Preparing for Natural Disasters: How FirstNet Fits into Your Disaster Response Plan

With natural disasters costing the U.S. $91 billion in 2018 alone, and only predicted to continue accelerating in the coming years due to warming temperatures worldwide, emergency responders and public safety agencies are looking for ways to better prepare a disaster response plan.

When the concept of FirstNet was born after first responders couldn’t communicate with one another during the attacks on September 11, 2001, the First Responder Network Authority made a mission to ensure that a communications breakdown like that would never happen again. After more than a decade of planning and preparation, the FirstNet dedicated core network finally launched in March 2018. FirstNet has already made waves in public safety connectivity, and FirstNet is only expected to continue positively impacting connectivity for first responders and those who support them as network buildout and adoption of FirstNet continues across the country.

In addition to public safety officials and first responders, other users who assist emergency responders, such as individuals who work for hospitals, utilities and public transit, can also benefit tremendously from the added connectivity. A natural disaster severely impacts public safety officials and their support networks with an overflow of emergency calls, evacuations, or injured people being rushed to the emergency room. When a disaster like this happens, chaos ensues and key players can lose connectivity quickly – unless they have a disaster response plan in place.

With devices that connect to FirstNet service, like the TOUGHBOOK 33 or the TOUGHBOOK N1, both primary and extended primary users can stay connected when they need it most and have 24/7 device support with Panasonic. FirstNet will transform the future of communication for public safety, and the following examples detail how FirstNet can be an integral part of primary and extended primary users’ disaster response plans.

Wildfires in California

The widespread wildfires that ravaged across California in 2018 became the deadliest ever recorded in the state’s history, with a lot of damage taking place in Northern California and burning nearly 14,000 homes and consuming 153,000 acres. Mandatory evacuations and the loss of many houses displaced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, leaving families stranded and impacting shelters and hotels around the area.

Communication in this type of disaster is extremely important for all parties involved, from the firefighters fighting the blaze, to the volunteers looking to help. Deployable equipment, like SatCOLTs, keep public safety officials connected during disasters or in remote areas where coverage is sparse. During recovery efforts for the California wildfires, firefighters were able to stay connected with these types of technologies, “Before FirstNet deployed the SatCOLT to our base camp, our first responders couldn’t send a text message, let alone speak on the phone to their families,” said Tualatin Valley (OR) Fire & Rescue Fire Chief Mike Duyck. “The coverage FirstNet is providing is meeting our needs, giving us better situational awareness and bringing comfort to our responders during a time of stress and anxiety.”

Wireless networks and the Internet are essential tools for providing fire and emergency response, especially during large fires that require the rapid deployment and organization of thousands of personnel and hundreds of fire engines and aircrafts. For this reason, all emergency personnel need to be able to count on a network, like FirstNet, that does not throttle data and adversely affect fire response. With FirstNet connectivity, firefighters can communicate with stations in different counties or across-agency with police and EMS. This not only enables recovery efforts to be as streamlined and effective as possible, but also allows hospitals to be prepared for the amount of people headed their way.

Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas

When Hurricane Florence arrived on the Carolina coast in September 2018, the slow-moving disaster caused extreme winds and an inundation of rain and flooding in the area. Unlike the unpredictable, quick-spreading fires in California, the pace of the hurricane when it reached the east coast allowed forecasters to pinpoint exactly who would be impacted by extreme flooding. With advanced mapping technologies and a network to connect them, first responders could effectively warn people living in danger zones to evacuate and prepare for the worst.

In the aftermath of the storm, utility crews worked quickly to restore power to more than one million houses that lost electricity in the storm’s destruction. The quick recovery effort was in part due to FirstNet, “When everything was down, FirstNet was working,” said Hal Lowder, Director of Emergency Services of Whiteville, NC. “During Florence, the height of the storms, we lost all of our land-based mobile systems out of our county dispatch center. At one point we were the only thing talking in the county and we actually went to FirstNet as it was intended.”

With so many people impacted and only a limited number of resources, rugged devices connected to FirstNet allow utility workers to access critical information, such as exact areas needing attention and where crews are currently working. Handheld devices give field workers the ability to seamlessly connect to FirstNet and update the recovery processes in near real time, adding transparency to the recovery effort.

Earthquake in Alaska

In November, Alaska was hit with a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked buildings, damaged highways and homes and prompted a brief tsunami warning. When the quake happened about eight miles outside of Anchorage, Alaska’s most populous city, local officials needed to immediately issue a disaster declaration to quickly deploy first responders and inform the public, making it critical that emergency responders be connected to a network that they could count on.

The quake caused widespread power outages, major infrastructure damage across Anchorage, road closures and substantial personal property damage, requiring large-spread recovery efforts and the organization of personnel throughout different agencies across the state. The access to data in the field provided by FirstNet enables all these agency personnel to get the public to safety, account for any injuries and immediately begin recovery efforts to pinpointed locations that are made visible through the network to help restore power as quickly as possible.

With the continued growth of adoption of FirstNet-enabled devices, the ability for public safety officials to communicate during a disaster will only continue to improve. By equipping personnel with tools that provide near real-time information, added transparency and constant connectivity, they are able to focus on what matters most and more effectively recover the people and areas impacted.