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Smoke rises near five wildland firefighters working to put out remnants of a fire in an open space amongst trees.

Connecting Wildland Firefighters with FirstNet

December 15, 2020

In the early morning hours of July 16, 2020, a fire broke out south of the town Glenwood in Washington state. Over the course of nine days, this fire – named the Bertschi Road Fire – burned approximately 250 acres. Located in a rural area in the southern part of the state where cellular connectivity can be sparse and spotty, communications are often a challenge. Thanks to FirstNet, the only nationwide broadband network dedicated to first responders, this was not the case for the firefighters responding to Bertschi Road.

Requesting a FirstNet Deployable

Lieutenant LeRoy Sisley is a member of the Northwest Interagency Incident Management Team #10 in Washington and was deployed to assist with fighting the Bertschi Road Fire. As Lt. Sisley approached the area, he noticed he had no cell service beginning about 20 miles from the fire. He explained, “One of the first things I need to do on-site of a fire is call the communications duty officer in Boise to get air to ground and air to air frequencies and what my repeaters are going to be for my radio system. I also need to be able to order resources like additional crews and food. Nothing happens unless you have phone coverage, and we were in real trouble at this incident.”

Once at the incident command post, he called FirstNet for assistance. Three hours later, a FirstNet mobile cell site arrived on scene. The Satellite Cell on Light Truck (SatCOLT) provided coverage to the area, allowing Lt. Sisley and other leaders at the incident command post to communicate out to individuals on the ground – from the safety office and the medical unit to the supply ordering manager and the firefighters on the ridge. With this connectivity, responders were able to check weather reports, order supplies and equipment, conduct research, send out and review morning briefings on the fire, and coordinate with other teams.

FirstNet Increases Situational Awareness

When fighting fires, situational awareness is paramount, and FirstNet provided access to the tools the responding agencies needed to remain aware and effectively fight the Bertschi Road Fire. “I was extremely happy with the quick response and set-up of the SatCOLT,” said Lt. Sisley. “The priority service you get with FirstNet is great. For firefighters going out on responses, you need to take a FirstNet phone with you. In rural areas with traditionally limited coverage, you’ll be connected within hours.”

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