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Critical connections

5G added to emergency network

MCKENZIE BRIDGE: “Communications tools are not just beneficial, they’re essential” was the message at the heart of an upriver event last Wednesday. Amir Johnson, Oregon director of External and Legislative Affairs for AT&T went on to detail the partnership between his company and FirstNet that’s created a nationwide communications network to support emergency responders.

5G upgrades and coverage expansions, Johnson said, are now delivering “prioritized connectivity on a platform tailored to the unique needs of our public safety personnel.” Now in its sixth year in Oregon, the network is serving 160 cities and 750 sites.

“In the McKenzie area communications connectivity has been extremely challenging,” explained Patence Winningham, deputy director of Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management. Of particular concern, she said, was the Blue Pool/Tamolitch Dallas area that puts “first responders at high risk and limits our responses. And, she added, “wildfires on the landscape are here to stay. We have to adapt and evolve as a community.”

Will Chapman, statewide interoperability coordinator (SWIC) Department of Administrative Services agreed, noting that in the aftermath of the Holiday Farm Fire, both McKenzie Bridge and parts of Rainbow were left untouched. Thirty “carried based deployables” were set up to serve the area until destroyed lines and a substation were rebuilt, “We had more deployables in a 10 to 15-mile stretch than we would normally deploy in a hurricane,” Chapman said.

He went on to note that AT&T’s recent activation of a 5G site on the Belknap cell tower was chosen because it was a rural site as part of the $8 billion allocated to FirstNet network deployment. “You don’t see that very often from a carrier,” Chapman said. “It was not necessarily a business decision.”

Paul Braunstein, a FirstNet Solutions consultant, agreed, noting that “just a few months ago we did not have any coverage here.” He cited a letter from Winningham that stressed the need for reliable communications as one of the decision-makers for helping “AT&T to pivot and get cell coverage on that site.”

Braunstein said 30,000 square miles of coverage had been added to Oregon because of the area’s public safety-related needs.

On display during the event were some of the equipment used to reestablish communications after a disaster. The largest was a truck-based ”SAT Colt” that many people saw set up in the McKenzie Valley after disasters. Another was a smaller CRD (Compact Rapid Deployable) that can be towed on a trailer and also connects to satellites even when power from utilities isn’t available.

Representing other players in dealing with disasters was Apollo, a FirstNet Response Operations Group (ROG) dog. He is part of a 44-dog animal-assisted therapy team and also play a role in disaster recovery by visiting the adrenalin-active 911 and other disaster command centers. The dogs according to Bryan Green, Response Operations Group section chief says that on his own experience are truly valued. He recalls being deployed with a strike team that had been working 14 days straight to protect homes. When a ROG showed up, “we all kind of melted, in relief, he said.”

The dogs can be deployed for any disaster with just a phone call, Green noted. Among their deployments was one to Mauii where they helped comfort people at a 911 center who’d also lost their homes.

 

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