By James Careless
Gratitude seems to be in short supply these days. So when a busy law enforcement officer such as Citrus County (Florida) Sheriff Mike Prendergast takes the time to record and post a Facebook video thanking FirstNet and AT&T for their help following Hurricane Idalia, it’s worth paying attention to!
“I’m Citrus County Sheriff Mike Prendergast, and right now on an AT&T FirstNet smartphone that was provided to us by the AT&T folks from the point out here to Bay County,” said the Sheriff in his video as traffic roared behind him outdoors. “I’m on the corner of Hudson and Highway 231. Were it not for the phone that my photographer’s holding [in] his hands right now, we would not be able to communicate and accomplish our mission here to help out the Bay County Sheriff and help the community come back together and recover from this terrible storm. So [my] hat’s off to AT&T and FirstNet. We really appreciate all that you’ve done and please keep up the good work because the first responders that have come up here to Bay County, to Gulf County, and to Franklin County and all the other surrounding counties are depending heavily upon you. Great job! Keep up the great work. Thanks.”
Why He Chose FirstNet
In an exclusive interview with AllThingsFirstNet.com, Sheriff Prendergast explained why he went to the trouble of thanking FirstNet and AT&T publicly using a Facebook video, which has received thousands of views.
Back in 2018, after Hurricane Michael had ravaged Florida as a Category 5 storm, “the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) was deployed as part of the Florida Sheriff’s Association Task Force to go up and render mutual aid to one of our fellow sheriffs,” he said. “Unfortunately, we lost cell phone service probably an hour east of Tallahassee as we were driving north. Our agency at that time was a Verizon customer, while our guys who had AT&T personal smartphones still had cell phone service. So we had to rely upon personal cell phones with AT&T to be able to communicate back at our headquarters at that point, nearly three hours away. And that was the only thing that we had.”
The fact that the AT&T network kept working while Verizon’s was down impressed Sheriff Prendergast a great deal. But then he and his team got to the headquarters of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Bay County Sheriff’s Office in Panama City, where the hurricane recovery efforts were being coordinated.
“I told ’em that, ‘Hey, we’re here to help, but we’ve had communications issues because the network that we operate off of on our cell phones is not working,” the Sheriff recalled. “They said, ‘well, got good news for you. There’s a FirstNet team deployed here, and they might be able to help you out’. Well, literally within an hour, a representative from FirstNet showed up at the command post for the Bay County Sheriff’s Office looking for me by name, carrying a bag with 12 cell phones in it, walked up to me and handed me this bag of cell phones. They said, ‘hey, I’m your representative from FirstNet and I’m here to help’.”
Equipped with AT&T FirstNet phones, Sheriff Prendergast and his team had no issues staying connected during this operation. This is why the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office subsequently adopted FirstNet as their primary communications platform, acquiring hundreds of smartphones and tablets. “I wanted to work very closely with FirstNet after that experience,” he said. “If you can provide that level of service following a Category 5 hurricane, you’ve got to have the background and the infrastructure there, necessary to support first responders like our agency that depends so heavily upon our ability to communicate.”
Coming Through After Hurricane Idalia
Five years later, the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office was once again deployed to help with post-disaster emergency response, this time after Hurricane Idalia made landfall on Florida on August 29, 2023. This time the Sheriff and his team were sent to maintain law and order in Dixie County, which had endured “upwards of 14 to 16 feet of storm surge in some of their coastal fishing communities,” he said. “We were going down the road to Horseshoe Beach and lost cell phone service, so we had no way to communicate with our guys back at the base camp, much less communicate with the folks back in Citrus County. So I reached out to FirstNet Market Manager Rob LaVielle and said, ‘hey, can you help me out? I can’t have deputies down there that can’t talk on the radios, and they certainly can’t talk on their cell phones right now out of Horseshoe Beach.”
In response, LaVielle arranged for a FirstNet Satellite Cells on Light Truck (SatCOLT) to bridge the dead zone at Horseshoe Beach. The SatCOLT was on site and in operation in a matter of hours. Yet again, when first responder communications counted, FirstNet came through in the crunch.
“I tested this coverage on the road and it worked like a champ, because now I could make phone calls and connect to everybody across our network,” said Sheriff Prendergast. “We were immediately able to do everything that we needed to do to take care of the business of supporting our fellow sheriff’s office and all of those folks that were dependent upon us to support the community. It was like an instantaneous enhancement to our ability to get out there and communicate.”
It was this second instance of FirstNet coming through yet again that spurred Sheriff Prendergast into recording his ‘Facebook video. “In a natural disaster like this, the norms of society kind of erode very quickly, especially when people don’t have access to electricity, water, and the things that we all take for granted,” he said. “This is why I can’t thank FirstNet enough for what they do. My ultimate goal as a sheriff is to get the job done while making sure that every single person that comes to work for us goes home to their family at the end of their shift. FirstNet gives us the tools to get the job done and keep our people safe.”