Episode 65 | FirstNet: keeping the oldest city in the country connected
Bruce Fitzgerald, FirstNet Authority Emergency Management Expert
Dee Brown, Officer, St. Augustine Police Department, Florida
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, senior public safety advisor at the First Responder Network Authority. Today, I'm honored to be joined by Officer Dee Brown from St. Augustine, Florida. Officer Brown is the public information officer for the St. Augustine Police Department. And under his leadership, the City of St. Augustine adopted FirstNet last year, including the police and fire departments and other city agencies. We're so honored to have you on the podcast today. Thanks for joining us, Officer Brown.
Officer Dee Brown: Thank you for having me.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Could you just give us a little bit of background on yourself? You've got an extensive career in law enforcement. Tell us about yourself and how you got here today.
Officer Dee Brown: A little bit about me and my career. So, believe it or not, I was in education for 15 years prior to law enforcement, and I've always wanted to be an officer just because my youth football coaches were all police officers, and I was just tired of being in the classroom. But I started out on the street, and with my history and education and communications, I ended up as the public information officer [PIO]. And that's how I'm here today, speaking with you guys.
Bruce Fitzgerald: That's great. Thank you for your contributions on both sides. Could you tell us a little bit about the City of St. Augustine and why you decided to adopt FirstNet?
Officer Dee Brown: So, that's interesting and that's a great question. So, the City of St. Augustine, the city itself is roughly about 15- 17,000 residents. But the unique part about our small city is we deal with about 8 to 9 million tourists a year and that's year-round. There's not a peak season. It's constantly tourists all day, every day. So, with everything this city has to offer, the tourism, the beaches, the waterway, the Bayfront, the fort, it's a great place to visit. The network we were on prior to FirstNet, we had a lot of dropped calls and our VPN as far as our MDTs [mobile data terminals] and our computers in the cars would drop often, and we haven't had that at all since we switched over to FirstNet. So, it was a need for change and FirstNet has helped us out tremendously.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Could you just describe for us all of the different agencies in St. Augustine that are using FirstNet?
Officer Dee Brown: Yes, absolutely. So, police and fire, of course. We also have our I.T. Department, City Manager – so, the whole city management, senior management of the city, our fleet, public works, utilities, parking.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Nice. What can you tell us a little bit about the process that you went through in, I guess, evaluating and selecting FirstNet that led you to make that move?
Officer Dee Brown: Hurricane Michael was 2018, but Florida had just been hit in 2017 by Hurricane Irma and still had not recovered. And so, we sent a deployment team out to Bay County, which is in the Panhandle, Lynn Haven, Florida. And it was a disaster. It looked like a third world country. You know, its food and everything been dropped off. Tons of agencies spread out throughout the whole Panhandle. But we were designated to Bay County in Lynn Haven, Florida, and no cellular service at all. But luckily FirstNet was out there and had, and they were tremendous to be able to share devices for us to be able to communicate. And that was our form of communication out there in Bay County was FirstNet. It was the only thing that was operating and the only communication that any agency had in the Panhandle. And so, 2018 was definitely eye opener for our agency, especially those that were deployed out there. And I know all the agencies in the Panhandle, you know, not being able to speak with your loved ones and no way, no means to communicate. And these deployment teams were out on the ground going house to house to make sure people were okay and had, that just basic needs were met or make sure people were evacuated. But still, there was no way, no forms of communication other than FirstNet. So that definitely made us a believer and, kind of, molded the way for the process. And so, that kind of painted the picture for us and it made sense to start transitioning, or at least to have that conversation, you know, what is FirstNet and how can it help us?
Bruce Fitzgerald: I know that FirstNet was right out in front, kind of leading the way and getting the networks back up and running during that event. And I think it was an eye opener for a lot of agencies. They got to see it in action for the first time.
Officer Dee Brown: Absolutely. That was the start of what has become a wonderful relationship between FirstNet and the City of St. Augustine. So, we started out with city and fire, personal cell phones, a few fire department firefighters and a few officers switched over. They had a few years to try FirstNet out with some of the big events that we have going on in the city. And I'll tell you, it was unbelievable to see the way they were still able to navigate through their cellular devices and their laptops and tablets. So, that was wonderful. And that was three years ago. Last year, in July, we were able to bring on the rest of the city to the FirstNet family.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Excellent. That leads me right to my next question. With all the other city agencies that you guys work with, how do you think the value has increased just by being able to communicate with all of the other city bureaus? Whether it's police, fire, EMS, public works, I.T., your city administration. I mean, you must need to talk with them every day for something, right?
