Episode 60 | FirstNet Enables Enhanced Disaster Assessments, Faster Recovery in Alabama
Bruce Fitzgerald, FirstNet Authority Senior Emergency Management Expert
Shawn Rogers, Director, Cherokee County Emergency Management Agency, Alabama
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.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Welcome to the Public Safety First podcast! I'm Bruce Fitzgerald. I'm the Senior Public Safety Advisor for Emergency Management at the FirstNet Authority. Today, I'll be speaking with Shawn Rogers, the Director of the Cherokee County Emergency Management Agency [EMA] in Alabama. We’ll be talking about how his agency is using FirstNet and how broadband-supported technologies are helping speed up damage assessments after disasters strike in Alabama.
Shawn, it’s great to have you here today. Can you start by telling us a little bit about your background – what you do, how long you’ve been in public safety, and your role with the Cherokee County EMA?
Shawn Rogers: So, I started in 2005 at the sheriff's office. I worked in the jail for a little over a year and I was promoted to patrol deputy, done that for about four years and then was promoted to a narcotics investigator. And in 2014, our narcotics and criminal investigations combined together, and I was one of the original members of our major crimes unit. So, seven years total in investigations. And also, during that time, I handled the communication for the sheriff's office. And then in 2017, I was appointed by the Cherokee County Commission as the Director of Emergency Management, Homeland Security. During that 13, 14-year period, I was also in the fire service. I've served as a fire chief with a local municipal department, done that for a little over a year until I was appointed director of emergency management. So, now I oversee emergency management and I have a great relationship with all of our public safety partners.
Bruce Fitzgerald: That’s great. Sounds like you've worn all the public safety hats. Can you tell us a little bit about Cherokee County — the population, the geography, and the hazards that you normally plan for in any given year?
Shawn Rogers: We've got a 33,000 acre lake that separates right through the middle of the county. And we've got 447 miles of shoreline. We've got numerous U.S. highways, state highways that comes through the county, and our population in the off months is about 26,000. During the spring and summertime months, we double in population because of our lake area. We have a lot of campgrounds and part time residents that come during the summer months. So, it's nothing for us to see 50 or 60,000 during those months as the weather gets nice.
To go from the southern end of the county to the northern end of the county, you're looking at probably an hour to an hour and 15 minutes. So, geographically, our county's kind of long and we border Chattooga, Floyd, and Polk County in Georgia, and then Dekalb County, Alabama, Etowah, Calhoun, and Cleburne all in Alabama. So, we've got a lot of neighbors.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Got it. So, it sounds like there are a lot of other jurisdictions you have to work with and plan alongside. Is there mutual aid between all of those counties?
Shawn Rogers: There is. We have some good mutual aid agreements in place. Multiple times a year, depending on what it is, we have mutual aid response from those counties that come in to help us, especially during the 2019 flood. And that's one that stands out. We had a historic flood in 2019 and I had emergency management personnel from both Etowah and Calhoun County here in my EOC [emergency operations center] with me. So, you know, neighbors helping neighbors is a big thing for us.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Well, that’s the name of the game, isn’t it? Especially in rural areas. So, Shawn, one of the things that we wanted to talk about today was your process for doing damage assessments. Specifically, how FirstNet has helped you to speed that up and be more efficient in how you collect damage assessment information. Could you start by sharing the old process and how you used to do this? And now that you have FirstNet, how are you conducting damage assessments today?
Shawn Rogers: We would go out with our ink pens and our notepads or clipboards and you would just jot the information down and hope it didn't rain on it or you lose it between the vehicle and getting back to the office. FirstNet, right after Alabama opted in and you know, the program got up and going, we adopted FirstNet at the Emergency Management Agency and we was kind of, we'll call it a pilot program for our county to see how it worked. I like to try things out and make sure it works well before pushing it out to our first responders. So, in 2018, we swapped over to FirstNet and immediately saw how beneficial it was going to be to our not only planning and preparing, but our response, mitigation, and recovery. So, talking about the damage assessments, we historically, prior to FirstNet, if we went out into the field, we would visit residences that were affected or talk to victims and we would hand write that information down and come back to the office and then compile it into a computer system. Now, with FirstNet, we have damage assessment software. And I used it toward the end of the flood in the recovery process and especially with the FEMA paperwork, because everything you do is in line with what FEMA is looking for for reimbursement. So, now instead of the pen and paper, we go out with our connected devices, and we're able to document in the program from those devices, take photos, upload those into the program, and as soon as the program syncs, the state emergency operations center and state EMA has full visibility of what we've got going on in the counties. So, it has been a tremendous addition to our capabilities or abilities to get our citizens taken care of. So, it's, everything we run as far as the Emergency Management Agency and most of our law enforcement agencies and fire service, they have FirstNet devices as well. So, it just works really smoothly.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Well, that’s a really great improvement, being able to share information in real time from the field right to your state EMA. Is FEMA looking at this data alongside the state, or is this all done pre-disaster declaration?
