Every year during the holidays, the city of St. Augustine, Florida is transformed by millions of holiday lights that bedazzle the city’s downtown in an event called Nights of Lights.
“It is the flip of a switch and the city all of a sudden … becomes this magical place,” said Dee Brown, Public Information Officer for the St. Augustine Police Department.
Nights of Lights has been named one of the top ten light displays in the world by National Geographic. It is a festive time during the off-season for this waterfront tourist destination. St. Augustine is the nation’s oldest city, and the lights adorn the city’s historic Spanish architecture.
“It's a kickoff of the holiday season,” said Anthony Cuthbert, Assistant Chief of the St. Augustine Police Department.
Keeping holiday magic alive with FirstNet
As visitors marvel at the twinkling holiday lights, St. Augustine’s officials are hard at work behind the scenes to ensure the event runs smoothly and safely for everyone involved.
The entire city comes together to produce Nights of Lights, including the police department, fire department, city management, and supporting agencies like public works and utilities.
The city hosted the first Nights of Lights nearly 30 years ago. Since then, city officials have made improvements to better manage the event, including switching to FirstNet for communications.
“The importance of reliable communications is paramount to the operation in the city,” said John Regan, City Manager. “In the past, we've had very large tourism influxes … [that] have overloaded the traditional cell phone networks and literally paralyzed us in our ability to talk.”
FirstNet provides reliable communications for St. Augustine, especially during events like Nights of Lights that draw huge crowds of people.
“It's easy for us to have 20,000 people down in a four-block area right here in downtown that creates a burden on communication services,” said Assistant Chief Cuthbert. “Our reliability on FirstNet has not been a problem at all.”
Uplifting all responders to get priority communications
FirstNet allows all city officials—from first responders to city management to public works—to work together to provide a safe, secure, and successful event for residents and visitors of St. Augustine.
FirstNet gives priority and preemption to traditional public safety agencies like law enforcement, the fire service, EMS, 9-1-1, and emergency management, ensuring responders stay connected—even when commercial networks are congested.
Reuben Franklin, Director of Public Works, said, “FirstNet allows us to operate during very heavy pedestrian and visitation times for the city.”
The network also supports the ability to uplift extended primary users, like utilities and public works officials. This unique public safety feature temporarily gives these users the same priority on the network as traditional first responders.
“Since we've switched to FirstNet, they give us priority service and uplift our service during these events,” said Brandon Miller, St. Augustine IT director. “So we're able to keep that line of communication open and respond to issues quicker.”
FirstNet’s interoperability for mutual aid
During high-profile events like Nights of Lights, neighboring public safety agencies pitch in to help, including the state highway patrol, the county sheriff's office, county motor units, and the beach bike patrol. FirstNet provides coverage and capability for reliable communications with these partners.
“Our stable, dedicated service with [FirstNet] will help us communicate with our officers, as well as the officers that are helping us with mutual aid,” said Assistant Chief Cuthbert.
Because FirstNet is a nationwide public safety broadband network, first responder communications are not limited to jurisdictions or agencies. FirstNet allows everyone to communicate with each, no matter where they serve.
“We have a fantastic working relationship with our local partners—law enforcement and fire service and EMS,” said Carlos Aviles, Chief of the St. Augustine Fire Department. “Having a very broad coverage area for those folks to be able to communicate is really important to us.”
The benefits of 5G
St. Augustine weighed the options before switching to FirstNet. The city wanted a network that provides fast and reliable service.
“5G capability was a big motivator for us to move over to FirstNet,” said Chief Aviles. “In the past we've had issues with the ability to transmit data, even something as simple as receiving a text message. Or our mobile data terminals wouldn't work. We have not had any of those issues since transitioning over to FirstNet and then 5G.”
Access to 5G is a major development for FirstNet. In April 2021, the FirstNet Authority Board directed investments to upgrade FirstNet for 5G. Subscribers now have access to 5G in many markets across the country, and more spectrum is being deployed. The benefits of 5G for public safety communications include peak data speeds, higher throughput capability, and improved latency.
FirstNet makes the difference
FirstNet has made an impact in public safety communications for St. Augustine, especially after first responders experienced dropped calls and spotty service before switching.
“It works out great for us to be able to communicate … and know that we have the support to keep us fully staffed and fully serviced,” said Officer Brown. “That makes a major difference in public safety, not only just for Nights of Lights.”
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