- Associated Press - Saturday, December 5, 2015

COLUMBIA FALLS, Mont. (AP) - When the president of the United States climbs on Air Force One, the Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for identifying every other aircraft in the area skies at the same time, commercial or private - there are, on average, 13,500 of them - and sharing the information with the Secret Service.

It does so in a custom-made mobile command center that was built just outside Columbia Falls.

Before racers run the Boston Marathon these days, security personnel fan out to walk the route, carrying or wearing sensors that can detect all sorts of materials that could indicate a bomb. The information is relayed back to mobile units equipped to analyze the data in real time.

The technology for doing so was integrated, and the units manufactured, just outside Columbia Falls.

Mobile emergency command centers are now a common sight at terrorist attacks, crime scenes, natural disasters and major events, but you may not have known that units deployed by agencies responding to hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and the EF5 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, were made right here in the Flathead Valley.

If you think that’s interesting, wait till you hear how that came to be.

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Nomad Global Communication Solutions was born in a barn.

Or maybe on a river. Or, perhaps, in a school bus.

Take your choice. Will Schmautz, a Kalispell native and the company’s co-founder and CEO, can make a case for them all.

Schmautz was a freshman at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, in 1995, and had lined up a good-paying summer job at Salem’s West Coast Beet Seed Company when his mother called.

She had seen a help-wanted ad for river guides in West Glacier, and wanted her son to apply.

“I thought, ‘Nobody’s going to hire me to be a river guide,’ ” Schmautz said. “I had no experience doing that.”

But, excited by the possibility of spending the summer back home in the Flathead Valley, Schmautz fired off a resume. He had spent most of his high school years in Africa, where his parents worked as missionaries.

Schmautz noted the experience he did have, working in integrated technological services at Willamette, at a time when email and the Internet were making their first tentative steps into the lives of most people.

“It was an exciting time to be involved in that,” Schmautz said. “That’s back when a computer was mostly a fancy typewriter.”

Great Northern Whitewater owner Reno Baldwin hired Schmautz as a half-time river guide, and half-time systems administrator.

“The culture of guys on the river is unique,” Schmautz said. “Not everybody shows up for work sober, so I quickly became a full-time river guide.”

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When wildfire season would hit, Baldwin would sometimes convert buses Great Northern used to carry rafts and rafters into ones that transported firefighters and their equipment.

“I’d drive buses and haul firefighters,” Schmautz said. “It was amazing. We’d haul them into these camps of 2,000 people, and there was no communications system in these camps, except for a few people with walkie-talkies.”

For a young person whose college job involved introducing fellow students to this relatively new-fangled thing called the Internet, the fire camps stood out to Schmautz as a place that could benefit greatly by catching up with technology.

So, Schmautz, his brother and two friends founded Nomad Technologies in 2002. That was after he earned a master’s in teaching in 1999, after an injury drove him out of competitive rowing, and after spending a year traveling around the world with his wife and another couple.

Nomad Technologies was based, almost completely, on the need seen at the fire camps, and the belief that “Our generation is going to require better,” Schmautz said.

They built their first mobile unit, featuring Internet connectivity and designed to be deployed at wildfires, in an early 1900s-era barn located at the home of Schmautz’s in-laws.

“We had to put a tarp on the roof to keep the rain out,” Schmautz said, “and wood on the floor so we wouldn’t track mud into the unit.”

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Some things they got right, and some wrong, in the beginning.

“We didn’t put ‘Fire’ in the name because we didn’t want to pigeonhole ourselves,” Schmautz said, and that turned out to be a wise move.

But, “Our business model was flawed,” he added. “The plan was to build up a fleet, rent the units out and offer manned support.”

There were a couple of problems, Schmautz said. You can’t schedule disasters, and hoping for them to happen is just plain wrong.

“We were talking to an incident commander, and he said he wished we could engineer an order, but specifically for his needs,” Schmautz said. “We struggled with that, because it messed up our business model where we were going to rent these out. But being reasonably intelligent people, we wanted to understand our customers’ needs.”

