Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

FirstNet Satellite Cell on Light Truck, man operates forklift, Public Safety First podcast logo, crew of people unload boxes from flatbed truck, crew of people load supplies onto jet airplane

Episode 53: FirstNet Keeps Tribes Connected During the Pandemic


June 03, 2021

Broadband infrastructure can be sparse and inconsistent across many parts of Indian Country. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, this lack of infrastructure complicated efforts to provide tribes with critical food supplies and personal protective equipment. FirstNet deployable assets enabled the National Tribal Emergency Management Council to coordinate logistics and deliver millions of pounds of food and resources to tribes across the nation.


Adam Geisler
FirstNet Authority National Tribal Government Liaison

Lynda Zambrano
Executive Director, National Tribal Emergency Management Council



Narrator: You're listening to Public Safety First, a podcast to help you learn about the First Responder Network Authority and how you can be part of the future of public safety technology.

And now, your host.

Narrator: You're listening to Public Safety First, a podcast to help you learn about the First Responder Network Authority and how you can be part of the future of public safety technology.

And now, your host.

Adam Geisler: Hello, everybody, and welcome to another fun and exciting episode of Public Safety First, the tribal edition here with FirstNet. I'm Adam Geisler and I serve as one of two national tribal government liaisons with the First Responder Network Authority. And today, we're joined by Lynda Zambrano, who is serving as the executive director for the National Tribal Emergency Management Council. The National Tribal Emergency Management Council is a consortium of tribal nations that are working together to share information and promote emergency management best practices in Indian Country. So, we are really pleased to have Ms. Lynda Zambrano today to share a little bit about all the exciting work that their organization has been up to. And I want to say welcome, Lynda, and thank you again for the time and willingness to participate with us.

Lynda Zambrano: Thank you, Adam. Thank you for the opportunity as well.

Adam Geisler: Absolutely. We've always appreciated the relationship with NTEMC here at FirstNet, and it's always good to work with people that we've known for so long. So, Lynda, regarding the actual background of the organization, there's a lot of folks that are probably listening that have never experienced the services that NTEMC provides or probably aren't as familiar as you and I are. So, I'm hoping that you could share a little bit about the organization, but also share a little bit about yourself. I think you have a really unique perspective.

Lynda Zambrano: Thank you, Adam. I'm the executive director for the National Tribal Emergency Management Council, and I'm also the executive director for our local chapter, which is the Northwest Tribal Emergency Management Council.

I've been very fortunate. I feel very blessed and humbled every day that I've been in this position for the last 19 years. I do feel that I bring up a somewhat of a very unique perspective because my prior career was law enforcement. And over the years, I've also been a health director for three of our different tribal nations. Over the course of the years, I've become a grants writer and we have now literally brought in tens of millions of dollars of grant money into our tribal nations to help them build their infrastructure and their internal capacity to manage their own emergency management events. 

As for the National Tribal Emergency Management Council, we started out as a very small chapter 19 years ago with 8 tribal nations sitting around a table. Our tribal chief of police told me back then, "You're going to develop a Office of Emergency Management, you're going to continue to work with those other eight tribes. And I want you to help them get their offices of emergency management established as well." And so, over the course of the next two years, we were able to acquire a small grant. We were able to draft comprehensive emergency management plans and hazard mitigation plans, codes, laws, ordinances, all of the things that we needed to have to be state-recognized offices of emergency management. And as other tribes started to see what we were doing, we ended up going statewide. We then changed our charter and bylaws. We became an official 501(c)(3) in 2008. We brought on Alaska, Oregon, Idaho. We officially became the Northwest tribal chapter and in 2010, we created the National Tribal Emergency Management Council. And we're very proud to say that today, we are now working with all 573 tribal nations and, especially with COVID right now, we're providing response activities that we never envisioned that we would be doing 19 years ago. But the actual organization that we have and the infrastructure that we have created has helped us to facilitate our ability to move resources across the entire country and help our tribes during what is one of the most devastating events that we have seen, at least in my lifetime. And that's COVID-19.

