By James Careless
On April 12, 2022, ten people were shot on a Brooklyn subway train in New York City by a lone gunman. The suspect, 62-year-old Frank James, was apprehended one day later at a McDonald’s restaurant after he himself called in a tip to Crime Stoppers. During the attack, the suspect released smoke grenades and fired a handgun 33 times at the 36th Street station in Sunset Park.
The kind of chaos that such an attack unleashes on first responders and their communications systems is something that police, fire, and EMS commanders dread. But during what has been called the ‘NYC Subway Shooter’ incident, no such chaos occurred, thanks in part to the reliability and priority service provided by the FirstNet, Built with AT&T public safety wireless network.
According to recently retired New York Police Department (NYPD) Deputy Chief Tim Bugge, “my sources in the NYPD tell me that the FirstNet smartphones were invaluable during the shooting and subsequent investigation and hunt for the shooter.”
FirstNet’s ROG Advantage
There’s a very good reason why FirstNet provided rock solid wireless broadband communications during the NYC Subway Shooter incident. In addition to the modern cellular transmission infrastructure and priority on-air service provided to public safety users across the United States, New York City’s communications were backed by the support of the FirstNet Response Operations Group (ROG).
“ROG is focused on supporting first responders across our country’s ten FEMA areas, and has additional strategic support for major cities like New York,” said Scott Agnew, Assistant Vice President, FirstNet Strategy and Policy, AT&T. “It is led by former first responders and staffed by about 300 individuals in all, helping ensure FirstNet has a unique understanding of what public safety needs during an emergency, and supplying those communications services and support to them.”
Before and during public safety emergencies, the FirstNet ROG team works 24/7 to ensure that the network is always available and accessible to first responder smartphones and wireless tablets. The process starts with effective network management and monitoring, and then goes a step further when manmade/natural disasters turn things upside-down.
The reason: Although not required for the NYC Subway Shooter incident, FirstNet has more than 150 dedicated deployables on tap to restore communications during emergencies, including Satellite Cells on Light Trucks and Satellite Cells on Wheels. These deployables are literally ‘mobile cell sites’ that link to FirstNet via satellite. They don’t rely on commercial power availability to operate, while providing first responders with connectivity capabilities much like a cell tower.
FirstNet’s ROG can also help first responders get back on air by expediting restoration of severed fiber optic communications cables, providing backup generation at first responder transmitter sites, improving in-building cellular coverage, and providing extra FirstNet wireless devices as needed. ROG can even boost local cellular coverage up to 100 square miles for first responders quickly by flying in ‘FirstNet One’, a wirelessly-connected transmitter blimp (unmanned helium-filled airship).
FirstNet During the Subway Shooter Incident
Sebastian Donaruma is a 30 year-plus law enforcement veteran who served his entire career with the Readington Township Police in New Jersey, where he became Chief of Police until his retirement. Today, Donaruma is the New York City Section Chief for the FirstNet ROG.
“I support first responders in New York City with any planned or emergent events that arise plus any day to day issues that come up,” he said. “Given my police career plus serving as my township’s Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator for 18 years, I’ve been in the shoes of first responders during incidents like the NYC Subway Shooter, as have many members of our ROG team. So we know what their communication needs are. We can anticipate what they’re going to ask for, what they’re going through: We know their mindset and are able to help in that respect because we’ve been there.”
This unprecedented level of engagement proved critical during the Sunset Park shooting in Brooklyn on April 12. “We were actually meeting with a local first responder agency when the attack occurred,” said Donaruma. “So we stopped the meeting, and activated our Response Plan to support public safety agencies in New York City. I started out by calling our Global Technology Operations Center, which monitors the FirstNet network at all times. I asked them to take a deep dive into the coverage area where the shooting had occurred just to make sure that everything was performing as expected, which it was. We then reached out to all our contacts with the different first responder agencies in the city, just to let them know that we were actually on site in the city if they needed anything and to let us know if we could help in any way.”
While this was going on, another FirstNet ROG section chief responsible for supporting federal agencies went to one of the ROG’s local equipment warehouses. “In case they were needed, he
prepared some Compact Rapid Deployable, FirstNet Ready device kits for transport, plus a vehicle that’s stocked with all different types of equipment that first responders may need during an incident,” Donaruma said. “This meant that we were ready to respond quickly if the need arose.”
Back in New York, the FirstNet team continued to monitor the network, ensuring that local first responders got the network access and consistent service they needed as the Subway Shooter incident unfolded. “We asked our people to pause any planned maintenance that might be going on in the area just to eliminate any issues that could be caused,” said Donaruma. “We also continued to give updates on the state of the FirstNet network to our public safety partners that were actively involved in the event, plus other agencies that were providing ancillary support or just standing by in case they were needed. The in-depth partnership FirstNet has with these agencies reduces response times in these situations.”
Throughout the NYC Subway Shooter incident, FirstNet consistently provided first responders with reliable, priority wireless service that “featured data speeds that were three times faster than consumer traffic,” Agnew said. “And during the entire incident, we did not have to deploy any additional assets. The existing FirstNet infrastructure was able to handle everything the local first responders needed in the way of broadband wireless communications, without any issues.”
Agnew’s narrative is backed by Sebastian Donaruma. “The FirstNet network performed as expected throughout the emergency situation, providing first responders with reliable, interoperable connectivity and always-on priority and preemption (protecting them from potential congestion),” he said. “And yes, first responders on FirstNet experienced speeds that were three times faster than individuals on the AT&T commercial network.”
Delivering on Its Promise
The fact that FirstNet provided such flawless communications during the NYC Subway Shooter incident proves that this service is fulfilling FirstNet’s reason for being created after 9/11, when inadequate inter-agency communications were a tragically serious obstacle to saving lives during that attack.
“During an emergency, first responders are being tasked with doing a lot of different things,” said Donaruma. “So having a FirstNet ROG liaison available to reach out to them and coordinate communications takes something off their plate: It’s one less thing they have to worry about. And if something does happen where they need additional equipment or coverage in an area where they don’t have coverage, we’re there to help them immediately. We make it easier for them to do their jobs.”
“We are really proud to say that the FirstNet network performed as it was expected to on April 12th,” he concluded. “The work of ROG during this and other events, along with FirstNet’s unmatched, in-depth preplanning and operational partnership with first responder agencies in New York City is a game changer and it really sets us apart.”