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An aerial view of a body of water surrounded by trees. A FirstNet deployable Satellite Cell on Light Truck (SatCOLT).

Tribal nations respond to coronavirus with help from FirstNet

November 5, 2020

This blog is a repost from TribalNet Magazine, originally published in Fall 2020. The original article can be accessed here.

First responders in tribal nations are tackling the COVID-19 health crisis with dedication and innovation, and many are turning to technology solutions to enhance their operations. Tribal nations large and small are powering their coronavirus response with FirstNet, the only communications network built for first responders. 

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) is a federal agency that — through an innovative public-private partnership with AT&T — is overseeing the buildout of the FirstNet network. The FirstNet Authority works with the 573 federally recognized tribes to identify how FirstNet can help tribal public safety operations. During the pandemic, tribal first responders have gotten a boost in coverage from FirstNet to support their response.

Supporting the Colville Tribes emergency operations center

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation is made up of 12 independent tribes. The reservation encompasses 2,100 square miles in Washington and 9,520 tribal members. As of mid-July, the reservation had seen 52 positive cases of coronavirus.

Through testing, the reservation is working to locate all cases in the community to prevent further spread of the virus. When the emergency operations center required enhanced connectivity for a testing center, a FirstNet satellite cell on light truck (SatCOLT) was deployed to the site. Later, to address the lack of indoor coverage at an Emergency Operations Center and COVID-19 testing site in Keller, an in-building network enhancement was installed. These two solutions were successfully integrated because of the consultation process among the tribes, AT&T, and the FirstNet Authority.

Rodney Cawston, Chairman of the Colville Tribes, said, “Communications are key in meeting the needs of the Colville Tribes. The Colville Reservation is rural and technologically underserved, so opportunities such as those provided in consultation with the FirstNet Authority are critical to the health and safety of the community.”

“Colville was one of the first tribes in the nation to pilot the FirstNet Authority Tribal Consultation Policy. This established both the short- and long-term coverage needs of the reservation and began a collective planning and implementation process to build out on the tribes’ lands. The current pandemic has only served to further demonstrate the vital need for communication across the reservation to the Colville Tribes.”

Expanding access to deployables

Even before the pandemic hit, public safety agencies have used FirstNet deployables to boost coverage during disaster response and at large planned events, like the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s annual balloon festival. The current fleet includes 72 land-based assets, plus three airborne Flying Cells on Wings, and an aerostat, or blimp.

In June 2020, the FirstNet Authority Board approved over $200 million in investments to expand the FirstNet fleet of deployables and put FirstNet on the path to 5G. The new investments will grow the fleet to help meet public safety’s increasing need for on-demand coverage — now and into the future.