Officer Dee Brown: You know, it's hard to have a conversation when you're constantly having dropped calls. And so, now that we're on the FirstNet family. It makes communication a lot easier, especially some of these buildings are older and it's unique. I mean, I don't know how this happens or how it works. I know it works for us, but it's definitely intriguing to see how we're able to now communicate and not have spotty service throughout the city. So, that's a big help. I know public works, it works tremendously. Public safety in general, it works out great for us just to be able to communicate in the event that there is a disaster and know that we have the support to keep us fully staffed and fully serviced.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Well, if I remember my St. Augustine trivia, you're the oldest city in the country, so it's not like you're going to go and retrofit all these buildings.
Officer Dee Brown: Right, and it's also water, so tons of bad weather. Hurricane season is upon us now and, you know, it's great to have this family of this network because we have firsthand, were able to experience in the Panhandle where FirstNet was the only network, the only means of communication in the Panama City area. We were deployed out there, some of our officers were deployed out there and they had to switch their FirstNet devices to be able to communicate. And we saw it firsthand. So, that's what, kind of, what made me a believer as well.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Yeah. Just being able to coordinate between your agencies and with that many people there, it's got to be quite a challenge. And I would think that seeing is believing, right?
Officer Dee Brown: I have a great example. Last year was Nights of Lights. Our fire Chief [Chris] Pacetti, good friend of mine, I was trying to send pictures to him, and I could not send anything to let him see what the crowd was like and where I needed them to bring their side by side to stage. And I walked over to him. He sent some videos through his laptop. He had all these apps open and streams open, and I was like, how are you doing that? And he was like, FirstNet. I'm still able to navigate through everything I need to on this service, and that's what made me switch. And I immediately switched over my personal phone to FirstNet.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Officer Brown, could you just explain a little more for our audience about what the Nights of Lights celebration is?
Officer Dee Brown: So, the Nights of Lights celebration is this amazing light display. It is rated in the top ten Christmas light displays in the country, so the entire city is lit up. And then when I tell you the waterfront city, you have to visit the City of St. Augustine to understand the dynamic. It's a beautiful city without lights, but when you add the lights, you know, the entire city comes out. I would say hundreds of thousands come to visit throughout that two-month period. But for the night, the actual night, I would say it's thousands and thousands of people.
Bruce Fitzgerald: That sounds amazing. Can you tell us a little more about how all of the city agencies participate? Because it sounds like a huge challenge just to keep tabs on all of the people that are there and make sure that you're able to do an effective response.
Officer Dee Brown: On the actual night, the opening night, we've got about 20,000 people that attend, and so this is a big deal. So, we do bring in surrounding agencies to help us. So, we have Florida Fish and Wildlife, so FWC, Florida Highway Patrol is FHP, St. John's County Sheriff's Office. We bring in Flagler County Motor Units, St. John's County Motor Units and St. Augustine Beach, we bring their bike patrol and we always put one of their officers with one of ours because we are now, especially with us being on FirstNet and the other agencies possibly not switching over yet. It's a big event. So, fire, city fire, St. John's County Fire comes and helps out as well and our main goal is to keep everyone safe. So, FirstNet plays a huge part.
Bruce Fitzgerald: What kinds of responses typically come up in an event that size?
Officer Dee Brown: So, in this particular event, we relate to, you know, kids being lost, you know, losing their parents for a split second. And I forgot to mention, we also have St. John's County Sheriff here that helps us out as well. We have some slip and falls, medical dehydration, unfortunately, public intoxication. So, we deal with that on the law enforcement side. And then just, you know, when people are drinking and in the sun, and all day, you know, you have a few altercations, but nothing major. And so, those are the type of incidents that we deal with. And luckily, we haven't had any major incidences the years that I've been here, at least that I know of.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Oh, that's good.
Officer Dee Brown: You kno, we may have some boaters in distress that haven't navigated the intracoastal or the inlets or the waterways of St. Augustine. So, they kind of drift away and lose a sense of direction. So, our marine units go out and make sure everyone on the water is safe as well.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Nice. Are you working with the Coast Guard, as well, when you're doing that?
Officer Dee Brown: The Coast Guard, they are on standby. But we have so many marine units that, resources that are just right there downtown St. Augustine, like I said, FWC, which is Florida Fish and Wildlife, they are on the waterway. St. John's County Sheriff's Office marine units on the waterway. St. Augustine Police Department and St. Augustine Fire Department marine units are on the waterway. And so, having everyone on one accord on emergency procedures is awesome to have. Also, Customs and Border Patrol, they have marine units on standby.
