The police chief of the state of Alaska’s largest city hurried out of his department’s glass building during a major earthquake not too long ago.
Telephone communications failed to work and even police radios were having problems after the earthquake. But, Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll’s mobile phone had recently been connected to a national wireless network designed for emergency workers.
Doll was able to reach other officials who had the new high-speed connection after the 7.1 magnitude quake last year caused widespread damage.
It proved to be the first major test in Alaska for the FirstNet network. Doll and other commanders had just agreed to take part in the test with their personal mobile phones. The important calls, made possible by FirstNet, helped emergency workers set up an operations center and organize the response to the November 30 earthquake.
“It was just random chance that we had started sort of testing this a little bit right before the earthquake happened,” Doll told the Associated Press. He said he felt better providing the system to his department knowing that it had worked well in an emergency.
Anchorage police officially joined the service in January. They are among thousands of public safety agencies nationwide that can use the connection during emergencies and for normal work. This includes communicating by smartphone, directing officers to calls and looking up suspect information in the field.
Agencies also can tie the network to software programs on their phones known as apps.
In Alaska, the network is seen as a new tool to connect emergency workers in a huge state with many Native American communities far away from roads. High-speed internet has been built in hard-to-reach areas in recent years. But connecting those communities is still difficult, even with FirstNet.
The network is secure, encrypted and cannot be used by the public. But it has raised concerns among media activists that the secrecy protects police and others from criticism. This comes as more agencies cut off their traditional radio communications from the public.
Both FirstNet and telecommunications company AT&T, which runs the high-speed system, say users must open parts of the network. However, the communications company did not know of any agencies that had done so.
Launched last year, the United States Congress established the network in 2012 as a result of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. During those attacks some police and fire departments could not communicate with each other over different radio systems.
The First Responder Network Authority is an independent federal organization that oversees the network with AT&T. The organization plans to invest $40 billion over its 25-year agreement with the U.S. government.
The U.S. was the first to roll out a government-supported wireless network for emergency responders. Nations like Australia, South Korea, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom are studying FirstNet as they look to create similar services, said spokeswoman April Ward.
Verizon has rolled out a similar service for first responders not tied to the government but would not say how many agencies use it. More than 7,250 departments nationwide have joined FirstNet, AT&T said.
FirstNet continues to expand
Chris Sambar is AT&T’s senior vice president for FirstNet. He said more than half of the system has been completed.
In Alaska, the five-year goal is to build the network to cover more than 90 percent of the population. But the FirstNet plan noted that still represents less than half of the state’s spread out tribal lands.
For now, nothing will take the place of Alaska’s mobile radio network, said John Rockwell. He is a state official who worked on the plan.
“I really believe in FirstNet,” he said. “It’s just not there yet.”
Hal Lowder is city emergency manager for the small community of Whiteville, North Carolina. He said the town lost all connections except for FirstNet when Hurricane Florence hit last September.
Even FirstNet started slowing down when officials tried to send large amounts of data. So they turned to a tool available to all users of the system: equipment that turns a satellite signal into a mobile phone tower.
“It worked perfectly, even at slow speeds,” Lowder said.
Increasingly, police radio communications are not available to the public. A growing number of agencies, including Anchorage police, do not permit others to listen to police radio. They say it is over safety concerns. But this removes a traditional resource for reporters and others.
FirstNet is raising concerns about decreasing freedom of information.
J. Alex Tarquinio is president of the Society of Professional Journalists. She believes a government-supported service should include some part that is open to the media.
“The government has an obligation — because this is a public service — to find a way to provide that information to journalists, so journalists can continue to cover incidents and emergency response in a timely way,” Tarquinio said.
I’m Dorothy Gundy.
And I’m Pete Musto.
Rachel D’Oro reported on this story for the Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted it story for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter Jr. was the editor. We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.
Words in This Story
mobile – adj. able to be moved
network – n. a system of computers and other devices that are connected to each other
magnitude – n. a number that shows the power of an earthquake
response – n. something that is done as a reaction to something else
random – adj. chosen or done without a particular plan or pattern
smartphone – n. a mobile telephone that can be used to send and receive e-mail, connect to the Internet and take photographs
encrypted – adj. changed from one form to another especially to hide its meaning
tribal – adj. of or relating to a group of people that includes many families and relatives who have the same language, customs, and beliefs
journalist(s) – n. a person whose job is collecting, writing, and editing news stories for newspapers, magazines, television, or radio
obligation – n. something that you must do because of a law, rule or promise