By James Careless
Hurricane Ian’s deadly assault on Florida surprised the world with its ferocious flooding, widespread destruction of property and infrastructure, and tragic loss of life. But FirstNet’s Response Operations Group — aka ROG, the team of about 300 people who work around the clock to keep FirstNet in operation 24/7 — was not caught off-guard by Ian. 12 ROG team members are former first responders who go into the field whenever the team is deployed.
“We started multiple days before the hurricane to bring together the whole response operations group team,” said ROG Director Fred Scalara. “This included dispatching ROG Section Chief for FEMA Region Two Shannon Browning and his team to Covington, Georgia, to prestage people and equipment.”
In consultation with the AT&T Weather Operations Center (AWOC), which was following Ian’s progress and likely landfall on a continuing basis, Scalara’s team then set up again in Ocala, Florida; northwest of Orlando and just over three hours’ drive to Fort Myers. “The ROG team tries to get as close as safely possible to where a hurricane is projected to strike, to be able to go in as soon as they can to reestablish wireless communications,” Scalara said.
After Hurricane Ian had roared across through Florida and headed out to sea, “we transitioned the ROG and AT&T’s Network Disaster Recovery (NDR) team down to Fort Myers, where we set up basic staging,” said Browning. “We brought in equipment and technicians, plus bathhouses and bunkhouses, and food.” (The ROG had a second team standing by in North Carolina to cover Georgia and South Carolina. When those states weathered the storm in relatively good shape, this team was sent to Tampa.)
The Arsenal of Constant Connectivity
To quickly restore and maintain FirstNet service to first responders in Florida, the ROG had smaller units such as Compact Rapid Deployables (CRDs) in its arsenal. These are small trailer-sized FirstNet cell towers and internet access points powered by diesel generators that deliver up to 60 hours of continuous service per tank of fuel. Capable of being towed into place by an SUV or truck and set-up by one person in less than 15 minutes, a CRD provides a FirstNet cellular range up to 2 miles and Wi-Fi range up to 500’, plus the ability to connect to the outside world via a high-speed satellite internet link.
The team also had larger FirstNet ‘Cell on Wheels’ (COWs) trucks with their own telescopic cellular towers, and even larger FirstNet Satellite Cell on Light Truck (SatCOLT) trucks to support first responder wireless traffic. These bigger units, which were managed by the NDR, can be used as standalones or linked to existing wireless infrastructure to help restore wide area coverage.
All of these units found their places in post-hurricane recovery communications, with the CRDs coming through in areas where roads had been washed out by Ian, such as Sanibel Island. With the causeway between this barrier island and the mainland having been destroyed, the ROG loaded a FirstNet CRD onto an AT&T NDR Hydratrek amphibious vehicle (AV), then sailed it to Sanibel for set-up and service restoration at the local fire station..
North of Sanibel, Pine Island had also been hammered by Hurricane Ian. Once again the ROG decided to send in a CRD to quickly restore FirstNet service, but this time they sent it by Air Mail.
Specifically, the CRD was loaded on a Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopter taking part in recovery operations and flown to the Pine Island fire station. Once it was there, first responders got immediate access to the FirstNet Band 14 network. As well, residents here and on Sanibel Island were able to use the CRD’s Wi-Fi connectivity to link to the AT&T worldwide network and tell people that they were okay — just as long as their traffic did not interfere with the priority carriage of first responders.
It didn’t take long after Hurricane Ian hit Florida for the ROG to get requests for help. “We were getting messages and calls saying things such as, ‘Hey, I need network coverage!’” said Scalara. “‘There’s no coverage here!’”
As of October 5, 2022 — three days after Hurricane Ian had left Florida — “public safety has requested FirstNet emergency support 100+ times for Ian. And we have been there for them each time,” said Jason Porter, AT&T’s President for Public Sector and FirstNet, in a blog entitled, ‘FirstNet, Built with AT&T Connects First Responders for Hurricanes Ian and Fiona’. According to Porter, FirstNet disaster recovery assets “have supported first responders in affected areas, including Charlotte, Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Lee, Manatee, Orange and Sarasota counties in Florida, as well as Charleston and Georgetown counties in South Carolina. Currently, there are 20+ assets on air. This includes portable cell sites, in-building solutions and satellites to provide backhaul to macro cell sites.”
“In addition to deploying FirstNet assets, the team has been expediting cell site restoration based on public safety’s needs, deploying generators and providing FirstNet Ready devices to first responders on the ground.” Porter added. “Plus, FirstNet liaisons are embedded in state and federal Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) to help ensure first responders continue to have the mobile connectivity and devices they need.”
The devastation wrought by Ian in Florida posed massive challenges to first responders throughout the affected areas. But getting access to FirstNet wireless service was generally not one of them. Thanks to extensive preplanning and prestaging of resources by the ROG, the necessary FirstNet emergency transmission equipment, portable/mobile generators, fuel and support supplies, housing and food, and trained personnel were ready and waiting to spring into action as soon as the hurricane had passed. The fact that the ROG is managed and staffed by former first responders certainly helped: They knew from firsthand experience the kinds of challenges their colleagues would be facing post-Ian in Florida, and they were well-prepared to help.
“The only major difference first responders noticed was slower data rates when their CRD traffic was going through one of our satellite relays, because that’s just the nature of satellite transmissions,” Scalara said. “Otherwise, our FirstNet units all operated and worked properly as they were designed to.”
“FirstNet’s ROG has the privilege of being the tip of the spear in FirstNet operations such as these,” added Browning. “This comes from all the years of public safety experience going back to 9/11 that drives our day-to-day operations. This is why it means so much to our people when the first responders we serve say things like, ‘Hey, FirstNet was there when we needed it’, ‘FirstNet stayed up when we needed it’, and ‘it was amazing to see how quickly you guys were there!’ There’s no better feeling than knowing that we are making a real contribution to public safety in this country.”