Adam Geisler: You walked me down memory lane there for a minute as I was thinking about the progression that you made from where NWTEMC began and what NTEMC has become. And you guys are doing some really unique and incredible work. I'll also say that from the FirstNet side of things, when we came on board, myself and Margaret Gutierrez, to the federal side, it was a unique opportunity to try to bring in some tribal perspectives internally. And when there was an opportunity to build the Tribal Working Group for FirstNet, National Tribal Emergency Management Council and the Northwest Tribal Emergency Management Council were two of the first calls that we made because we knew we would have a good collaborative and honest partner about where things were and where things we were hoping could go with their support. So, it’s I think, again, just a really great story on how you have brought partnerships and provided insight into FirstNet and everything that we've done on the tribal working group. 

I want to, I want to take this a little bit further into the role of NTEMC and COVID. It's a hot topic right now across Indian Country. There's big impacts that have gone on. How has the coronavirus pandemic affected tribal nations across the country?

Lynda Zambrano: It's been devastating, absolutely devastating, Adam, from the very beginning. I live in Snohomish County and our organization is based in Snohomish County. And with my background and biology and chemistry, working in the health field, I knew immediately that COVID-19 could be a tremendously huge threat to this entire country. And the fact that we have 29 federally recognized tribes and some very large enterprises and operations that are ran by our tribal nations, large gatherings of people, I knew that we could potentially be facing a pretty serious threat right out of the gate. So literally, the National Emergency Management Council has been actively engaged in COVID-19 response since day one. And we have worked very hard in pushing out messaging to our tribal nations, making sure that they're getting current and accurate information, following the science, making sure that if our tribal nations are in need of any type of resources, that we're able to secure resources for them and share those resources amongst all our tribal nations. We're doing everything that we can to combat COVID-19 on the front lines. And for those that are not aware, COVID has really impacted our tribal nations to the extent that we're 2.7 times greater at contracting the COVID-19 than any other population in the United States. And so, that's why we knew once it got into our tribal nations that it would explode. And so, that is really what we have been working hard to prevent over the last several months.

Adam Geisler: You did a great job in explaining the, the devastating impact, as well as the increased likelihood of native communities contracting it versus other communities, and how is that impacting the communications capabilities of first responders that are on the front lines with you in the response activities? And so how is that communication working?

Lynda Zambrano: In rural America, we do not have communication. So, when we initially set up our incident command in the location that was best suited for us to serve the tribal nations, we had no phone connectivity. We had no internet connectivity. We had no way of sending data or photos. And unfortunately, many of our tribal nations had no way of contacting us to let us know what they needed.

And so, we were very, very grateful to FirstNet right out of the gate again when we set up our incident command. We were able to make a simple phone call to FirstNet and request a deployable to be sent to our location. And within 24 hours they were able to establish communications for us. We were able to access the internet and get our emails out, and we were able to start communicating with our most critical partners for the actual response to COVID-19. And that's all of our first responders. That was all of our management team. And that was all the people that were working on the floor to make sure that all of those resources were getting out to the tribes.

They also established push-to-talk for us. One Saturday, we had 170 volunteers come out to an 840-acre parcel of land. We work about 31 acres of it for the incident command, but it was very difficult prior to the communications arriving to be able to make sure that everyone was where they were at, and doing what they needed to be doing. And once we were able to establish communications, we were actually able to increase our efficiency as a team and work collectively using communications to make sure that our response was effective.

Adam Geisler: So, you covered a little bit about the initial response. You had some challenges initially even communicating within your region, but as this communication capabilities came on board, how has the FirstNet solution and the deployables also helped in your response more broadly outside of the northwest region?