That switch, to a firm that custom designs and manufactures mobile command and operational centers, be they trailers, SUVs, vans or trucks, for a variety of clients, has led to explosive growth at what is now called Nomad Global Communication Solutions.

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The company has moved six times in the 14 years since it began in that barn, transferring into larger rented or leased facilities each time. For the past five years it has been in a complex about three miles north of Glacier International Airport, where it recently expanded again and now occupies 60,000 square feet.

“Every time we’d move into a new place we’d think, ‘We probably ought to consider buying this,’ ” Schmautz said. “Six months later we’d have grown so much that we’d have to move again. During the national economic downturn, we were on the upswing.”

Nomad also has sales offices in Denver and Dayton, Ohio, and is getting set to open offices and a second manufacturing facility in Lexington Park, Maryland, about 50 miles south of Washington, D.C.

“Nomad East,” Schmautz says of the coming facility. “It’s tied to a key project. Eighty percent of our business is done in the federal sector, and the East Coast and Southeast is where a lot of weather takes place.”

Much of Nomad’s manufacturing right now centers on a $14 million contract awarded by the U.S. Navy to build as many as 75 custom-made trailers in support of the National Guard Bureau Consequence Management Communications Unified Command Suite program.

Nomad had to beat out seven competitors to win the bid.

The Columbia Falls firm employs 90 people. Giving a wide range of customers exactly what their purposes require has become the hallmark of a company that started with a “one-size-fits-all-and-you-can-rent-it-from-us” mentality.

Nomad has sold units to federal, state and local agencies, hospitals, colleges, energy firms and other clients in 47 states.

In Tennessee alone, the company has provided things such as a mobile booking station for Davidson County, a truck that includes a holding cell and provides live video feeds between the vehicle and the night court in Nashville. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has a mobile crime scene lab made in Columbia Falls that allows investigators to process major crime scenes onsite.

And rural schools in the state’s Cumberland Plateau region are visited by a 53-foot trailer that Nomad turned into a state-of-the-art, self-sustaining - and towable - science lab that doesn’t even need an outside power source in order to function.

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Nomad’s other founders are Schmautz’s brother Seth, now chief information officer; Shane Ackerly, chief operations officer; and Clay Binford, vice president of sales.

All worked for the whitewater rafting, and occasional firefighter-transporting, company while in college.

On a computer screen in Will Schmautz’s office, you can find further evidence of why Nomad is succeeding.

The picture on Schmautz’s computer screen is of what looks to be an oceanfront community, with about five emergency mobile units deployed at various spots.

That’s all true. But the industrial-looking buildings along the shore are actually the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan that turned into a nuclear disaster, courtesy of a tsunami, in 2011.

Nomad’s staff has studied the incident, and built a model for quickly establishing a communications system for those who respond to a nuclear disaster of such magnitude.

The model is being adopted by the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona, and Nomad sees an important potential market in the 61 nuclear power plants and 99 nuclear reactors operating in the U.S.

It’s also pushing into international markets in Europe, Latin America and Saudi Arabia.

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Schmautz said Nomad has taken an old model in which equipment and vehicles were loaded onto flatbed trailers and transported to natural disasters - a process that “would take four to six guys, four to six hours to set up and establish a satellite link after they got there,” he said - and pared it down to one person in one vehicle, who can be up and running in 11 minutes from the time he or she arrives.

Technology that used to be held in a 45-foot trailer can now be squeezed into a van.

Over its 14 years, Nomad also has taken control over production of more and more of the parts it uses to turn trailers, or Ford or International trucks, into rolling emergency command centers, medical operating rooms, detention centers, science labs and more.

Customers like that, Schmautz said. One told him, “You’re one throat to choke” if something doesn’t work right.

“If you’ve got a problem with the hydraulic leveling or the satellite communications link or a voice-quality issue, you just call us, because we did it and we make sure it all works together,” Schmautz said.

“It’s funny,” the CEO added. “If you look at our first business plan, we thought we’d go from zero-to-monster in two years, and we didn’t get anywhere.”

One significant tweak, and “we’re on the cusp of so much more,” Schmautz said.

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Information from: Missoulian, https://www.missoulian.com

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