Success Story: Rural Maryland department gets FirstNet connected

Within an hour of deploying FirstNet-Ready devices, the department was putting newfound connectivity to work on a mutual-aid call


This article is part of our new Fire Chief Digital Edition, “Fire Service Connectivity in Action,” highlighting the impact on this nationwide public safety broadband network. Read all the articles in the Digital Edition here.

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) project once seemed like a “pie-in-the-sky” idea to which some of us scoffed, “we’ll never see that in our career.” But here we are, two years into the project’s installation, and we’re seeing fire and EMS success stories beginning to pile up.

FirstNet was employed during the 2019 Boston Marathon, Hurricane Michael in 2018 and the 2017 Northern California wildfires, among other major events, giving first responders access to FirstNet deployables for remote site use and extra devices for real-time deployment.

Pie is indeed coming out of the sky!

Not only big city fire departments and big events are benefiting from FirstNet; rural fire departments are employing FirstNet as well. (Photo/FirstNet)
Not only big city fire departments and big events are benefiting from FirstNet; rural fire departments are employing FirstNet as well. (Photo/FirstNet)

Making connections in rural Maryland

As we continue to monitor the FirstNet implementation progress, it is evident that not only big city fire departments and big events are benefiting.

Just two hours northwest of Washington, DC, Cumberland, Maryland, lies among the peaks of one of the oldest mountain range systems in the world – the Appalachians. This beautiful area can be found in the skinny arm of western Maryland – practically a stone’s throw from Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia in different directions.

Having worked as the emergency management director in adjacent Mineral County, West Virginia, I can attest to the communication challenges that come with the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains. The relative extreme elevation changes and geologic glacier-era “folded-mountain” effects stretching from Maine to Georgia creates communication challenges that many big-city departments will never experience.

The Bedrock Road Volunteer Fire Department (BRVFD) in Allegany County, Maryland, serves an area just outside of the city of Cumberland. Cumberland largely sits in one of those valleys, carved out by the Potomac River separating Maryland and Mineral County, West Virginia.

BRVFD Chief Eddie Collins experiences the mountain and valley challenges every day, responding to calls along Interstate 68 and on mutual-aid requests that take him deep into the valleys running north into Pennsylvania and south into West Virginia.

The Bedrock Road Volunteer Fire Department uses FirstNet-Ready devices to boost connectivity among the Appalachian Mountains, where the terrain previously challenged communications efforts. (Photos/BRVFD)
The Bedrock Road Volunteer Fire Department uses FirstNet-Ready devices to boost connectivity among the Appalachian Mountains, where the terrain previously challenged communications efforts. (Photos/BRVFD)

Chief Collins decided to seek out a solution, adopting FirstNet as an individual user in late-2018. He immediately saw a significant improvement in coverage and connectivity, going from single-bar coverage to experiencing 5GE in some areas of the state.

Wanting to improve functionality of the BRVFD response – and with younger-generation firefighters joining the department and advocating for more modern technologies to improve communications and enhance response – Chief Collins began researching FirstNet’s connectivity to start a conversion within the BRVFD.

Using state grant (fund 508) money, the BRVFD purchased FirstNet-Ready iPads in an attempt to use them as a mobile-data-terminal (MDT). Unfortunately, the MDT idea hit a snag with the county’s computer-aided dispatch compatibility, almost bringing the project to a halt. The CAD system simply was not robust enough to support the MDT solution as presented. Fortunately, AT&T helped Collins load all of the appropriate apps necessary to utilize the iPads with FirstNet connectivity to track responding personnel and utilize command software. 

Putting the system to the test

By April 2019, most of the BRVFD membership had converted their personal smartphones to the FirstNet network. Within an hour of deploying the FirstNet-Ready iPads, loaded with command software and the other apps discussed above, the BRVFD was toned out for a house fire in a neighboring response area.

The house fire was located rather remote from any community environments, about halfway up a mountain. This was a location where cellular service was spotty at best, even described as rare, prior to the FirstNet deployment.

At the scene, the BRVFD engine served as a command engine, using the connectivity of the FirstNet system to countywide response software to track staffing. Additionally, loaded mapping software provided valuable community and water supply connectivity, which was not previously available. This was the first time an incident commander was able to track response staffing and use software to help coordinate command and control so effectively.

Making firegrounds safer

It’s easy to think of the many ways such robust connectivity could benefit any scene. Whether tracking people and equipment, sharing information, mapping capabilities or using billing information, FirstNet coverage is filling the gap where coverage was rare, which has certainly made a difference for the BRVFD. With only three tablets, the underlying FirstNet network, and a couple of hours of training, the department has seen significant enhancements to the way they respond and operate.

“We wanted to bring our Department into the 21st century and FirstNet has certainly done that,” Collins said. “The system hasn’t failed us yet, and we know it’s making our firegrounds safer.”

Building out the network

The FirstNet project has a 5-year buildout timeline and a 25-year service contract with AT&T. The contract calls for 90% of the population and 99% of the territory to be covered by the end of the 5-year buildout.

AT&T FirstNet Senior Vice President, Chris Sandbar, recently testified before Congress on the system status. Sandbar reported that the buildout is running ahead of schedule, and at less than halfway through the timeline, the system is at 60% buildout. AT&T anticipates full delivery of the mandatory requirements ahead of schedule.

FirstNet seems to be on track to make the fire service a safer place to operate and survive. We look forward to watching the network mature and flourish throughout the country, from the big cities to the Appalachian Mountains.

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Sidebar: Major Incidents Make the Case

Reflecting on the potential impact of FirstNet during disaster responses

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast and systemically disrupted communications across Louisiana and much of the Southeast. At first, few could fathom the disaster that would unfold. Few first responders could communicate in real time with any reliability.

FirstNet-provided photos for Boston Marathon: Boston Marathon and Boston Strong FirstNet Talk Group. (Photo/FirstNet)
FirstNet-provided photos for Boston Marathon: Boston Marathon and Boston Strong FirstNet Talk Group. (Photo/FirstNet)

When asked about the communications challenges experienced by first responders, FEMA Director David Paulison reflected, “Our ability to provide a common operating picture was severely hampered; in fact, it was nearly impossible at first.” He lamented, “If we had the broadband visibility that has emerged with the FirstNet development, we would have had head-over-heels better communications capabilities at our fingertips.”

In 2013, the Boston Marathon bombing left emergency responders with a saturated cellular network, dropping and missing more calls than could be successfully completed. Radio communications quickly grew congested, and situational awareness was difficult to maintain.

In early 2019, the Boston Fire Department outfitted its entire Command staff with FirstNet-Ready cell phones. Additionally, every front-line piece of response apparatus is outfitted with both a FirstNet and backup (non-FirstNet-Ready) cellular modem.

Commissioner Finn shared, “We’re happy with the concept and deployment to date. The value will be somewhat intangible until, heaven forbid, that next disaster strikes.”

In discussions with Commissioner Finn and various other chiefs, it is obvious that everyone conceptualizes and understands the value of FirstNet; however, many feel the validation or proof of concept on the street will be event-driven.

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