Lynda Zambrano: Being able to send those deployables out to those nations allowed for them to communicate directly with us. Prior to them having those communications, they were unable to even contact us to let us know what resources that they needed. And so by establishing communications with the nations, they were able to get that information directly to us, expediting our ability to respond to those nations and address their needs that much more quickly. We're so accustomed in Indian Country to working without communication. And our response is delayed. We know that when it comes to saving lives, time matters. And so by establishing these lines of communication so early, we were able to start deploying the resources that were necessary to help save people's lives.

Adam Geisler: I think you just highlighted a really critical component of this, which is in order to have a effective response, it really starts with communication. And so I'm happy to hear that the FirstNet deployables was a solution, that, that worked not only for your immediate needs and response within the northwest region, but more broadly across the country and how you were able to bridge that communications gap. 

So we know that you have an operation going there, 31 acres, you said. Wow, that's huge. What is occurring there and what kind of partnerships have you established in the region to help meet this big demand that's out there today across Indian Country with COVID?

Lynda Zambrano: Adam, this is, this is the most remarkable back story that I think when we are all said and done that people will find so fascinating. I was working directly with one of our local tribal nations who, from the very start, chose to close their borders all together. When they closed their borders, they're very remote. They are an hour-and-a-half from the closest city that they could send people to go grocery shopping or get just day-to-day supplies and to the fact that they had a small grocery store that was on reservation, but that grocery store took the price of a hamburger from $2.99 to $10.99 a pound. And the tribal members were finding it very difficult to have that access just day-to-day supplies. So, what happened was their general manager was up watching television at three o'clock in the morning, worried about how he's going to feed his people when he sees an ad for Farmer Frog, an organization in Woodinville, Washington, that was distributing large quantities of potatoes and onions. So, he reached out and asked if they would be willing to send food to the reservation and meet them at the border. At that point, that same general manager called us, the National Tribal Emergency Management Council, to see if we had resources to deliver those supplies to the tribe. And of course, we jumped into action immediately. We went down to Woodinville. We met with the farm. We loaded up, in our first load, 700 pounds of potatoes and onions along with some PPE that we had — some face masks and gloves and gowns — and we brought them out to the tribe.

And so we explored that and started contacting tribal nations throughout the state to see if they had a need for food. Before we knew it, we were delivering hundreds of thousands of pounds of food to the tribes throughout the state. And so, we're now proud to announce that we have delivered 38.5 million pounds of food to Indian Country, as well as seven million dollars worth of personal protective equipment. That includes a very generous $900,000 donation from AT&T to make sure that we had the PPE that we needed to get out to our tribal communities. And we are still, today, going strong, delivering food and PPE every single day. 
Adam Geisler: Is there anything you want to share about the airlift operation that you're running as well?

Lynda Zambrano: Sure. So, we partnered with our Washington DART group, which is a volunteer group of pilots. When we were done, we had 101 pilot volunteer their aircraft, volunteer their aviation assets, and their time to help us to deliver food throughout the entire region. And now, today, we're coordinating with the California and Oregon DART, along with the Washington DART, and we're creating this volunteer highway in the sky, so that if anything like this ever happens again in the future, we will be able to continue to move the resources that are necessary to move.

It has been a tremendous effort by thousands of people between the pilots, the ground crew, all of the tribal emergency managers, all of the volunteers that have helped pack food, move food, deliver food. Again, just a humbling experience to be a part of such a large team of people that come together, free and willing to share their time and, and their resources to make sure that we're taking care of all of our neighbors across the board.

Adam Geisler: What's so incredible to me about this, everything that's going on with NTEMC is the level of partnerships, the variety of partnerships that you're leveraging in order to meet the needs for tribes all over the country. You have a really interesting story around how you're trucking the supplies around. You have the airlift components that you've worked in as well. And then, a donation from AT&T. And I did want to pick your brain about that. What was it like when you got the phone call?

