“Assess broadband at an incident with After Action Review”; FirstNet Authority logo; Aerial view of incident exercise; Mobile Command vehicle with first responders

After-Action Reviews Improve Broadband Experience for Responders Nationwide

This three part series explores some of the planning and preparedness help available from the FirstNet Authority, such as Pre-Planning and the FirstNet Inject Catalog.

In the world of public safety, After-Action Reviews provide the opportunity to take an honest, objective look at what happened during an incident—the good, the bad, and the ugly. By reflecting on the successes as well as the challenges, first responders can ensure they are prepared for similar incidents or events in the future.

As broadband becomes more prevalent in public safety communications, we at the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) are interested in hearing about and learning from your observations and experiences when you use FirstNet. That’s why we offer the After-Action Review (AAR) program — a free service available to any FirstNet subscribing agency.

Through AAR meetings, we capture best practices and lessons learned related to planning, logistics, operations, and technology use. Following the meetings, we provide a summary of the discussions to aid in future communications planning. We have already seen the positive impact the AAR process can have on communications usage at events such as the New York International Air Show.

AAR in Action at the New York International Air Show

Every fall, more than 30,000 spectators flock to the New York International Air Show to watch legendary performances from such acts as the U.S. Navy Blue Angels or the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. Traditionally, public safety communications are a challenge at the event for several reasons. Stewart International Airport, home of the event, has very limited cell service from commercial providers. From the moment the first aircraft takes to the skies until the moment the last plane lands, commercial networks become severely overloaded, hampering communications for both the general public and public safety. Additionally, there are multiple state and local public safety agencies that support the event each year, which presents interoperability challenges.

Although Orange County had hosted the air show for several years, the 2019 event was the first time FirstNet would be supporting emergency communications. After experiencing limited coverage on the first day of the event, the New York State (NYS) Office of Interoperable and Emergency Communications (OIEC) worked with AT&T to deploy a network deployable asset for the second day of the air show. A FirstNet Satellite Cell on Light Truck (SatCOLT) was deployed on site and connected to over 500 FirstNet-ready Band 14 devices. Responders also benefited from MiFi hotspots and streaming video cameras that leveraged FirstNet’s broadband connection. With FirstNet in place, responders reported that they were able to stay connected, even when commercial users were unable to communicate.

However, the process of requesting and deploying the FirstNet SatCOLT presented challenges due to several factors, including logistics and location. As a result, following the event, the NYS OIEC reached out to the FirstNet Authority team to discuss the deployable process in more detail and share feedback. In return, the FirstNet Authority offered to host an AAR discussion to walk through the event with the State and the Orange County Department of Emergency Services (DES). The discussions resulted in documenting the challenges and successes of the day and highlighting standard procedures for future events.

AAR Offers Insights into FirstNet Use at Air Show

The October 2019 AAR meeting addressed pre-incident planning, logistics, operations, and technical efforts. Our team walked through each incident, noting successes and challenges in each of these topic areas. From these conversations, the team identified areas for improvement including:

  • Coverage and Capacity Planning – One day before the air show, area coverage and network capacity at the command post was found to be insufficient for public safety emergency communications, prompting Orange County to request a FirstNet deployable asset. Ordinarily, requests for a FirstNet deployable asset at a planned event requires 30-days’ notice; however, an AT&T representative worked to ensure the deployable was approved, delivered, and operational within 12 hours.
  • Deployable Asset Set-up – The deployable was initially set up on a hill to provide area coverage for FirstNet users. Once it was determined that the location did not adequately provide coverage for public safety operational areas, the deployable was relocated to maximize coverage and capacity to benefit the emergency service personnel.
  • Device connections to SatCOLT – First responders using one brand of devices experienced issues connecting to the SatCOLT. Users had to restart the devices in order to connect to the SatCOLT.

We determined that these challenges could have been identified and remedied earlier by improved event pre-planning support. Orange County took the advice and requested a FirstNet Authority pre-event planning workshop to take place in the weeks leading up to the 2020 New York International Air Show.

AAR aids pre-planning support for 2020 Air Show

As with other events during the pandemic, planning the 2020 air show under COVID-19 procedures added another layer of complication for event organizers. To keep spectators safely spaced, the air show was moved to the nearby Orange County Airport. Similar to a drive-in movie theater experience, organizers planned to park an estimated 1,800 cars in the airfield’s 200-acre grass in-field to let spectators safely watch the aerial performers.

During the pre-event planning workshop, the FirstNet Authority helped to navigate the logistics of setting up emergency communication in the air show’s new location. Pre-planning gave first responders the chance to test-drive FirstNet devices to identify coverage gaps around the airport. When early device testing identified some spotty coverage areas, the Orange County DES Division of Emergency Communications and NYS OIEC relied on recommendations from the 2019 AAR review and requested a FirstNet deployable well in advance of the event. By requesting a deployable early, the FirstNet team was able to identify the best location for the deployable to maximize area coverage – addressing another challenge identified during the 2019 AAR.

The FirstNet deployable also helped to restore communications after an EF1 tornado came within a half-mile of the air show’s command post two days before the event. DES Communication System Specialist Chris Carney recalls, “It wiped out all of our backhaul. We had no power, we had no internet at the command post. So, we wound up doing everything over the FirstNet devices that we had and a router to give it a wide area of coverage. FirstNet became a must-have.” With FirstNet service still working, the air show command post expanded to become an emergency operations center, helping public safety work with electrical utilities to restore power for the community following the tornado.

For Carney, the FirstNet Authority played an important role in ensuring the 2020 air show ran smoothly. “There’s nowhere else that we can get that level of expertise about broadband and FirstNet capabilities,” explained Carney. “For our communications team, it has become standard protocol to reach out to the FirstNet Authority before any pre-planned event to ensure we have the broadband solutions and coverage we need. I recommend getting the FirstNet Authority involved early to help preplan – they are a huge help.”

If you’re interested in discussing how to best integrate FirstNet services and capabilities into an event or conducting an AAR, please contact me at Doug.Harder@firstnet.gov.      

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