someone who's worked with Cisco my whole life, I wholeheartedly agree with the founders' choice to go with Cisco from the beginning. 

For decades, Cisco equipment has had a good reputation for uptime and low failure rates. From the start, four primary factors attracted Nomad GCS to Cisco:

  • Simplicity. Nomad's customers aren't necessarily IT people. The tech solutions we offer have to be simple, quick, and easy to use. Spending hours on the phone troubleshooting an issue isn't an option.
  • Longevity. Public agencies are Nomad's largest customer base. For these organizations, money for frequent upgrades isn't always guaranteed. All software and hardware solutions need to last for several years without needing to be replaced.
  • Ruggedness. Mobile operations solutions have to withstand extreme conditions, especially those that are hostile to human habitation. Think hurricanes, fires, floods, and other natural disasters. These assets aren't exactly smooth rides, either, so equipment that can withstand getting jostled around is a must for each build.
  • Reliability. A lack of connectivity or spontaneous failure could affect the number of lives saved in an emergency. If tech isn't reliable, we don't want it in our vehicles and trailers.

When I joined the company, I saw that Nomad GCS used a combination of mixed switches for our internal network, and I advocated for a complete overhaul as soon as possible. We are a small business, and at the time, we dealt with similar issues that plague many small businesses: slow internet, weird hiccups that were hard to diagnose, and handling a heavy workload as a fairly limited team. 

I opted for Cisco Capital to forklift everything—including our network, routers, switches, and compute—and transition to new Cisco gear. We migrated to Cisco UCS servers for our virtual server needs. We wrapped everything up into five years of SMARTnet, which offers product-level technical support, hardware replacement, and OS software updates. The equipment we use is pretty straightforward. We frequently use the Cisco Catalyst 2960-X series and all the 4300 series routers depending on customer needs. 4331 is our most common to date, but 4451 is a pretty close second. Internally, we have an ASA 5500 for firewalls, which is a standard model for customers. 

The immediate improvements were enormous: no more unexplained slowness, all-night backups only took two hours, and CAD documents that would've taken minutes to open appeared almost immediately. 

Most public agencies have their own equipment according to their federal, state, or local government requirements. I believe in the power Cisco can provide to our public service agencies. I love bringing customers into the office to show off how we use the same Cisco equipment installed in our trailers. We're not out here selling equipment just to get a commission. We genuinely believe Cisco hardware ensures the best possible business continuity and performance. 

Good Enough Isn't Enough

It's easy to become complacent with what you've got, but I also know the importance of upgrades all too well. We encourage clients to think ahead rather than wait for something to fail in the field, potentially costing lives. Not all clients have guaranteed funds, which is why it's a good idea to update whenever possible and donate old equipment to agencies going through a dry spell. IT is constantly changing, so upgrading software when the opportunity arises ensures better continuity across agencies and a higher standard across the board. 

IT is constantly changing, so upgrading your software when the opportunity arises ensures better continuity across agencies and a higher standard across the board.

The same applies to Nomad GCS. We know our stuff is great and it works well, but we've also been keeping an eye on Cisco Meraki and determining whether or not it could work for our purposes. The online world is changing rapidly, and we want to continue using the latest and greatest technology. Still, all our units don't need internet connectivity, and managing units with cloud-based software can be problematic for some of our public agencies.

But we also know we're getting to the point where living without the internet won't be feasible, even for the most resilient of our customers. Everything is online, and a growing number of organizations are transitioning to a recurring service model for their hardware. As this becomes more widely accepted, new opportunities will start popping up. Meraki has a lot of potential in the work we do.

Great IT for Non-IT people

I've been in the IT business for a long time, and I make it a point to spend a lot of my time in the field with our customers, getting a feel for how they work and what they need to achieve maximum success. It's my job to bring that information back to the team at Nomad GCS. We then have in-depth discussions about how to make people's jobs easier, how agencies want to use our trailers, and how we can make every minute count.

When everything's on the line, you want to rely on the best of the best.

Nomad GCS has been a pioneer in the field of custom mobile ops solutions for nearly 20 years. But at our heart, we're an IT company. There are a lot of great middle vendors out there, but frankly, other vendors aren't IT people. Without the right gear, many companies are just creating glorified RVs with no real substance. Nomad GCS uses savvy IT solutions and delivers them to less savvy IT people. We wouldn't be anything near what we are today without quality software support from Cisco. They help our customers reach their full potential by saving lives and protecting personal properties from precarious, sometimes even dangerous situations.

When everything's on the line, you want to rely on the best of the best. For Nomad GCS, and for all our customers, that's Cisco.