FirstNet Authority logo; "Helping firefighters face a historic wildfire season amid pandemic"; a wooded area full of fir trees; smoke billowing over the horizon.

FirstNet - Helping Firefighters Face Historic Wildfire Season Amid Pandemic

Last year, firefighters on the west coast battled a relentless string of fires such as the Green Ridge Fire, the Holiday Farm Fire, the Gates Fire and many more. These devastating wildfires prompted mass evacuations, destroying thousands of homes and threatening dozens of communities. In Oregon, Washington, and California, local firefighters and other emergency personnel operated under considerable strain responding to COVID-19 as the pandemic simultaneously threatened areas under siege by fires.

As the fires and the pandemic continue to pose a double threat, many fire agencies have been relying more on mobile devices, such as tablets, smart phones, and laptops to receive information to support critical responder needs. Whether it’s staying connected to enable virtual briefings to command in line with pandemic protocols or relying on technology to help contend with reduced visibility or map out terrain on the fire line, technology has helped firefighters stay flexible and adapt in these trying times.

Over the course of our careers in the fire service, we have watched as technology has helped the fire service work faster and smarter. But it’s no secret that technology has also caused firefighters frustration juggling multiple devices, experiencing poor coverage, or trying to communicate over incompatible and congested networks. In the midst of battling wildfires or administering life-saving medical care, first responders on the front line need reliable communications tools to support their mission.

FirstNet was built for public safety

After the tragedies surrounding the terrorist attacks on 9/11 when emergency responders could not easily communicate with each other, public safety leaders led the rallying call for the creation of the FirstNet network. In 2012, Congress created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) to oversee the creation and delivery of FirstNet in all U.S. states, territories, and the District of Columbia – including rural communities and tribal nations.

In our current capacity as senior public safety advisors for the FirstNet Authority, we are working closely with our network partner AT&T to create a dedicated public safety broadband experience for users by offering a range of specialized network services – such as priority access, preemption, more network capacity, and a resilient, hardened connection. 

FirstNet is working as it was intended by giving first responders prioritized and preemptive service to make sure that emergency communications always comes first. The west coast wildfires and the COVID-19 response illustrates the importance of a nationwide network with a reliable connection and advanced capabilities.

Last year we witnessed the effectiveness of FirstNet firsthand during our response efforts at the North Complex Fire, the largest wildland fire in the history of California. We relied on FirstNet for our daily video briefings and general internet connectivity while commercial networks were overloaded. Due to COVID, briefings for fire personnel were held remotely to ensure social distance amongst responders. The 24/7 connectivity between base camp and the incident command post was imperative.

FirstNet expands innovative capabilities for public safety

Part of the network’s difference lies in offering mission ready services that are made possible by building FirstNet with public safety spectrum known as Band 14. Band 14 provides capacity and coverage where public safety told the FirstNet Authority they needed it most. It enables first responders to have untethered access to FirstNet capabilities to support a reliable, robust, and secure network connection.

First responders are connecting to FirstNet so they can connect to the network’s best tools and services such as:

  • FirstNet’s dedicated fleet of more than 100 deployable assets boosts coverage in areas that face little to no coverage during an emergency or large-scale event. This fleet of land-based and airborne portable assets is available 24/7, free of charge to FirstNet subscribers. With broadband use at an all-time high due to the pandemic, deployables have quickly improved communications to support emergency operations for thousands of frontline responders in hospitals, emergency operation centers, quarantine zones, and testing centers. Deployables are also available to support wildfire response. Learn about operational tips for FirstNet and wildfires.
  • FirstNet Central is a centralized dashboard for FirstNet customers to manage their dedicated FirstNet services. It is the primary access point that gives FirstNet users the ability to manage information and various functions at the local agency level. Through this dashboard, first responders gain easy access to tools, such as the Network Status Tool and Uplift Request Too, to enhance situational awareness and support operations during emergencies and other incidents.
  • FirstNet App and Device Ecosystem, the extensive list of tools currently offers over 170 highly secure apps and 285 approved devices tested for public safety use. FirstNet subscribers have steady access to ruggedized and purpose-built devices, and public safety applications with information sharing capabilities to make emergency communications more efficient and effective.
  • The High-Power User Equipment (HPUE) solution, called FirstNet MegaRange, is a great example of how FirstNet users can take advantage of boosted connectivity in remote areas by leveraging the highest power class signaling available in the U.S. only for use on FirstNet.
  • FirstNet also launched the Z-axis feature as a significant first step in providing a vertical coordinate solution to enhance location accuracy and situational awareness for first responders.

