Episode 46| After the Flood – FirstNet Supports Michigan Responders
Jonathan Lewin, FirstNet Authority Senior Public Safety Advisor
Matt Weil, Team Coordinator, Oakland County, Michigan, Communications Support Team
Ken Kiley, Team Leader, Oakland County, Michigan, Communications Support Team
Narrator: You're listening to Public Safety First, a podcast to help you learn about the First Responder Network Authority and how you can be part of the future of public safety technology.
And now, your host.
Jonathan Lewin: Welcome to the Public Safety First podcast! I'm Jonathan Lewin, and I serve as a Senior Public Safety Advisor with the First Responder Network Authority. I'm joined today by Matt Weil, Team Coordinator of the Oakland County Communications Support Team in Michigan, and Kenneth Kiley who serves as a Team Leader. The Oakland Communications Support Team, which is commonly referred to as CST, responds to a variety of incidents, including the most recent flood in Midland, Michigan, where they relied on FirstNet to facilitate communications during the incident. We’re pleased that you both could join us today. Welcome to the podcast, Matt and Ken.
Matt Weil and Ken Kiley: Morning. Thank you for having us.
Jonathan Lewin: Matt, I know the Communications Support Team is unique and that it is comprised of first responders from a variety of agencies. Like yourself – you’re the team coordinator of the CST, and when you're not deployed you serve as the Assistant Fire Chief of North Oakland County. Can you give us a little bit of background and insight into the Communications Support Team?
Matt Weil: The CST, you know, we're pretty diverse. We have folks from all aspects of public safety. Some of the guys have retired from their departments and they still serve with this team because they just love it so much. It's pretty much in their blood. We have police, fire, dispatchers, and technical people that serve to support the police and fire departments as well, making our team quite unique. This concept of the Communication Support Team was actually something that came out of the City of Troy. Fire Chief Bill Nelson, he's retired and has since passed. This was his brainchild. This is something he started and was very passionate about, and it started with an old reclaimed van with some equipment in it, and then it turned into what we have today, which is lots of equipment, vehicles, radios, computers, just all kinds of things. And that's been, plus 10 years ago that this all started.
You know, as I alluded, our members are pretty much from all walks of life, you know, within public safety, and we've even incorporated a little bit of amateur radio into our team just to help us round out our disciplines that much more.
As far as deployments go, we're available anywhere in the state of Michigan, and perhaps even outside the state. If somebody calls, you know, has a large incident and needs that support, that mutual aid if you will, they go through the process within the state to notify our dispatch center and we start from there. You know, we're able to bring a large cache of equipment to any event should somebody need it.
Jonathan Lewin: Thank you. Ken, it sounds like CST is a remarkable Incident Command Team, and it has a very diverse skill set and it’s had a significant impact on the communities in Michigan. Can you tell us about your role as a Team Leader, and also why you joined the CST?
Ken Kiley: Absolutely. Thanks for having me this morning. The main responsibility of a team leader on the CST is basically to ensure that the team is ready to respond when called upon. As a team we meet twice a month, and we do things like perform truck checks, equipment checks, we make sure that all of our equipment is in working order, and we just constantly train and refresh on our skills, on the equipment we carry and best practices in our field. Our team has been entrusted with a lot of specialized equipment that our area relies on, both during emergencies and planned events, so we really want to make sure that our members are 100% ready to deliver those services when requested.
Personally, one of my favorite responsibilities is when I get to mentor new members and kind of watch their skills and their confidence grow. Many of our members come to the team with little experience with public safety technology, but they have a strong desire and drive to learn the skills that we offer. So, watching them go through that process of learning and growing is extremely rewarding for me.
Jonathan Lewin: Thank you. Matt, a few months ago, the team responded to a flood in Midland, Michigan, that made national news. Can you tell us a little bit about the incident and how you used FirstNet?
Matt Weil: Yeah, we were notified May 20th and that process started with the city of Midland Fire Department, and they requested through a statewide push for assistance, an Incident Management Team. Now, we, the Communications Support Team, we support our Incident Management Team, which is the same type of makeup. It's different people, different walks of life, police, fire, DNR [Department of Natural Resources], public health, and they were looking for assistance to help with resource management and deployment of those resources. So, with that notification, we got all of our stuff ready to go. Met at a centralized meeting point, then convoyed up into the City of Midland to their fire department, and pretty much our first call of business was obviously meet and greet everybody – find out who the players are, see what's going on, ask what their needs are – we're not there to take over, we’re there to support – and so we, we ask those questions from a communications and data management need at first. And we saw a very tired staff with several radios in front of them trying to manage, through a dispatch center, the deployment of resources to affect rescues within the city that's been flooded. So, our first order of business was to assist them with getting their communications in order, come up with a streamlined ICS 205 [Incident Command System form 205] to assist in and get those, those things done.
However, part of that is we need data to back that up and support through the use of forms, maps, and things like that, and we also have to call and talk to people. Well, at that point, we kind of figured out that FirstNet isn't what it should be up here at the moment, and through some information that we were able to garner, we found that, just about all the towers were affected by the flood. So, Ken got on the phone with our FirstNet representatives, and that's when we started to mobilize FirstNet assets. We needed the SatCOLT [satellite cell on light truck] and some devices to hand out and basically bolster our reliance on FirstNet while we were there. So once those things were up and running, we had good quality of service, we were able to do what we needed to do, and – once the incident stabilized we were able to move over to the county – Midland County EOC [emergency operations center] – and assist with the damage assessments and the rebuilding efforts, if you will. At that point of it, we used the FirstNet phones that were supplied and we started this process through best practice that we've learned of position-specific phones, numbers, emails. For example, one day I might be the Operations Chief, and then tomorrow Ken comes in and he's the Operations Chief, our email addresses and phone numbers are totally different, so now you have to issue a whole new set of phone numbers and email addresses daily, and passing of information just gets convoluted and difficult, so we used through that best practice, position-specific email and phone number and then that gets passed from person to person. So, the address and contact information remains the same throughout the duration of the incident, which, in this case, was a couple of months. So, it was kind of neat to put all of these things together and go from, pretty much no service to being able to run an incident in a matter of five or six hours once the COLT showed up and was set up. So, it was eye opening for us, for sure.
