Sunrise in the contiguous United States starts in Maine, and Washington County is one of the first to feel the sun’s rays. Located in the eastern part of the state on the shore, first responders in Washington County face several challenges due to geography and population density. It is the third least populous county in Maine, with 33,000 individuals spread out across 3,200 square miles — an area that is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. In addition to a lengthy, rugged coastline, the county is also heavily forested, making connectivity difficult in more remote areas, and wildfires are common.
The Washington County Emergency Management Agency (WCEMA) helps communities within the county plan and prepare for, respond to, and mitigate emergencies. Because of the diverse terrain and vast size of the county, the WCEMA understands the importance of communication. The WCEMA subscribed to FirstNet in 2020 to provide staff with reliable, dedicated communications, ensuring they could remain connected with one another and responders in the field.
Washington County Commissioners oversee the WCEMA, and county officials also made the switch to FirstNet. County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald noted, “Switching over to FirstNet, it was like night and day. Previously, if you were on the phone, you couldn't go to certain parts of the county because it would drop the call. Now, we can travel from point A to point B and the FirstNet phone manages to maintain its connectivity. And we are able to talk when it really makes a difference.”
Remote Incident Management with FirstNet
The ability to communicate made a critical difference in early June 2021, when flash flooding struck the county. Within a matter of hours, three to five inches of rain had fallen, causing several roads to wash out. In Roque Bluffs, the two roads in and out of the town crumbled, stranding approximately 270 people in town, including Washington County Emergency Management Director Lisa Hanscom.
Hanscom explained, “This is where the FirstNet phone came in handy. It was important that it was working as I was talking to people, because within that area, I had to travel back and forth to different incidents and keep in contact with people on the other side of the hole in the road. It was my lifeline.”
Even though she could not physically manage the incident from the command center, Hanscom was able to remain in contact with staff who were at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), the U.S. Coast Guard and Marine Patrol, personnel at the Maine Emergency Management Agency, and officials with the state Department of Transportation who were working to repair the roads. Hanscom recalled that she was making calls from areas where she had previously experienced dropped calls on another carrier. Using her FirstNet device, she stayed connected and in control of the incident, sharing photos and other data in real time with other responding officials.
FirstNet Expands Capabilities
The WCEMA is exploring other features available on the FirstNet network. Hotspots and tablets will allow staff to use more tools in the field. Hanscom also believes the county could benefit from push-to-talk technology and land mobile radio-LTE interoperability. Because Washington County is large and has many remote areas, the ability to communicate across devices would enable more efficient coordination among public safety agencies.
After reflecting on her experience using FirstNet during the floods, Hanscom noted, “I think it's very important to work with a company that is putting first responders first, supporting first responders, creating a system that's dependable and user-friendly and that will help the first responders manage a situation and save lives at the same time.”
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