Nationwide wireless broadband network helps Chatham County first responders, celebrates fifth year


PITTSBORO — Representatives from FirstNet and AT&T, as well as N.C. House Rep. Robert Reives II (D-Dist.54) and Gov. Roy Cooper attended FirstNet’s Five Year Anniversary Celebration at 2 p.m. on Thursday, June 22, at the new Chatham County Emergency Operations Center.


FirstNet in partnership with AT&T provides first responders with a nationwide wireless broadband network during natural disasters and other public safety situations where first responders’ networks become compromised or down. FirstNet’s 25-year contract with AT&T is operated and overseen by the FirstNet Authority, housed in the U.S. Department of Commerce.


Steve Newton, the emergency management director for Chatham County, said FirstNet is already in most of the county.


“FirstNet, for us, is another carrier, another source,” he said. “The advantage that we have with FirstNet is the way that their whole network is intentionally designed to be more robust, survivable and recoverable during a disaster. But really, they engineered it around the work that we do every day.”


Through a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, the idea for FirstNet was born because of the widespread communications issue the pubic safety disaster caused, Jon Olson, senior public safety advisor for FirstNet Authority, said. 


For example, Jocelyn Moore, FirstNet Authority board member, said she remembered working on Capitol Hill during 9/11 and not being able to call any of her family members to tell them she was OK.


Since 2017, the FirstNet Authority has consulted with over 3,000 public safety stakeholders in North Carolina to understand what the state’s needs were and will be in the future, Olson said.


Gov. Cooper opted-in to FirstNet on Nov. 13, 2017, bringing its services and network to the state and building it out during these first five years, Olson said.


“In just five years, five short years, FirstNet has delivered a network engineered to and built for the unique needs of public safety,” Olson said. “Resulting in a differentiated experience for public safety stakeholders, including a dedicated core, now a fleet, of over 150 deployables.”


The company has rolled out the Emergency Mobile Communications trucks, with antennas that can broadcast a network within two miles from the truck, Thomas Nicolette, section chief of the FirstNet Response Operations Group, said, as well as Ford Broncos — spread out around 43 states — equipped with FirstNet connectivity measures.


In addition to those 150 deployables, FirstNet’s network covers more than 2.91 million square miles and has “Flying COWS” that can help with connectivity from up to 400 feet for disaster situations like wildfires, according to their website.


The company has five of the Emergency Mobile Communications vehicles stationed throughout the United States in New Jersey, Georgia, California, Missouri and Texas, Nicolette said. The company hopes to add three more in the future, specifically in Boston, Massachusetts, Chicago, Illinois, and Portland, Oregon, he said.


The Emergency Mobile Communications truck is able to be deployed and on scene within 14 hours of the emergency and can even sleep one person in order to accommodate prolonged use during a public safety disaster, Nicolette said. 


Gov. Cooper who attended and spoke at the celebration said he has met with many first responders and that they have lots of courage and determination.


“They [first responders] are always ready to risk life, limb and ready to be away from family,” Gov. Cooper said. “ … They are totally committed. And I have deep admiration for them. The least we can do is to make sure that they have a reliable way to communicate with each other during crises.”


Speaking to specific examples, FirstNet has specifically been able to help North Carolina during hurricanes, especially with Hurricane Florence in 2018, Gov. Cooper said.


“While we're celebrating five years of FirstNet, this isn't the end,” President of AT&T North Carolina Trey Rabon said. “And we're going to continue to invest in this network. We're going to continue to evolve the network.”