This past year and a half, public safety agencies across the country have been faced with new and unique sets of challenges. While most of America began working and going to school from home, our nation’s fire, police, EMS and 9-1-1 departments continued to serve on the frontlines and keep communities safe.
Many agencies turned to technology to help them confront the pandemic – from finding ruggedized smart devices for law enforcement that could be sanitized easily by dunking in bleach to using apps to assist mobile medical teams in distributing vaccines. We also saw agencies, such as Palm Beach County in Florida, establishing innovative technology solutions to help enable remote work to accommodate pandemic protocols for social distancing or quarantining.
Palm Beach County 9-1-1
Palm Beach County’s Public Safety Department is leading on implementing FirstNet for 9-1-1 operations. Palm Beach County is one of the most populous counties east of the Mississippi River with a population that is larger than 11 states. There are 15 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPS) within the county, and some are located on ‘barrier islands’ between the ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway. These islands are typically served by a single terrestrial network connection back to the mainland.
For redundancy in the event of a catastrophic event or natural disaster, Palm Beach County 9-1-1 (Ret.) Director Chuck Spalding led an effort to install FirstNet wireless SIM cards in the PSAPs’ routers. In addition, Palm Beach County operates mobile 9-1-1 buses, which are supported by FirstNet. The buses give telecommunicators the flexibility to dispatch remotely while on the scene of an emergency.
Facing New Set of Challenges During the COVID-19 Pandemic
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Palm Beach County 9-1-1 call centers were faced with a new set of challenges. If a call taker was exposed to the virus or needed to take care of an ill family member, they were required to quarantine for 14 days. With a suddenly depleted staff, the Palm Beach County 9-1-1 call center managers were looking for solutions to enable remote work.
With FirstNet already in place as a backup at the PSAPs, Spalding and his team worked with AT&T to create go-bags, complete with 9-1-1 call handling equipment, a headset, and a FirstNet modem. This allowed call center managers the flexibility they needed to enable remote dispatching or call taking from home or from other municipal facilities allowing for social distancing.
“Our technology investments gave us the confidence we needed to provide a remote-work option to our operators,” Spalding said. “We average about 100,000 9-1-1 calls per month, and this gives operators the ability to do their job without being physically tied to a specific building — ensuring that every one of those calls continues to be handled in appropriate manner. This is beyond what we had originally began using FirstNet for, and we certainly never thought 9-1-1 call centers could ever be a remote workforce. This has truly been an extremely positive experience for me and my team.”
The Future of FirstNet in Palm Beach County
Palm Beach County 9-1-1 continues to identify additional ways to improve communication in different scenarios, including disaster recovery and relief.
“With our location in the Southeast of the country, we’re in a direct potential path for a hurricane,” Spalding continued. “In terms of FirstNet, this is where we see opportunities for the most advancement as we now have these go-bags to relocate people as needed if and when a disaster comes. Preparation is a significant factor in keeping communities safe, especially during hurricane season, and I’m glad a tool like FirstNet exists to help us do just that.”
The author, Bruce Fitzgerald, is the senior public safety advisor for Emergency Management at the First Responder Network Authority.