Jonathan Lewin: Thanks, Matt. And for those that may not know, ICS stands for Incident Command System and the SatCOLT that Matt referred to is a satellite cell on light truck, which is a mobile cell site that can link to FirstNet and provide communications capabilities.
So, Ken, it sounds like the team really benefited from FirstNet. What sort of communications challenges do you typically face in an incident, and how does FirstNet help?
Ken Kiley: In my full-time capacity I oversee the Support Services Division of the Oakland University Police Department in Rochester, Michigan, and two areas that I oversee include information technology and radio communications, so I'm constantly surrounded by communications and the need to have reliable communications, and it's just something that's always on my mind. It’s essential during an incident response, basically, to achieve those positive outcomes that you're looking for. Incident commanders must know that when they disseminate information, it is effectively received by those recipients that it's intended for. Nothing will slow down or even stop a safe emergency response like a failure in communication. With one phone call, Incident Commanders can get our team on the way and we take that burden of communications off the Incident Commander. So, we’ll help them develop a comprehensive communications plan that will keep the responders safe and also assist with getting information out to even the public or citizens during an incident, so that they can remain safe, as well. So, without effective communication and reliable systems in place, that failure in communication can be very detrimental to emergency response.
In response to Midland with FirstNet, we were able to tackle some of those communication challenges in ways that we never have been able to before. So, we now have FirstNet on all of our vehicles, which we implemented shortly before Midland. By having that on board our vehicles, we were able to take advantage of a whole new layer of tools in our toolbox with FirstNet’s resources and deployable assets. So, we were able to get a very clear view of the infrastructure in the area before we could even get on the road. So, we're taking a look at that Network Status Tool, we're seeing if there's towers down in the area, we can request assets from FirstNet like that SatCOLT or the drop kits of phones that we received, and we can even do that en route – we don't have to wait until we’re on scene to see what has failed and what kind of resources we need to get back up and running. We're able to provide communication in some of the most challenging environments with FirstNet, their Network Status Tools, and options like priority and preemption and some of their deployable assets.
Jonathan Lewin: That’s great, Ken. So, you use FirstNet for your day-to-day operations and during the flood incident. Seems like you’ve fully integrated the network into your operations.
Matt, were there any lessons that you learned that you can share with us?
Matt Weil: Water is a very powerful thing. Seeing the destruction that one dam failure caused another dam failure, which caused the entire city, pretty much, to flood in a county, and just the effect that it had. I never would have expected anything like that, especially in Michigan, right? Nothing happens in Michigan. We get a tornado occasionally, but to see that kind of flooding, to me, was eye opening, and just the fact that, once you get these cell towers flooded and they go offline. You know, we over the last 15 or 20 years have been so reliant on cellular service, to not have it is just, it's unheard of. And when you've got residents that are flooded out of their homes, they're trying to contact their loved ones and their families, and cell service just isn't available or it’s spotty or it’s flooded. For us to have the ability to get through with FirstNet, the priority and preemption, and the SatCOLT, and the tools that were provided just lifted that burden off of us. So, it's just, it's humbling actually to be a part of this, and go out there and help and assist and make their worst day better, and pretty much in public safety that's what we're geared and trained to do.
Jonathan Lewin: Thanks, Matt. So, as we’ve all experienced, the landscape of public safety communications is constantly evolving, and you just gave an example of how FirstNet is playing a huge role in that. As we look towards the future, what do you envision public safety communications looking like in the next decade? Where do you see it going and, I guess maybe, Ken, if you want to jump into that one?
Ken Kiley: Yeah, so I think we're already starting to see, kind of, the evolution with FirstNet leveraging technology to enhance radio communication. We're seeing potentially wearable technology that officers can have out in the field to help them do their job, help keep them safe, devices that can monitor an officer’s vitals when they're out in the field in a critical incident. Getting that information back to Incident Command in a timely fashion and a usable fashion that they can make educated decisions on tactics and responses. Closer integration with dispatch, I think, is coming down the line. So, maybe we can get live video back from the field in a reliable manner where dispatchers can see what's going on and help make those educated decisions on what needs to be done.
Jonathan Lewin: Thanks. And, as we close out, for either of you that would like to answer, do you have any advice for Incident Command Teams that might be interested in using FirstNet?
Ken Kiley: Yeah, I think the biggest advice, really, is to reach out to FirstNet, your local contact in the area, and talk to them about what resources are available in your area before you need them. In Midland, there is no way we would have known about the resources available to us had we not previously built, those relationships with the FirstNet personnel and had those conversations with them beforehand in this area.
I think thinking about communication and formulating a plan for how to overcome communication failures before you're faced with that situation is essential. Just know the tools and resources available to you – it will go a long way and ensuring a smooth incident response.
Jonathan Lewin: Well, thank you both, Matt and Ken, for joining us today, and congratulations on a successful incident. It's been a real pleasure.
Narrator: Thanks for listening today. We're excited to have you join our podcast community. Make sure to subscribe on iTunes, SoundCloud, and YouTube. You can learn more about the First Responder Network Authority at FirstNet.gov and learn about FirstNet products and services at FirstNet.com.