6,000 feet deep, 18 miles wide, 5,000 people per day: The Reality of the Tribal Beat
By Lesia Dickson, FirstNet Region 6 Lead
How can a place be remote and virtually unpopulated, yet constantly full of thousands of people and teeming with activity? It certainly seems impossible, but that is exactly the situation at Grand Canyon West (GCW), home of the Hualapai indigenous Indian Tribe and the famous Skywalk. Although well over an hour from the closest town, more than one million people visit each year -- arriving mostly by helicopter and tour bus. On any given day, a constant stream of helicopters drop from the sky to the numerous helipads at GCW, where the occupants board buses to reach the Skywalk.
Yet things are not always perfect. Public safety is a major component of Skywalk operations. Fire, EMS and law enforcement are called to action virtually every day for canyon extractions, broken limbs, heart attacks and myriad other issues that come with hosting large numbers of people in such isolated surroundings.
But what if a large, more complex incident occurred? How would tribal, county, state and private industry responders work together to respond when additional resources are hours away, and could communications technology help to bridge the gap?
Hualapai public safety officials and Grand Canyon West Corporation wanted to know the answer to this question, so partnered with the Arizona Public Safety Broadband Program team, Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (AZDEMA), Mohave County and others to find out. On Sept. 14, they staged the first tribal-sponsored LTE exercise in the United States just yards from the rim of the Grand Canyon. They played out an exercise scenario in which a helicopter clips a tour bus, causing it to turn over and catch fire. Key to the exercise were technology components that allowed remote telemedicine support from Kingman Regional Medical Center in Kingman, AZ, and a live video feed to the DEMA State's Emergency Operations Center in Phoenix.
Lessons learned were numerous -- not the least of which was the opportunity for technologists to discuss the real life aspects of responding in such remote terrain. Many responders talked about their experiences in the Canyon itself and the feeling of total communications isolation while trying to save lives. "We go into the canyon almost every day. A helicopter fatality occurred down there last year. When you are in there, you are alone and it is hard to let command know what you need. This isn't an easy place to work!"
From a technology standpoint, responders in the exercise found value in the applications, but struggled with existing device form factors. As one responder said, "I work with my hands to save people's lives. I have to keep my hands free, so I don't want to use a tablet or anything else that ties up my hands. But I love the idea of someone at the incident using video and other technologies that show folks back at headquarters what is happening, what we need and letting them see how hard we are working out here!"
This opinion was echoed by Wes Dison, Assistant Director for AZDEMA. "One of the most frustrating things for us at the emergency operations center is that we are blind. We only know what someone can stop and tell us. Gone are the days when we can afford to send a liaison everywhere. Mobile broadband has the potential to help us assimilate information from the field more quickly so that we can assess the need and order up resources more quickly -- while being less of a distraction to the folks on the ground."
Chief Francis Bradley of the Hualapai Nation Police Department emphasized that, with visitor traffic as high as 5,000 a day, network congestion is not just a big city problem. "A system like FirstNet will be huge in our ability to get data back and forth [to officers] without worrying about the public's need for data exchange."
Staged exercises allow public safety and other observers to gain key insights while watching real responders venture into a new realm of innovation. Arizona State Point of Contact Lt. Col Tim Chung summed it up this way: "Public safety broadband is going to offer incredible network capabilities that really will change how we respond, but it has to fit into the real world. Exercises like this are important steps that allow us to visualize the future and help to shape that future to meet the needs of responders -- even responders in harsh and remote environments."