Tribal Nations Share FirstNet Success Stories

By ATFN Staff

Theron Rutyna from the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa said when he first climbed the 300-foot tower cellphone tower on his reservation and looked out over Lake Superior he felt “vastness of the United States and Indian Country.” Rutyna, the tribe’s IT director, also said cell coverage has improved significantly — up to 80% of his nation’s lands in “nowhere Wisconsin,” as he said, are now covered, after the tribe had worked to build a tower since 2004with the photographic negative true (80% of the reservation not covered).

The difference-maker, he touted in a recent tribal leader town hall on COVID-19 convened by the National College of American Indians, the National Indian Health Board, and the Native American Finance Officers Association, has been the partnership with FirstNet, the federal partnership with AT&T to build a nationwide first-responder-network. “When I became IT manager in 2015, the tribal council gave me a mandate to find a way to bring communications to the tribe,” said Rutyna. “In 2018, the Red Cliff became the first tribal council for FirstNet.” 

It’s been a similar tale of success for the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in southwestern South Dakota. At 3,500 square miles, it’s the second-largest tribe by land mass in the U.S. and faced a significant hurdle of connectivity before FirstNet arrived.  “We have various different terrains, hills and valleys,” said Robert Ecoffey, Chief of Police for OST. “Communication was always somewhat suspect in terms of law enforcement needs across the reservation.”

But in 2018, OST signed up for FirstNet, powered by AT&T, to improve its communication infrastructure. Connectivity, says Chief Ecoffey, has vastly improved. “Right now, our police officers have basically instant access to mapping capabilities to photographs,”said Chief Ecoffey. “Our dispatchers are able to throw a map up on [an officer’s] computers…enhancing our response time not only to police but ambulance service and fire protection.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the network both tribal leaders said, has been performing as hoped for, allowing for. 

“That’s exactly why FirstNet was created,” said Walter Lamar, former FBI Special Agent and Deputy Director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement program and enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation. “To ensure communications, especially in times of crisis.” 

The departments moving to FirstNet, said Red Cliff’s Rutyna,underscores that any nationwide first-responders communications network will only be fully realized when rural and tribal partners are part of the solution. “I recommend anyone in Indian Country contacting FirstNet and getting things moving,” said Rutyna. 

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