This blog is a repost from a Utilities Technology Council (UTC) publication. The original article, published in June 2021, can be found in the 2nd Quarter 2021 edition of the UTC Journal.
Natural disasters and other incidents, large or small, magnify the importance of secure, reliable communications. Network congestion, infrastructure damage, and incompatible radio networks are all problems that prevent responding teams from effectively communicating. In response to these challenges, Congress created the nationwide public safety broadband network, FirstNet, in 2012.
FirstNet is the product of a public-private partnership between the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority), a federal government entity, and AT&T. The nationwide network is built to meet the communication needs of public safety, including improved situational awareness, coverage and capacity, voice communications, secure information exchange, and user experience. Built to commercial standards and equipped with a physically separate, dedicated network core, FirstNet provides first responders and other mission-critical sectors, such as utilities and public works, with the tools needed to communicate effectively during emergencies.
One such utility, Atmos Energy, has relied on FirstNet for its communications needs since 2019. The nation’s largest natural-gas-only distributor, Atmos Energy is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, and serves more than 3 million customers in over 1,400 communities across eight states in the central and southeast regions of the United States. It also manages proprietary pipeline and storage assets, including one of the largest intrastate natural gas pipeline systems in Texas.
Into the Storm with FirstNet
Incidents of severe weather, like hurricanes and wildfires, have the potential to cause widespread damage and interrupt service on the Atmos Energy system. The company uses FirstNet across its service territory to communicate with external partners, such as public safety agencies and community organizations like the American Red Cross, during and after emergencies. It also relies on the network to coordinate with employees in the field impacted by severe weather that may need support.
“During emergencies and major weather events, there can be congestion on the regular commercial network,” said Rich Gius, Atmos Energy Chief Information Officer. “With FirstNet, Atmos Energy gets priority above most callers. It’s like giving public safety communications the ‘lights and sirens’ treatment. When you see or hear an emergency vehicle coming, you get out of the way, so they can quickly get to those in need. FirstNet affords us similar treatment, only on the communications highway.”
This capability was especially crucial in the late summer of 2020 when three hurricanes hit Louisiana in just two months. The night before Hurricane Laura made landfall in August 2020, Atmos Energy IT Manager Evelina Broussard sent the company’s FirstNet liaison a list of 300 employees who would be directly involved in the recovery effort. Employee smartphones were quickly “uplifted” over regular service on the network for an initial period of 48 hours to enable their response. With reliable communications, teams were able to quickly and effectively restore service to affected customers.
FirstNet also helped the Atmos Energy leadership team in Louisiana coordinate their restoration efforts with local leaders and first responders. Thanks to prioritization on the network, leadership was able to make phone calls; send text messages; communicate with the Louisiana Division officer group; check on employees that might have power outage and damage issues; and stay informed of possible natural gas emergencies that were not being reported.
When disasters occur, Atmos Energy’s emergency dispatch and personnel work closely with firefighters and other first responders. Recognizing the public safety concerns and coordination required, FirstNet is pivotal to the safety of Atmos Energy’s employees and the more than 3 million customers it serves.
Communications Solution for Any Situation
While the network’s response-ready features are part of what makes it unique, FirstNet is also designed to support the daily operations of any utility company. Atmos Energy uses the network to facilitate internal communications between front line workers, management, and operational support teams. Because the network is being deployed in areas lacking broadband coverage, it can also be used to maintain communication in rural areas to dispatch team members and locate customers needing service restoration. With many Atmos Energy employees working remotely through the pandemic, FirstNet enhanced staff’s capability to communicate, regardless of network limitations.
Whether impacted by a natural disaster, internet issues, or a pandemic, FirstNet enables utilities to work through challenges that hinder communication. “FirstNet has quickly become both an economically beneficial service as a well as a component of our Business Continuity Planning toolset for Atmos Energy – ultimately helping to better serve our customers and keep our communities safe,” added Gius.
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