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A FirstNet Satellite Cell on Light Truck and Communications Vehicle sit in a parking lot during the response to the Marshall Fire in Boulder County, Colorado

Supporting Marshall Fire Responders with Priority Service and On-Demand Coverage

March 2, 2022

Fire raged in Boulder County, Colorado, during the last hours of 2021, covering more than 6,000 acres of densely populated land. In what would become the state’s most destructive fire in history, the Marshall Fire left thousands of residents without homes. Firefighters from across Colorado and neighboring Wyoming responded in force to calm the blaze, which was being fueled by winds with category 2 hurricane speeds.

To support critical communication for responders, members of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) and FirstNet, Built with AT&T teams were on site supporting FirstNet network communications. This included FirstNet Authority Engineer Vihang Jani who monitored network performance and functionality on the ground and in the incident command post. Jani noted two key FirstNet features as important to the fire response and recovery efforts — priority and a versatile, mobile fleet of network assets deployed for emergency response.

Keeping responders connected

Priority service enables first responders to access network resources during times of high network congestion. During the Marshall Fire, some responders struggled to find a signal on commercial networks, but those on FirstNet had the connectivity needed to share critical information. In addition, AT&T supplied a cache of FirstNet handheld devices to help state and local responders communicate and coordinate during response and recovery efforts.

Even with significant fire damage to local fiber infrastructure, responders using FirstNet were able to connect to the network thanks to the dedicated network deployables on site. The mobile satellite units, which included multiple Satellite Cell on Light Trucks (SatCOLTs), a Communications Vehicle, and compact rapid deployables (CRDs), were quickly deployed to provide support to responding agencies. The SatCOLTs supplied temporary, on-demand broadband coverage, allowing FirstNet users to access a steady signal in the field at various response and search areas. The Communications Vehicle, a result of the FirstNet Authority’s first network investments, was transformed into an additional SatCOLT and operational base for incident command staff and the FirstNet Response Operations Group (ROG).

Compact rapid deployables in action

When the ROG team arrived on site, it was in the middle of a snowstorm. Mud, snow, and low-hanging power cables made it dangerous to transport a FirstNet SatCOLT to its designated location — at the top of a steep, curvy hill.

To get coverage set up quickly, the FirstNet team turned to the new, agile CRD solution. These mobile units are small enough to be transported on the back of trucks and versatile enough to provide FirstNet cellular and Wi-Fi coverage via satellite or other connectivity. The team was able to transport a CRD over the difficult terrain using a standard pick-up truck. The CRD unit was operational in less than one hour from arriving on site, making coverage available for public safety and enabling first responders to focus on the fire.

One week after the fire, the CRD was used again to support coordination and planning for a presidential visit. In preparation for the event, the Boulder Police Department was converted into an emergency operations center and the CRD was deployed to enhance indoor cellular coverage.

Tools to prepare for any emergency

The Marshall Fire was swift, unexpected, and devastating. It showed that first responders need to be prepared to adapt to any situation – even a wildfire burning into a highly residential area. It also showed that they need technology and coverage solutions that can flex and adapt to their changing needs.

“We continue to see responders put to the test nationwide,” said Jani. “That’s why it’s so important that we at the FirstNet Authority keep pushing forward with innovative tools for public safety.”         


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