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FirstNet Connects Rural Responders During Search and Rescue Exercises

June 4, 2019

Public safety agencies from the Commonwealth of Virginia and the State of Maryland recently conducted search and rescue exercises in Gore, VA — a remote region in the Shenandoah Valley — and called on FirstNet to help support their emergency communications during the event. The joint effort involved the Virginia Communications Cache, the National Capital Region (NCR) Communications Interoperability Group, and the Frederick County (VA) Sheriff Office, among others.

Sean Fensterwald, master technician for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, participated in the exercises in Gore and saw the benefits of FirstNet for rural first responders firsthand. He explained, “When they [rural first responders] get these emergencies … and their phones work, they have internet, and have the reach back to their home agencies or actually the programs they’re using — it’s huge.” 

In addition to the communications and data support provided by the Virginia Communications Cache and NCR Communications Interoperability Group, a FirstNet deployable was on site to bolster communications during the exercise. Stationed across the country, the FirstNet deployables — such as Satellite Cell on Light Trucks (SatCOLTs) and Cell on Wheels (COW) — link to FirstNet via satellite and may be deployed for planned events or called in for emergencies.

By incorporating the FirstNet deployable in the exercise, the Virginia Communications Cache was able to ensure data could be shared and Push-to-Talk solutions worked, connecting not only the incident scene and the command post, but also facilitating communications between the incident scene and the agencies’ headquarters hundreds of miles away.

“There are places, just like right here, where you don’t have the best coverage,” said Jim Junkins, Director of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Emergency Communications Center. “When FirstNet can come out and bring equipment and connect to a satellite and expand the cellular network — the data, the access — those are big things that make it happen pretty quick. You have the FirstNet network there.”

And Master Technician Fensterwald added, “In the past, we had to figure out how to pay for it. Now with FirstNet service available, we don’t have to pay for the COW or the COLT to come out and provide the service for public safety. That’s a pretty big deal for us.”

By incorporating broadband solutions alongside land-mobile radio communications, the Virginia Communications Cache ensured that the communication needs of the search and rescue professionals were met and new capabilities were exercised.

With more first responders using FirstNet, public safety entities are looking to their training and exercise programs as opportunities to practice operationalizing public safety broadband during situations they may not experience every day, such as large-scale disasters. This can help first responders strengthen their proficiencies with FirstNet and maximize the network’s capabilities when they need it most.

To learn more about the FirstNet Authority’s public safety programs, including our injects catalog for FirstNet-related exercises, please email us at