Shawn Rogers: We start the damage assessments pre-disaster declaration. That's what leads to the declaration. But in the program, they have a state reviewer area and then they have a FEMA reviewer area. So, once we get a declaration and we've got FEMA personnel assigned to that disaster, then all they have to do is log into the program and they have visibility of all that information as well.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Nice. Are you using it for just public damages or are you using it for private homes and businesses as well?
Shawn Rogers: Both. We're using it for public infrastructure under the public assistance, and we're using it for individual assistance as well.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Excellent. Have you used it enough to say that it has sped up the declaration process?
Shawn Rogers: Absolutely. When you've got 10 counties that are affected from, you know, a single event, whether it's a hurricane or a tornadic event, when you can get all of those counties around the same amount of time using the program to upload their damages, and state EMA is able to get that a lot quicker than us having to write it down on paper, come back to the office, transpose it back into a computer and then put together something to send them. They're able to look at that and the dollar value of the loss and they can see in real time where those affected areas are, the monetary damage, and then they can compile their reports to FEMA a lot quicker than historically.
Bruce Fitzgerald: It sounds like a big improvement. Do you use it just with your emergency management staff and your volunteers? Or are the police and fire departments helping you with collecting this information?
Shawn Rogers: That's a good question, because that's the great thing about it. Let's say we had a tornado affect Cherokee County, whatever teams I put together or we designate to go out and do assessments, all I have to do is create a username and a password, you download it on your device, on your cell phone, or your desktop or their laptop, their MDTs. Our law enforcement, most of them, carry two-in-ones, both tablet and laptop. So, all they've got to do is log in and if they pass by a residence and it's affected, they fill out some information, snap a photo or a couple of photos, hit submit, and it's shown live in our EOC. So, it's very user friendly and very versatile.
Bruce Fitzgerald: So, not a lot of training involved to get your users up to speed. It sounds like it’s a great force multiplier, and it allows you to have a lot more eyes and ears out there on the street.
Shawn Rogers: That's exactly correct.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Yeah, that’s great. And then, of course, the whole goal is speeding up the declaration process, making sure you can get assistance back to your towns and to your individual citizens as quickly as possible.
Shawn Rogers: Absolutely.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Wow, that's excellent. And congratulations on getting this new process in place. It sounds like it’s a big improvement over paper and clipboards and pens and pencils in the field.
I’d like to chat a little bit about FirstNet. You mentioned that you were an early adopter. Could you tell us what process you used to evaluate FirstNet and how you really came to the decision that you were going to adopt it fully?
Shawn Rogers: So, we're an all-hazards countywide agency. We deal with anything that can affect life, property, or the environment. If it can cause damage or physical harm or whatever it may be, we’re part of that response and mitigation. So, we got a couple of demo devices and for a couple of months, responding to different things across the county, we were able to see quickly that it was the direction we wanted to go. We're a rural county and we've got a lot of mountainous terrain, a lot of valleys and outcropping from our sites and different things. And I mean, we do have some areas that lack some coverage, but I think that's anywhere you go. Overall, we've seen that it was very beneficial to us and it was going to enhance our operations. And within a couple of months, we went ahead and swapped over. And we've been pleased ever since.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Well, that’s good to hear. Besides the damage assessments, what else has FirstNet allowed you to do? What new capabilities have you explored using the network?
Shawn Rogers: One big thing that that we do is we've got a drone program where if we have a missing persons or, you know, we've got a situation with law enforcement that they're needing aerial support or even damage assessments from the air with the drone, we're able to provide data to our smart controllers using FirstNet, and we're able to either livestream back to the EOC or we're able to pull in our maps onto the smart controller itself. And that's one thing that we wasn't able to do in the past, which greatly enhances our ability to share images and different things like that.
Outside of that, we have a fully integrated LMR [land mobile radio] P25 radio system that we've integrated into the enhanced push-to-talk [EPTT]. We've got six or seven 9-1-1 talk groups integrated in right now, and we have developed a completely redundant communication system outside of our P25 if it were to fail, which is not very often, but if it were to, we have means for the 9-1-1 center to get on the web-based dispatch consoles. They can do that from anywhere. So, we, theoretically, we can take a laptop, connect to the network, sign in and pick up dispatching where we left off. And then the users have it on their mobile devices, so if something were to happen, they can swap over and hear and talk on their mobile devices the same way they would with their LMR radios. So, we've done a lot of different things.
We had a hazmat situation this morning and we were able to submit the pictures and the updates in WebEOC on scene while we were sitting in the middle of the road almost real time. Of course, we had to make sure it didn't get any into any waterways or storm drains first. But soon as we got that mitigated while we were waiting on the Alabama Department of Transportation to get there, I went ahead and submitted all my reports and everything to everybody from my truck. So, just, it makes it really nice and convenient.
Bruce Fitzgerald: That’s awesome. Those are great use cases, besides the damage assessments we were talking about earlier. You know, the ability to share the drone footage and share the awareness with all of your responders. I think the steps you’re taking for redundancy with your LMR network is fantastic, too. Do you have talk groups or mutual aid capability with these other counties that surround you? And are they all FirstNet users built into the system as well?