Bruce Fitzgerald: What kind of applications do you use either at the police department or between some of the other agencies where you're sharing information? And I'm thinking of maybe location apps or even like common operating picture applications where you can see what's going on across the whole city and where people are.
Officer Dee Brown: Well, so, as far as across the city, like we live stream a lot through Facebook because that's typically how we are able to reach a bigger magnitude of people. And so, that's one of the main streams our social media is how we're all tied together. And we also have our computer system, fire and police side, it's tied together. We have the same dispatch center. So, they're able to see us now. It’s quite impressive and I think we're all satisfied across the board.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Could you tell us a little bit more about how St. Augustine Police Department uses social media?
Officer Dee Brown: Absolutely. So as the public information officer, I manage all of our social media for the St. Augustine Police Department. Years ago, we thought it was a great idea. Several ways we use our social media – when there's a major event, we post the routes, the roadblocks that are going to happen. Also, when there are crashes, we distribute that information throughout all three of our platforms: Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, we distribute that information out, so those that can't see the news but always looking at their phone, they can see, "Okay, hey, on my route home or my travels through the city, I need to avoid these areas." We also attempt to contact or attempt to identify when there has been a crime committed – social media plays a huge part in how I'm able to post pictures or video of something that happened, and we are able to identify people. Our social media audience age ranges from, you know, teenagers to the elderly. Social media plays a huge part in the way we operate on law enforcement, and that's across the nation.
Bruce Fitzgerald: And it's a really powerful tool for mass communications.
Officer Dee Brown: Absolutely, because as a PIO, I tell people this all the time, "If your PIO is in the office all the time, what are they doing?" Because it's my job to build relationships throughout the community. And so, often when I make posts, I'm not in the office. So, to be able to have a device and a network that still allows me to have priority, especially to get out important information, it's huge for PIOs across the nation. For example, we had an incident in the city, and I was away, I was actually in another county, but I was able to get that information out, just the basics of the incident and what road closures were happening until I was able to get there and get a grasp of the entire situation. But again, FirstNet allowed me to have priority and be able to distribute that information.
Bruce Fitzgerald: That's excellent. So, talking about some of these big events, what would you be doing differently during those? How FirstNet might be helpful there.
Officer Dee Brown: Yes, absolutely. So, most people know that when there's a large event, even concerts, once everybody is in the same area, it's hard to pull up your tickets on, and I experience this last night at a graduation and at a concert earlier this week, you know, people aren't able to pull up their tickets because the network is overflowing. And so, that's going to be beneficial to us if we can't hear on our radios, we can always make that phone call and know that we can get through to each other to have whatever we need to distribute information. We also can send a group text or just make a phone call and say, "Hey, this is where I need you." Because there are times where it's so loud that you can't hear on the radio, even with an earpiece in, and it's just easier to make that phone call. And so, having priority on the network is beneficial to us all.
Bruce Fitzgerald: You know, AT&T has been doing a great job of leaning forward and pre-positioning assets, especially when a hurricane is in the forecast. And then we work with them and then we work with you as a stakeholder to make sure that you have the resources that you need. We've seen developments with the deployable program where we've gone from the satellite truck, the big truck, down to a trailer hitch mounted compact deployable, and then even some new in-building options. That might be something that, as we're talking about these really old buildings in St. Augustine, you know, maybe that's something that you could use in the future.
How about with your neighboring jurisdiction? So, outside of the city and the ability to be able to be interoperable with those other partners, whether they're bringing mutual aid to you or if you're providing mutual aid outside of St. Augustine.
Officer Dee Brown: Yes. I'm glad you touched on that. I was in a meeting for a big event across the nation, it's a law enforcement torch run. And one of the lieutenants, my chief and I went to this meeting, and he was talking about how his calls dropped every time he's in the City of St. Augustine. He asked the question specifically to my chief. "What service do you guys have and how are you always on the phone when I'm in the car with you or when we're talking?" And she says with a big smile on her face, "FirstNet." And that opened up another conversation to our neighboring jurisdictions, possibly in the process of making that transition as well. Like I said, hurricane season, different agencies ask for mutual aid. So, we're deployed wherever the hurricane hits. Boots on the ground as a PIO, I will go out and assist PIOs and other cities that have been hit. So, having FirstNet and not having to miss a beat on whether my service is going to be great or not is going to be huge for the State of Florida, at least. I know that for a fact.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Yeah, that's a great point. Whether you're doing in-state mutual aid or out-of-state mutual aid, I mean, FirstNet is a nationwide network. So, anywhere that you go, I mean, let's say that you even had to go to Texas or somewhere else for another hurricane. You know, as soon as you get there, you're back on FirstNet and you’re business as usual.
