Dedicated public safety broadband networks were made for 2020. This has been a year unlike any other for American law enforcement. First came the plague, which still persists, then the social unrest, then the hurricanes, and then finally (we hope) the wildfires. During all these natural and unnatural disasters, reliable and secure cellular voice and data communications have been mission critical for police, firefighters, and other emergency personnel.
There are three major providers of dedicated public safety voice and data communications networks: AT&T/FirstNet, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon. All three of them have played major roles in helping public safety professionals cope with 2020.
Established as a public-private partnership in 2014, FirstNet is a secure, dedicated public safety broadband network that went online in 2018 and currently serves more than 13,000 emergency agencies nationwide. In addition to agencywide deployment, individual officers and other first responders can sign up for the service.
One of the many law enforcement agencies that uses FirstNet agency wide is the Green Bay (WI) Police Department. The home of the NFL packers signed up for FirstNet because it is the home of the Packers. On days when there isn’t a Packer game, Green Bay is a city of just over 100,000 souls. But on Packer game days and nights, 81,000 people cram into Lambeau Field and not all of them are locals.
Commander Paul Ebel of the Green Bay PD says his department needed the priority and preemption—literally the ability to remove calls or data on the network to give first responders the bandwidth—features of FirstNet to ensure reliable law enforcement communications when there’s a game in town.
Ebel says the Green Bay PD’s previous cellular carrier did not offer priority and preemption for police calls and data and that made it difficult to maintain emergency cellular communications during games when the network was overtaxed. “FirstNet was able to bridge that gap for us,” Ebel says.
Of course, in 2020, crowds attending Packer games have not been a major issue for the Green Bay PD. What has been a major issue is COVID-19. FirstNet and the smartphones that the department has issued to officers helped it maintain intra-agency communications.
Roll calls were eliminated, so the department has been disseminating information to officers using texts and e-mails. Officers are also reporting potential exposure to persons suspected of having COVID.
Like the Green Bay Police Department, the public safety professionals of Calcasieu Parish, LA, used FirstNet to help them cope with COVID. But their need for the dedicated broadband network was really demonstrated by the impact of Hurricane Laura.
On August 27 Hurricane Laura made landfall in Cameron, LA, as one of the 10 most powerful U.S. hurricanes on record. It killed at least 42 people and did billions of dollars worth of damage in Louisiana and Texas. It also wrecked a lot of infrastructure and left a lot of people without electricity.
Cade McLemore, Calcasieu Parish emergency manager, wasn’t sure of the value of FirstNet until Laura hit. “During the planning phase, I was a little apprehensive. I thought FirstNet was a marketing ploy. I am now a true believer,” he says.
McLemore praises his FirstNet liaison for helping him through every step of the process, including the preplanning for what to do as Laura approached. One of the things FirstNet did for Calcasieu Parish was to pre-stage equipment outside of the storm area so that it would be ready once the storm passed. That equipment included some of FirstNet's 76 deployables such as satellite cellsite on light truck (SatCOLT) systems. In a neighboring parish, FirstNet even launched an aerostat—a 55-foot blimp with a cell system—to help with broadband outages.
The Calcasieu Parish emergency operations center was one of the structures in the area that was damaged to the point that it was no longer functional. But the staff was able to get back on the job quickly because the Parish had invested in a mobile command center equipped with a Cradlepoint FirstNet capable modem.
As of this writing, at the end of September, McLemore and his team are still working from the mobile unit. “We still only have power in 50% of the parish,” he says. “I was here for Katrina and Rita and other hurricanes, and I have never seen anything of the magnitude of Laura. The wind damage here was unprecedented.”
McLemore says a lot of local public safety leaders in the area who were not on FirstNet have asked him about the network since the storm. “They were not on FirstNet before Laura,” says McLemore. “But a lot of them are going to be on FirstNet now.
Priority and preemption voice and data services are provided to law enforcement and other emergency personnel customers by U.S. Cellular in the 21 states where the company operates. Matt Sampson, senior director of business sales solutions for U.S. Cellular, says the company offers first responders a dedicated broadband network that separates mission-critical data from commercial and consumer traffic. “Our network is designed to offer first responders priority on the network and preemption over non-essential data whenever it is needed,” Sampson says.
U.S. Cellular’s network is particularly well suited to emergency operations outside of major cities, according to Sampson. “The most important part of our public safety solution is the network itself and the fact that it works in rural and remote areas,” he says.
In the current state of emergency, U.S. Cellular’s network is being used for a variety of crises response situations. But Sampson says it has been particularly useful in the West Coast wildfire response. “Emergency responders battling wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington are taking advantage of the unlimited, unthrottled data to stay in communication with critical personnel as the conditions have been quickly and dangerously changing. In some of the impacted areas, especially the more rural areas, our network is the only one that works,” he says.
Sampson adds that U.S. Cellular is working closely with its public safety customers to provide deployable cellular backup like COLTs (cellsites on light trucks) where they are needed. “Priority one is to make sure that the network remains up and running,” he says.
The first responder services from Verizon come under the umbrella of the company’s Response Ready Solutions, which offers law enforcement agencies and individual officers priority on the network and even preemption when the network is overtaxed by a crisis or public event. Verizon has offered the service since 2018.
During this year of crisis after crisis, Verizon has been working with numerous public safety agencies to ensure they have the communications necessary to do the job. “Our customers are facing a lot of new challenges,” says Nick Nilan, Verizon’s director of public sector product development. “We’ve worked hand in hand with law enforcement and other first responders to make sure they have the communications they need.”
Nilan says Verizon has been working with public safety professionals who need communications for COVID response, for protests, for natural disasters, and other crises. “We have been able to respond with enough network connectivity that we are able to support everybody. That’s why we built our priority and preemption services,” he adds.