Shawn Rogers: Yes, ones who are FirstNet users, I have their talk groups, they have my talk groups, and we've got them put in as external users and all I've got to do is turn them on in the corporate admin tool and we're ready to go. So, the interoperability piece is there. So, I think if, the next disaster we do have, if those mutual aid resources are here, I think it's going to be extremely beneficial to our communications because, you know, I'm a firm believer in communications being the key to everything and without communication, all else fails. That's a principle that I stand behind and always have. So, most of our issues is with communications and we're able to overcome most of those with FirstNet.
Bruce Fitzgerald: So, I know that you personally went to Baldwin County to help them with a response. Could you talk a little bit about how FirstNet service was beneficial to your deployment in another county? Were you able to access data, share information, and operate the same way in Baldwin County as you would have been able to at home?
Shawn Rogers: Absolutely. When I went to Baldwin, it was a seven-day deployment. We actually drove down the day or the afternoon the hurricane was still affecting Baldwin County and we kind of drove through it on the way down there. Once I arrived at the EOC, they already had a SatCOLT there. So, once I got to the EOC and got set up, everything unpacked and set up for my seven day stay, from day one, I never lost connectivity. The SatCOLT was there. It was providing what we were needing at the EOC. We were able to communicate back and forth to some of the responders out in the field. You know, there was a large power outage throughout the area, which is typical with any hurricane. But we were on generator power and there was so many personnel at the EOC and devices that, you know, the bandwidth on their internal network was bogged down and with us being able to utilize Band 14 off the SatCOLT, we never missed a beat. I was actually able, using the EPTT and text message, I was able to communicate back to my public information officer here in Cherokee County who was assisting us from here while I was down there. We gave him access to their social media accounts and he was helping them push messages out to the public from Cherokee County. And we were able to communicate between each other over the FirstNet network. So, I mean, it really made things very nice because I didn't have to worry about it.
Bruce Fitzgerald: That's perfect, and that was actually going to be my next question. So, did you have your LMR system tied in, and were you able to talk to your radios back in Cherokee County?
Shawn Rogers: The whole time.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Perfect.
Shawn Rogers: It was pretty neat because I was sitting down there and, you know, in their EOC and I put my earbuds in and I turned my EPTT on while I was doing some stuff on the computer and I was listening to our traffic back home. So, I was, you know, maintaining situational awareness from my own county while working, you know, 4-500 miles away in another county.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Well, that's a huge benefit. You're staying in touch with what's happening back at home, but you're also able to get extra help for a county where you're deployed. I thinking being able to distribute your workload to other folks that can be helpful using the network is pretty amazing.
Shawn Rogers: Yeah, it was. No complaints here.
Bruce Fitzgerald: So, let’s come back to your operations in Cherokee County. Can you tell us more about how you communicate with the state EOC when there’s a disaster? How do you share data and make sure you’re communicating everything effectively?
Shawn Rogers: Any time there's a disaster that's affecting our county and we're communicating with the state EOC, we have a couple of different things that that we do to get that communication through. I will create a either a Google doc or a Google sheet, and I will share that with the state EOC as a situation report. So, I will create that WebEOC entry, I'll drop the link in it and they can pull it up in their EOC at the state level and see truly real time as we're typing in our reports exactly what's going on in Cherokee County. So, that eliminates a lot of the need for voice communication because we're able to take care of that over the data side and they're able to see that practically as it's happening. As our 9-1-1 center is getting the 9-1-1 calls in and I'm seeing those come up on our CAD screen, our personnel is inputting that into our situation report. And state EOC can see that as it's happening. So, it's a pretty unique way that we do it. But I think overall it provides that situational awareness to a level that we haven't been able to do before.
Bruce Fitzgerald: I like that. And that, again, is something you can do from the field, either on a laptop or a tablet or whatever device you're using, as long as you've got connectivity.
Shawn Rogers: Smartphone, MDT in my truck. I mean, I can do anything in my truck that I can do in the EOC because of the FirstNet connectivity that we have in the vehicle. So, any computer that I need to access in the EOC, we've got remote access built in. I can dispatch from my truck through the CAD system and the radio system using the EPTT Web Dispatch Console and then the remote into the CAD system. So, I really can't think of anything that I can't do mobile that I can do in the EOC.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Shawn, is there anything else you’d like add? Anything that you think would be helpful for folks that are listening to our podcast today?
Shawn Rogers: I just appreciate FirstNet for giving me the opportunity to share our uses. And I hope it helps some someone else in another county that has some challenges that they're looking for solutions for.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Shawn, thank you so much for sharing all of this and all of these use cases with our audience. Sounds like you’re covering a lot of bases in Cherokee County, so we really appreciate you spending some time with us today. And I just want to say congratulations on your efforts to improve your disaster assessment process and speed things up for your citizens. It sounds like you’re really making the technology work for you and your community.
Shawn Rogers: 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 FirstNet.gov and learn about FirstNet products and services at FirstNet.com.