Lynda Zambrano: I had no idea. I had no idea at all. And I about fell off the couch. So, I could not have been any happier for the tribes because the tribal nations, they are the recipients of all of these donations and everything that comes in, we try to get it back out the door as quickly as possible because again, like I said earlier, time is of the essence with COVID-19. And we have just lost far too many people across the nation. We knew that the delivery of these supplies was critical. And so, the quicker we could turn that around and get it out, the better for all involved. And that allowed us to be able to help so many more tribes, so many more. It was just amazing to go from being able to help one tribal nation to 50 tribal nations to now helping tribes across a 35-state area. It's been a blessing.

Adam Geisler: It's so cool to hear the partnerships, whether it's airplanes, trucking, I mean, you got, I imagine you got some sort of maritime operation kicking around in the canoes up there, too. You do, don't you?

Lynda Zambrano: Adam, Adam, I have to tell you that this week we have 15 semi-truck loads of supplies that are going to Alaska villages. So we are now currently working with the Alaska State Office of Emergency Management to have all of that supplies that's going to Anchorage, moved to Bethel and from Bethel, we will be working with the villagers themselves to get all the supplies out to well over 50 villages in Alaska.

The work that is being done, the partnerships that we have built and the generosity of people during a national disaster has just been amazing. So, with the maritime I thought I'd better throw that in there just to let you know, we have not forgotten our brothers and sisters in Alaska and we are about to embark on a very large donation of supplies that will travel up to some villages that are very much in need of those supplies right now.

Adam Geisler: It's planes, trains and automobiles. You got the full operation, rockin' and rollin', and I love it. So, you know, let's spend a second, if we could, on the, there's been a lot of external messaging that you've had to do to get people to understand the need. But I was hoping you could share a little bit about how you've worked on the internal tribal focused messaging around effective use of PPE or how to keep each other safe.

Lynda Zambrano: Sure. So, the Washington State Department of Health is another one of our partners, and I would be remiss if I did not mention that they did give us a small grant and it was a language-based grant to allow for our team here to convert public service announcements into native languages. What we did was we, for the Pacific Northwest, we converted a large number of our public service announcements into the Salish language, Salishan language for the Pacific Northwest. And with that, we were then able to make fliers, attach them with some of our food boxes, and then distribute those out with the food boxes so that we were assuring that our native speaking membership was able to acquire those public service announcements right along with the boxes of food that they were acquiring. We also put that out on all of our website and social media platforms and within a short period of time there, we also flooded our social media with approximately 450 postings, making sure that if another tribe converted anything into their native language, that we were able to share that broadly and widely. Most of the messaging is really around precautionary safety measures: social distancing, wear a mask, wash hands. And, and we'll see how that messaging continues to move forward as we continue to respond to COVID-19.

Adam Geisler: Thank you for sharing that component. That's not always an easy thing to do. So, hats off to you for that.

So, as we wind this thing out is if you could share a little bit about the experience that you've had, because I think it's an honest perspective. You guys have been great about giving us good, constructive feedback about things that we're doing well and things that we can improve upon. And I know that there's a lot of tribes out there that just aren't sure about who we are over at FirstNet. I'm hoping you could share a little bit about your feedback and perspective on, on working with FirstNet.

Lynda Zambrano: So, if I were to give anyone advice in regards to working with FirstNet, my very first piece of advice would be engage. You must engage. If you have questions, ask your questions and get your answers. There are not enough tools that you can have in your toolbox when it comes to communication. And FirstNet provides another really important set of tools for our first responders.

I know personally from working in a tribal police department for as long as I did that we suffered from lack of communication for far too many years. And I truly see that this particular network is something that could solve a lot of problems for Indian Country across the entire nation and provide such a critical component of communications that we all need to have for our first responders. And so, again, my most important message would be to engage, to ask your questions. You've been very responsive. You get back to us in a very timely manner.

And although when we started, we did have a lot of what I felt were challenges that needed to be addressed, but we've been able to bring forth our questions in a very open and honest and transparent way. And we've been able to work with you building that relationship over the years. And here we are many, many years later, and deploying the FirstNet resources in as many areas as we can. And right now, in the midst of COVID-19, we've been able to show how this relationship and the equipment that's being deployed is able to help our tribes save lives.