Officer Dee Brown: Right.
Bruce Fitzgerald: That's excellent. Throughout your career, and let's talk about either as a teacher or now in law enforcement, how do you think the evolution of communications and technology has made your job easier? And, specific to public safety, why do you think we need to keep making improvements to public safety communication?
Officer Dee Brown: Well, that's a great question, especially from both sides. Thinking about myself as a teacher, thinking about myself in law enforcement, you know, having FirstNet and ability to have the whole world at your hand and be able to not miss a beat is huge because everything is social media nowadays. Everything, no one, you know, my kid doesn't even have a TV in her room because everything is on her phone or tablet. So, the evolution of technology is huge in the way we learn and the way we operate businesses and the way we are as a nation. The technology and the improvement are always going to be amazing and help us tremendously through our evolution as humans. So, you know, that person that does not or never looks at the news with the ability to be able to look at their phone and say, "Oh, this is what's going on. I need to avoid the area," just that alone changes the game for technology.
Bruce Fitzgerald: So, Officer Brown, that's a great point about, you know, just the intersection of the public using their technology and public safety using the same types of tools to do their job and keep the public at large safe. We just had this great tragedy in Texas, and you've had tragedies similar in school shootings in Florida. How do you think that FirstNet and public safety communications in general can help to respond or help you as a responder and help educators who are inside the school to communicate better or to help keep their students safe?
Officer Dee Brown: You know, FirstNet is unique, and it goes back to something I said about when we can't talk on the radio or there's sometimes where we don't need to be on the radio because not every officer likes to wear an earpiece. So, that's where the cellular network comes in to benefit us. You know, you take a school shooting, for example, and you don't know where the person is, the suspect is. So, you may switch to phone and to be able to have that service, a lot of schools, you don't get great reception or great service. So, to be able to have FirstNet and you're going to have tons of parents calling, the networks are going to be flooded. So, it's a great asset to have a network where you still can get through and be on priority and even to be, for me as an example, as a public information officer, to be able to distribute information via social media and know that the message would be sent, and it would be posted, like, immediately. We won't miss a beat. That helps us out tremendously. That also helps out the city, that helps out the school to be able to get their messages out. So, it's very beneficial in this day and time in the crisis that we're going through in the country.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Yeah, for sure. And I'm also thinking of the location applications and some of those new tools that are coming out. You know, they're being made specifically for public safety and would allow you to see where the friendly forces are while you're trying to respond to, you know, possibly a very large building.
Officer Dee Brown: Absolutely. You know, you can never have too many resources when you're a first responder. And so, for an agency to be able to see where their officers are, and also, for a fire department, if they're responding to those agencies, to be able to know their location and know, "Okay, hey, that's a secure location. That's where we're going, we have to get to."
Bruce Fitzgerald: Yeah, exactly. As we close out this podcast, I wanted to ask if you had any advice for another city who is thinking about joining the FirstNet network? What would you tell them as they look to do a citywide adoption?
Officer Dee Brown: I would tell them it's a no brainer. Without a doubt. I would tell them to. If they're having, you know, if they're having thoughts about it, definitely reach out to a FirstNet representative nearby and have them come out and test some of the devices during one of their larger events and to see what the benefit that it will have for their community and their city and agencies.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Yeah. I think that's the theme of our podcast today. Seeing is believing.
Officer Dee Brown: Absolutely.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Is there anything else you'd like to share with our listeners?
Officer Dee Brown: Yeah, it's, you know, like I sing your praises. Like you said, seeing is believing is the podcast. And I am a true believer now. And I had to see it firsthand, but I'm glad we made the switch. So, not only do I have a FirstNet personal phone on the law enforcement side, but also my work phone as the PIO is also FirstNet. It's just great to have that reassurance for sure.
Bruce Fitzgerald: Excellent. All right. Officer Brown, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. It's been a privilege. We really appreciate your partnership, everything that you do for the people of St. Augustine, but also all the millions of visitors that are coming to see you every year.
Officer Dee Brown: Thank you. And I have to, again, I have to thank Dana and I have to thank our IT guy, Brandon, for making the, being the final piece to tie everything together, to adopt it as an entire city. So, thank you to both. And it was great speaking with you guys today.
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.