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Public safety network boosting Montana presence to help first responders fight COVID-19

Posted at 7:46 PM, Apr 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-07 21:46:56-04

Those with a nationwide public safety network say they’re actively working with the state of Montana to determine logistics and locations for possible COVID-19 field hospitals and testing sites, should the virus flare in Montana.

FirstNet was developed following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by Congress, according to Jason Porter, the network's senior vice president, as a way to streamline connectivity for first responders brought together by an emergency or national disaster.

Networks connections can fail when either you have scarce cell service, like in Montana, or with heavy public loading wireless networks.

FirstNet, which works with AT&T, allows a dedicated “fast lane” for law enforcement and emergency services agencies to use in an emergency.

In the recent year, the network has been making its move into Montana, although it's technically mandated by Congress to be accessible all across the country.

“We certainly have assets and resources in Montana,” said Porter. ”In fact, last year's our company spent $80 million in Montana.”

According to some fast facts provided by FirstNet, AT&T invested more than $80 million in its best-in-class wired and wireless networks in Montana from 2016-2018.

The network launched four FirstNet sites last year to support the network in Montana and made 97 network connection

upgrades in the state.

Montana’s first FirstNet site launched in September in Ashland. And over the last 18 months, the city of Billings transitioned from a different cell carrier to FirstNet.

This transition includes all fire, police, and public works.

Porter says the network serves a critical need during a national emergency, or during a global pandemic, such as COVID-19.

“This is the war that FirstNet was built for, if you think about it,” said Porter.

And the company has been busy assisting in the COVID pandemic.

The network already assisted with getting the U.S. Mercy and Comfort Naval Ships ready and online for service.

In addition, the network has been instrumental in locating hundreds of field hospitals across the country to help with possible surges of patients infected by coronavirus.

“Some of them in Montana,” said Porter. “And we're working on trying to be prepared for the worst case scenario.”

He says communication among different agencies is important, especially during a critical incident.

“It’s like there is a fire, flood tornado in every city across America at the same time right now. All public safety is fully engaged in this fight,” he said.

With connections placed all over the nation and FirstNet working closely with FEMA and the U.S Coast Guard, the company is narrowing down on Montana during this pandemic.

Porter says FirstNet has been working with state leaders to locate and identify where COVID-19 response structures may need to go.

“You guys might have it out of football stadium or in a Target parking lot. You know it could be anywhere that you think your state chooses to put it,” he said.

FirstNet utilizes equipment referred to as “deployable” to get the job done.

“We show up with what we call cell towers on wheels or cell towers on wings,” said Porter. “And we are there, making sure it has the coverage. We're also there with devices so that anybody else who wants to join in.”

As the virus continues to place more pressure on emergency responders, Porter says FirstNet’s network can help with simple and critical communication.

“Say it does hit Billings, Montana really hard and you don't have enough beds in your emergency rooms. We are already working ahead of that,” he said.

Local police and fire jurisdictions can choose to independently subscribe to be a part of the FirstNet. However, because Congress approved funding for the program post 9/11, when a disaster does strike, deployables are brought in at no cost, according to Porter.