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Smart Community Resiliency: How Reliable Broadband Helps Communities Prepare for and Respond to Disasters

Edward Parkinson, Acting Chief Executive Officer, First Responder Network Authority

Emergencies and disasters can strike any community. From the recent devastation of Hurricane Michael to massive wildfires that swept across the West Coast, far-reaching disasters cause devastating economic, public safety and health impacts. Localized emergencies also have a major impact on a community – like flash floods or active shooter situations. In counties, cities and towns across America, emergency responders prepare for these events to help minimize the effects and aid in recovery. Now, devices and apps are helping them build resilient communities.

Over the last decade, consumer adoption of mobile technology has continued to climb, making it a prime means of communicating to the public during emergencies. Smartphones are now owned in 87 percent of U.S. homes, according to CTA’s 20th Consumer Technology Ownership and Market Potential Study. 

Since 2012, wireless emergency alerts have been used to send public warnings, and this year, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) tested this technology on a national scale. In addition, communities like Clark County, NV and the cities of Henderson, Las Vegas, and North Las Vegas have established mobile applications to share disaster preparedness guidance, evacuation alerts, shelter location information, water stations and vital rescue information.

Nearly as important to communicating with the public ahead of a disaster is the ability to reach them during and in the immediate aftermath of an emergency. Following Hurricanes Michael and Florence, there have been amazing stories of heroics – from first responders working endless days and nights to neighbors helping neighbors. Along the way, technology lent a hand in rescue and recovery efforts. For example, utility companies used drone teams to coordinate utility recovery efforts following Hurricane Florence, and during Hurricane Michael, a crowdsourcing app was used to help map the location of people who might need help.

With mobile technology increasingly playing a bigger role in preparation and response efforts, the need for dedicated public safety broadband is greater than ever before. Emergency personnel require reliable communications in order to access mobile devices and life-saving applications when they need these tools the most. Law enforcement, fire service, EMS, 9-1-1, emergency managers, hospitals and schools all need to know that they can communicate to inform and protect the public.

With the recent launch of FirstNet, America’s first wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety, those involved in the preparation, response and restoration during emergencies now have access to reliable, secure and robust emergency communications. FirstNet is designed to meet public safety’s demanding needs during times of heavy network use, inclement weather conditions, or large multi-agency response efforts. Now that FirstNet – a public-private partnership between the First Responder Network Authority, an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce, and AT&T- serves more than 3,600 public safety agencies, it has played a vital role in keeping first responders connected during emergencies like:

  • Severe weather events

  • School shootings, bomb threats and campus lockdowns

  • Train derailments

  • Large events like the Boston Marathon and the Albuquerque Balloon Festival

  • Rural search and rescue missions

  • And day-to-day operations.

In the wake of Hurricane Michael, severe broadband outages impacted the entire Panama City Beach community.  The office of the city manager used FirstNet to coordinate its response across city, county and state agencies and to get information into the hands of those who needed it most – the residents whose lives and property were at stake.

If resiliency is measured by a community's ability to prepare for and recover from devastation, then recent disasters have shown incorporating mobile technology and dedicated public safety broadband into these efforts is critically important. With a reliable, always on connection, FirstNet is opening the door for yet-to-be-imagined innovations for our nation’s first responders. We’re pleased to be joining the Smart Cities Resilience Conference at CES 2019 to talk about first responder needs and opportunities for innovation to help them save lives and protect communities. See you there!