FirstNet establishes connections in communities nationwide

As the number of FirstNet subscribers continues to grow to more than 17,000 public safety agencies, the FirstNet Authority’s vision for the network is living up to its expectation. With 90 percent of the network built-out, FirstNet supports more than 2.5 million connections nationwide.

Every day, we’re learning more about the network’s influence on meeting public safety’s most pressing broadband needs. Through these firsthand experiences, we have been able to collect invaluable information and critical insights that will help FirstNet grow and improve.

FirstNet extend coverage for fire service in Washington State.  In 2020, the Northwest Interagency Incident Management Team #10 responded to an early morning fire on Bertschi Road in the southern part of Washington State. About 20 miles from the fire, Lieutenant LeRoy Sisley noticed that the area did not have cell service. After arriving at the incident command post, he called FirstNet to request a FirstNet mobile cell site. Three hours later, a Satellite Cell on Light Truck (SatCOLT) arrived on the scene and boosted coverage to the area. Thanks to FirstNet, Lt. Sisley could communicate with colleagues on the fire line, receive vital information about changing weather patterns, coordinate with other response teams, order supplies, and send and receive morning fire briefings.

“FirstNet was quick and very responsive to work with. Within three hours of calling our local rep, we had a COW with a crew, they flipped the switch on, and the FirstNet phones started working. The experience was just great.”

FirstNet deploys SatColt at Dolan Fire base camp to bolster communications for California firefighters During the Dolan Fire during the summer of 2020, California fire teams faced extraordinary circumstances battling a blaze on steep terrain that threatened the Los Padres National Forest near Big Sur. The Incident Command Post relied on a FirstNet SatCOLT and FirstNet Ready® devices to stay connected to area first responders at base camp working to contain the fire, send out critical data, and monitor the fire line from impacting surrounding areas. Thanks to FirstNet’s additional communication boost, fire units could seamlessly operate across large swaths of wooded land to track firefighting personnel, equipment, resources, food, and supplies.

FirstNet improves situational awareness for Oregon fire agencies battling Archie Creek Fire. During the Archie Creek Fire that began in August 2020, FirstNet’s reliable connectivity played a crucial part of safety and situational awareness for the 422 fire fighters responding to the blaze threatening large tracts of timber lands. When the crew experienced trouble getting a reliable signal, the incident management team called on FirstNet for support. Within hours, FirstNet quickly deployed a SatCOLT to provide additional capacity along the fire line to ensure that the crew had access to devices, applications, and data. FirstNet also made a fleet of mobile generators available to ensure that other public safety agencies in the area were connected to important information and could coordinate essential services.

Evolving FirstNet to transform public safety communications

FirstNet is the only network with an organization like the FirstNet Authority that is solely focused on public safety’s critical communications needs. One of the FirstNet Authority’s primary goals is to support public safety’s use of a robust FirstNet solution, built to 3GPP mission critical standards. The FirstNet Authority is working within the 3GPP standards body to drive innovations so that first responders can leverage new broadband capabilities to support our important, lifesaving mission.

Another way the FirstNet Authority is driving forward the ability to implement new  broadband technologies is through engaging with the public safety community to gather feedback. Hearing firsthand from public safety serves as an important source of information to help us better understand how the network performs and what works well or needs improvements. We use this information to evolve FirstNet through our Roadmap plan and investment funding process.

At the FirstNet Authority, we look forward to continuing to work together with public safety to ensure that their voices will be heard to advance the FirstNet experience. To learn more about how the FirstNet Authority can help your agency prepare for an emergency or enhance your everyday operations, connect with the public safety advisor in your area or visit FirstNet.gov. To learn about FirstNet products and services, visit FirstNet.com.       

Learn more about how FirstNet is transforming public safety communications — contact your local FirstNet Authority Public Safety Advisor and sign up for our discipline newsletters. Follow us on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and LinkedIn for the latest FirstNet Authority updates.

For information on FirstNet products and services or to access your subscriber account, visit FirstNet.com.     

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