Alaska Student Firefighters Use FirstNet As They Protect Campus, Community

By James Careless

The University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) trains student firefighters in the most realistic and practical manner possible. While its 42 full time students study to earn their college degrees in EMS and fire, they also train with the UAF’s University Fire Department (UFD) — and are paid to provide EMS/fire services to the University of Alaska Fairbanks Troth Yeddha’ campus, the University Fire Service Area in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, andmutual aid to the neighboring jurisdictions.  

To keep these student firefighters connected and safe, the UFD is now using FirstNet, Built with AT&T to provide solid, reliable communications over their UFD-issued smartphones. Previously, the UFD relied solely on local conventional and statewide land mobile radio (LMR) systems, which do not have the range, data throughput, and reliability that FirstNet can.

“University Fire Department initially began using FirstNet for the reliable ‘traditional’ mobile communications it provides,” said UFD Fire Chief Forrest Kuiper. “This kept our staff and students connected via cellular voice and LTE data to each other, along with the apps we use to connect to our local dispatching system. The cellular phones issued to our staff started with the Sonim XP6, transitioned to the Sonim XP8, and now we utilize Google Pixel 6 phones. For our mobile data terminals, we have always used various editions of the iPads, using an app for connectivity to our local dispatch system.”

Being connected via FirstNet provides UFD student firefighters with so much more information than LMR can deliver. In addition to receiving far more detailed data during emergency dispatches on their smartphones and iPads, UFD’s working student firefighters are able to access local Geographic Information Systems (GIS) coordinates to find the best routes to incident scenes through FirstNet’s wireless broadband network. As well, “they are completing fire and EMS reports in near real time with our cloud-based RMS system tailored for mobile app use, and they also have access to our entire SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures), EMS standing orders, fire hydrant information, and many more information resources that they can use on longer duration or complex incidents,” Chief Kuiper said.

Because the UAF students being trained are part of the Wireless Broadband Generation, they are entirely comfortable using FirstNet on their smartphones and iPads. In fact, they are so comfortable that they don’t notice how remarkable it is for firefighters to have this degree of broadband connectivity while responding to EMS and fire calls. “They expect this connectivity to be present,” said Chief Kuiper. “In fact, I’ve had several students come back after going on paramedic externships to other areas of the nation and comment on how much more connectivity they enjoy with what we have at the University Fire Department. This connectivity helps them do their jobs more safely and efficiently.”

Because Alaska is a vast, rugged landscape, long distance connectivity is an absolute must. This is why the UFD is application-testing FirstNet’s MegaRange High-Powered User Equipment (HPUE), which is designed to deliver enhanced cellular connectivity for FirstNet users. 

“While testing is in its early stages, we’re finding MegaRange is living up to our expectations by increasing our coverage areas for cellular connectivity,” Chief Kuiper told AllThingsFirstNet.

“While it’s not able to provide us the last mile of coverage in such a vast area that Alaska is, it is providing us tens more miles of reliable and fast connectivity than we’ve ever had before. This additional connectivity not only allows us to have more rapid access to emergency incident intelligence data, but will also allow us to have the capability to send EMS data to our hospital sooner or even someday connect to our LMR system where it doesn’t reach, but LTE data with HPUE connectivity does.”

The UFD hopes to expand its HPUE use to encompass its entire emergency vehicle fleet in the near future. But this progressive department is also still looking ahead to what is next in FirstNet-connected wireless equipment. For instance, “we have interest in the upcoming technology connectivity enhancements associated with Compact Rapid Deployables (CRD), especially the smaller ones that fit in small cases compared to the tow behinds currently available,” said Chief Kuiper.

The UFD’s success with FirstNet to date is also motivating the department to highlight its benefits to other Alaskan first responders. To this end, “we’re working with partners in Alaska to demonstrate the benefits of bringing the connectivity reliability of FirstNet to our state’s LMR system,” Chief Kuiper said. “This process is not meant to replace our LMR or conventional radio systems, but we have found that augmenting our traditional radio systems with FirstNet and the technology behind it is a necessary and beneficial need to enhance public safety communications at our UAF Campus and throughout Alaska. For instance, buildings which traditionally have been resistant to radio communications, but capable of reliable cellular communications because of the difference in how the technology works, will help us continue to resolve our in-building communications challenges.”

Of course, working in the harsh Alaskan climate can be hard on the UFD student firefighter’s smartphones and iPads, just as it is hard on traditional LMR handsets that are used outdoors. According to Chief Kuiper, this just goes with the territory. “Honestly, there’s very little equipment that can truly resist the rigors of ambient temperatures between -40F to -60F, which is why we take really good care of our equipment before, during, and after emergencies so that it can help take care of us and our community,” he observed. “That said, the equipment we’re using is robust. But what has been more exceptionally outstanding is our customer service team here in Alaska. They are by far the best we’ve had the pleasure of working with. Their response to our questions or needs are always prompt. Equipment often reaches us the next day when we order new or need replacement. We can’t say enough good things about the FirstNet team helping us stay connected.”

The Big Picture: By learning on the job (as well as in the classroom) using FirstNet-connected equipment, the UAF’s student firefighters are getting the best possible education in modern EMS and firefighting techniques. “They’re learning about how this robust connectivity can enhance how they do their work in protecting our community,” said Chief Kuiper. “We believe that with this exposure, especially if they leave for a department that isn’t benefiting from FirstNet yet, they can be a resource to share the ideas we have and are currently exploring to bring our little slice of the emergency services world into the 21st century.”


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