By James Careless
With a population of 1,855 (Source: US Census 2020) and a territory of 4,180 square miles, Eureka County, Nevada is both sparsely populated and the 100th largest county in the United States. Sheriff Jesse Watts is the elected official charged with policing this large territory, along with a staff of 23 full-time employees that handle administrative, dispatch, and patrol functions. He also doubles as Eureka County’s Coroner and fills in on Dispatch as necessary. When you’re a small Sheriff’s Office with a lot of land to cover, everyone does whatever they can to help.
Communicating with Eureka County’s Sheriff and Deputies has always been a challenge for this department. Until 2019, a year after Jesse Watts was elected Sheriff-Coroner (that’s his official title), “we did not have department-issued cell phones to supplement our land mobile radios (LMRs),” he said. “So, the department’s members would just use their cell phones, with their carriers varying across AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon; you name it. This multi-carrier consumer approach was very unreliable in the fact that you never had coverage in parts of the county. Staff using Verizon would only have coverage in certain areas. Other staff on T-Mobile had even less.”
Sheriff Watts tackled the issue of improving his department’s county-wide communications right after he was elected in 2018. It didn’t take long for him to notice that AT&T had enhanced its coverage and equipment in Eureka County to provide FirstNet public safety wireless broadband service — and that these changes solved the coverage issues he was dealing with. ,
“Our county’s 4,180 square miles and we’ve got two offices in it,” he explained. “One’s up north, 130 miles away from the main office, and that office has an AT&T tower less than a mile away that received FirstNet upgrades. And then our main office in the county seat of Eureka itself has an AT&T tower about 10 miles away that has also been upgraded. However, what really impressed me is that AT&T is providing FirstNet service even in the middle of nowhere, so to speak. That’s why we adopted FirstNet in 2019 and have never looked back.”
Today, the Eureka County Sheriff’s Office has FirstNet service provisioned by AT&T on 17 department-issued iPhones, five iPads, ten of their trucks and 15 of their officer-worn body cameras. “In other words, everything that we have that uses a cell phone signal has FirstNet in it,” said Sheriff Watts. Besides providing reliable first responder communications county-wide, this technology has improved the department’s ability to do its job in a number of ways.
A case in point: “We had a ‘use of force’ incident where we ended up Tasing a guy, and I was watching it live from a distance via a FirstNet-connected body cam,” Sheriff Watts said. “As a result, I was able to see that the suspect they were dealing with was showing signs of Excited Delirium [a condition of extreme agitation that is potentially fatal]. So even though I was 130 miles away driving to the scene, I was able to instruct my deputies on the best way to handle him safely, like have the suspect laying on his left side and don’t restrain him too firmly. In my opinion, being able to do this coaching live via FirstNet saved this guy’s life, because bad things can happen when Excited Delirium victims get restrained wrong and experience positional asphyxiation.”
Here are two more examples of FirstNet making a difference for the Eureka County Sheriff’ Department.
“Two years ago, we had an officer-involved shooting here in the county. And while we were out on scene, Nevada’s Major Crimes division was on scene and asked for the dashcam and bodycam video of the incident,” said Sheriff Watts. “I was able to log into my system in my truck and upload everything securely to them immediately because of FirstNet’s encryption and our Cradlepoint wireless router’s encryption. And they received this video while we were still on scene. They didn’t have to wait on it.”
More recently, Eureka County suffered a flood in March 2023. To cope with the chaos, “we had to bring in the state’s Emergency Management team and we had a huge influx of people,” Sheriff Watts said. “And immediately FirstNet dropped cellular signal boosters and other resources here. I mean, they were literally on site the next day to increase our cell phone coverage at the fire station we were using for the Emergency Operations Center, and we were able to increase our functionality because of that.”
All told, Sheriff Jesse Watts is very happy with the service and coverage his department is getting from FirstNet. “Yes, there are still a few dead areas in our county where we drop calls due to the terrain,” he said, “but overall the coverage provided to us by FirstNet and AT&T is exponentially better than what we had before. And we are in the beta testing stage right now for increasing our radio coverage by using cellular LTE-to-LMR bridging using FirstNet, so we expect improvements in this area too.”
As for his advice to first responders in other rural/remote U.S. counties? “Increase your technology and your ability to serve your citizens and keep your staff safe by leveraging the resources available,” Sheriff Watts replied. “FirstNet has the resources you need on the ground and in your hand.”