Adam Geisler: Which is, I think, the goal we all have every day when we wake up, right. How can we serve our community and really protect the people that we, that we care for and love. So, with that being said, where do you see or how do you see the FirstNet service changing the communications landscape in Indian Country?

Lynda Zambrano: It's absolutely a game changer. I mean, I remember years ago when literally, and I mean literally, officers that would be on foot pursuit chasing after a very dangerous person and not be able to have radio to radio communication, not be able to reach the dispatch center, you know, shouting at one another just to try to get messaging back and forth. And, and that is absolutely no exaggeration. And so, to be able to drive to that same area now and have cellular reception, have the ability to text, have the ability to push-to-talk, have the ability to communicate with a 9-1-1 or communication center. It's critical. It's absolutely critical. It's critical for the safety of our first responders and it's critical for the safety of our community. So, when you ask me that question, the first response that comes to my mind is game changer.

Adam Geisler: Well, I appreciate the feedback and the honest partnership that we've had with NTEMC. And so, what is it that you'd want to share with our listeners before we wind out the discussion today?

Lynda Zambrano: So, I think that some of the most important things that I want to share is that our organization respects tribal sovereignty first and foremost. The reason that we were formed was because we do not believe that other people should be coming into Indian Country to sit in the driver's seat of a tribe's disaster and tell the tribe how they should manage their own disaster. It should be done internally with the tribe. And so we fight day after day to help our tribal nations establish strong emergency management programs with the tribes in the driver's seat managing their own disasters. We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The majority of our work is funded by federal grants. So, there's never a fee or a charge to a tribal nation for the resources that we provide.

Just this past fall when we were driving through some of the tribal nations, we stopped at one tribe and said, "We want to bring you four semi truckloads of food a week." And the chairman said, "Well, how much is that going to cost?" And we said, "It's going to be free because it's coming from the USDA and it's going to be farm fresh food. And it's not going to be commodity, but it's going to be fresh lettuce and celery and potatoes and onions and meat and dairy products and we'll bring these products to you weekly from now until the end of the year." And he said, "OK, so what is the shipping going to cost us on that?" And I said, "The shipping is covered, sir. It's absolutely covered." And to be able to bring that kind of news to the tribal nations and to let them know that if they chose to close their borders to protect the membership and to keep COVID out and to try to minimize the impacts of COVID, we wanted them to know that we were there to help them with the resources that they needed to best protect their people. And so, those are a few of the things that I would like to share.

I'd also like for anyone that is listening to know how to contact us. So, we've got a web site at, and then we also have our local chapters that have websites as well. And so, with our chapter in the Pacific Northwest, we do have the You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.

I really believe that a lot of the work that we have done and will continue to do will continue to save lives. I again, I'm so humbled. I'm honored. It's been a great pleasure to spend this time with you, Adam. And I just want to emphasize my greatest gratitude to the thousands of people that volunteer every single day to help NTEMC do what we do. So, thank you.

Adam Geisler: Absolutely, Lynda. And thank you again to the NTEMC board and delegates that we've had the chance to interact with for your continued contribution to the needs of public safety emergency managers. And with that, I want to thank all the listeners that have jumped in to join us today to hear another tribal edition of the Public Safety First podcast with the First Responder Network Authority. I'm Adam Geisler again, the National Tribal Government Liaison with the First Responder Network Authority. And again, I want to thank you. No$úun Lóoviq. My heart is good. And everybody have a great rest of your day. Thank you again, Lynda.

Lynda Zambrano: Thank you.

Narrator: Thanks for listening today. We're excited to have you join our podcast community. Make sure to subscribe on iTunes, SoundCloud, and YouTube. You can learn more about the First Responder Network Authority at and learn about FirstNet products and services at