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Integrating broadband into tribal public safety planning, preparedness

April 4, 2023

This blog is a repost from TribalHub, originally published in March 2023.

Tribal groups in the Pacific Northwest are taking steps to prepare for the “big one” – a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake that could cause tsunamis, landslides, and volcanic eruptions. 

To prepare isolated communities for a subduction zone quake, the National Tribal Emergency Management Council organized the first full-scale exercise led by tribal first responders. Known as the Thunderbird and Whale exercise, responders tested their emergency management plans and communication capabilities by simulating a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a 100-foot tsunami. The testing took place along the Cascadia fault line – running the length of California into parts of Montana and extending as far north as Canada.

FirstNet deployables aid in tribal exercise

Tribal responders began the exercise without communications, as if the earthquake had knocked out existing infrastructure. The tribes relied on ham radios that connect to radio pathways for basic communications. Using their radios, the tribes sent an email to the FirstNet Response Operations Group at AT&T to request a FirstNet SatCOLT (Satellite cell on light truck), which arrived with a cache of FirstNet devices.

“Within the first eight hours, we sent our first email to FirstNet and within the next six hours FirstNet had that truck on scene for us,” recalled Lynda Zambrano, Executive Director of the NTEMC. “By the following morning we could communicate with everyone that we needed to communicate with from that EOC without a hitch.”

With the help of the SatCOLT, responders used their FirstNet cellphones to communicate and coordinate with their public safety partners.

“Working with Customs and Border Patrol we pulled together more than 100 federal and state agencies as well as multiple tribes across a six-state area,” said Zambrano. “We were able to pull together communications, transportation, and logistics.”

The exercise was so successful that the NTEMC is preparing for a 2024 Thunderbird and Whale exercise with expanded scope and capabilities.

Helping tribal public safety operationalize broadband

For exercises like this, the First Responder Network Authority offers assistance to public safety agencies so they are ready for whatever comes. Through our Network Experience Engagement Program, tribal responders can request support integrate broadband into their next training exercise or planned event. Tribes are encouraged to take advantage of these free services, which include:

  • Pre-planning support: In preparation for planned events, our team will work with your agency to discuss and understand the communications requirements and identify the appropriate FirstNet solutions and broadband capabilities to deploy. Schedule a session at

  • Post-incident or event reviews: After an incident or event occurs in which FirstNet was used, we offer a review to analyze the successes and challenges related to planning, operations, logistics, and technology. Through these sessions, we aim to help agencies improve their use and understanding of broadband communications capabilities. Schedule a review at

For more information about these services or how FirstNet supports tribal communications, contact your FirstNet Authority Public Safety Advisor.


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