This blog is a repost from the IAEM Bulletin newsletter, originally published in December 2019. To learn more about the newsletter, visit IAEM’s site.
As a member of the Public Safety Advocacy team within the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority), our vision is to create a dedicated and differentiated broadband communications experience that transforms public safety operations. When disaster strikes or crowds gather, public safety needs a dependable, always-on network to speed communications and stay connected. That’s why FirstNet was created—it’s the nation’s only broadband network for public safety by public safety—built through a public-private partnership between the FirstNet Authority and AT&T.
Prior to joining the FirstNet Authority, I worked for Dane County Emergency Management, based in Madison, Wisconsin, as the Warning and Communications Officer. I staffed the emergency operations center and responded to incidents like snow storms, protests, and flooding. Because of my previous experience, I understand how emergency managers can benefit from FirstNet.
FirstNet is an important resource for emergency managers, whether during disaster scenarios or large planned events. FirstNet offers subscribers a vastly different experience than commercial networks. With FirstNet, emergency managers can be prepared when other options fail.
Matthew Haverkos, Director, Butler County Emergency Management Agency in Ohio knows firsthand how FirstNet can help with emergency preparedness. He was on site with the county’s Incident Management Team after Hurricane Michael hit Florida in 2018, damaging cell towers and wiping out coverage. Matt is a FirstNet subscriber and had cell service when commercial carriers failed. “The team was navigating the terrain with little to no cell or data coverage. I had cellphone and hotspot service with AT&T FirstNet and by day two of recovery efforts, I was providing a data link to the emergency operations center,” he said. “With other carriers struggling for coverage… we are fortunate to have access to the FirstNet network.”
Unique to FirstNet is our deployables program. FirstNet deployables boost coverage during disasters or large planned events and are available to subscribers 24/7 at no extra cost. These mobile cell sites link to FirstNet via satellite, do not rely on commercial power availability, and provide similar capabilities and connectivity as a cell tower. When disaster strikes or large crowds gather, FirstNet deployables provide public safety users with dedicated coverage when commercial networks cannot.
Deployables are available to subscribers at no additional charge. Emergency managers never again have to make the hard decision between staying connected and budget concerns when using FirstNet’s deployables. Subscribers can request deployables without worrying about incurring extra costs or who will pay for them.
Public safety agencies from Virginia and Maryland conducted search and rescue exercises earlier this year in Gore, VA, and called on a FirstNet deployable to bolster communications. “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 [deployable] to come out and provide the service for public safety. That’s a pretty big deal for us,” said Sean Fensterwald, master technician for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, who participated in the exercise.
Deployables are readily available for public safety’s use. The fleet of 75 deployables are located at sites around the country and in a matter of hours can be sent to disaster areas, scheduled for planned events, or incorporated into exercises and trainings. And unlike commercial networks, FirstNet deployables have the ability to restrict access to public safety users. That’s because FirstNet has a dedicated core infrastructure—the brains and nervous system of the network—only for public safety. On FirstNet, public safety users have priority access and don’t have to compete with consumer traffic. Using deployables that are readily available and prioritize public safety users can help speed response time.
Emergency managers know the importance of a fast response in reducing recovery time. “If you can reduce the initial recovery time by one day, you can reduce the overall recovery time by 1,000 days,” said Dr. Robin Murphy in her TEDTalk about disaster recovery and restoration. That’s one reason FirstNet deployables are an important resource for emergency managers.
FirstNet deployables are state-of-the-art technologies. In addition to more than 70 land-based deployables such as Satellite Cell on Light Trucks (SatCOLTs), FirstNet’s fleet includes three airborne Flying COWs (Cell on Wings). The latest model of these tethered drones have larger propellers, increased payload capacity, and specialized LTE radios and power systems. Flying COWs can withstand light rain and wind speeds up to 25 miles per hour and reach heights of up to 400 feet, making them ideal for wildfires, mountain rescues, and other missions where terrain previously made it difficult to maintain connectivity.
The deployables program is expanding by popular demand. During 2019, my colleagues and I at the FirstNet Authority talked with more than 15,000 public safety professionals about FirstNet. They told us they need temporary coverage solutions that are readily available and easily integrated into operations. We heard time and again that the deployables program is working successfully.
In August, the FirstNet Authority Board allocated $145 million for investment into the network. In September, the Board gave the green light for the FirstNet Authority to pursue investments back into the FirstNet network, including expanding the FirstNet fleet of deployables.
Deployables have made a real difference in emergency response, and that’s why we’re expanding the program. Enhancing the FirstNet deployable fleet with a wider variety of solutions will improve emergency communications during disasters or planned events.