Local officials press for better emergency communications net
By Ann McCreary
In the three years since the Carlton Complex Fire burned 420 square miles in the Methow Valley, knocking out power and disrupting most forms of communication for more than a week, Soo Ing-Moody has become a crusader for improved communications in the Methow Valley — especially for emergency responders.
As mayor of Twisp, Ing-Moody has been asked to speak to state conferences and before committees to share the many ways communications failed during the most urgent times, leaving frantic citizens unable to call 911, first responders unable to communicate with dispatch or each other, and community leaders like herself struggling to respond during the disaster.
“During the 2014 breakdown in communications, I couldn’t reach the police chief to initiate Level 2 evacuation, due to the cell towers being overwhelmed — I had to find him in person on the street, then have staff go door-to-door,” Ing-Moody said.
The next year, the Twisp River and the Okanogan Complex fires again demonstrated communications failures, with loss of landlines and problems maintaining communication between Twisp and emergency resources that were stretched thin throughout the county.
“Since that time this has been a passion of mine — to ensure we are in a better position in emergencies,” Ing-Moody said.
Last week, she hosted a meeting at Twisp Town Hall focused on a national initiative to improve emergency communications through a program called the First Responder Network Authority, or “FirstNet.”
Established by Congress to deliver a nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety, FirstNet is the result of the 9/11 Commission report, which identified gaps in emergency communications in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attack.
The federal government has contracted with AT&T, the nation’s second-largest cell phone carrier, to build a new wireless network that is designed to give priority to first responders.
That national program has important implications for small, rural communities like the Methow Valley, and Ing-Moody said she wants Twisp and the valley to be well positioned to take advantage of the communications improvements that are promised.
Ing-Moody invited an AT&T consultant for the FirstNet program to meet with the Methow Valley Public Safety Committee last Thursday (Sept. 14). Paul Braunstein has been visiting rural communities in Washington to learn about their communications issues.
Ing-Moody also invited Shelley Westall, a state official who is the liaison for Washington’s participation in the program.
During their visit, they heard from local law enforcement, emergency managers, firefighters, ambulance services and elected officials.
The Methow Valley and Okanogan County are continuing recovery efforts after fires and landslides of 2014 and 2015, Ing-Moody said. “We are working to strengthen emergency response and public safety, and communications is a main concern,” she said.
“We invited you to visit to demonstrate where our vulnerabilities are, and how you can help us prepare for the next emergency. We’re counting on you to watch out for us when you develop this program,” Ing-Moody said.
Through the FirstNet program, the federal government and AT&T are contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to “build out rural networks,” Braunstein said. The program will bring networks to areas where AT&T and other commercial cellular companies would probably not build in the next 20 years, because there is not enough commercial business to justify the investment, or because it is difficult to build in those locations, he said.
In Washington, AT&T plans to build 35 new cell towers, Braunstein said. Recently, he said, Mazama was added to the list of tower sites, and AT&T also plans “adjustments” in Twisp, where AT&T service is spotty.
Not a done deal
The goal of FirstNet is to create a communications system that gives first responders priority over other cell users. Today, first responders use commercial networks, the same ones used by consumers and businesses, for mobile data and applications.
That can become a public safety issue during an emergency, when networks become congested due to the high volume of calls. In addition, first responders use many different networks for voice communications, and those networks don’t always mesh — or interoperate — which means it can be difficult for responders to communicate with each other.
AT&T, through its 25-year contract with FirstNet, has been charged with developing a system that gives first responders priority during emergencies and the ability to communicate across agencies and jurisdictions.
Development of FirstNet in Washington, however, is not a done deal. Under the federal law that created FirstNet, every state and U.S territory will receive an individualized plan. Once the plan is delivered, each state governor has 90 days to decide whether to opt in or opt out.
If a governor chooses not to opt in, the state is responsible for developing its own complementary network that will achieve the same public safety objectives. As of early this week, 21 states had opted in, according to FirstNet’s website. A few states are seeking proposals from other companies to develop an alternative system.
Washington’s state plan is expected to be delivered by the end of this month, Braunstein said. If Gov. Jay Inslee opts in, “we are going to start [cell tower] site acquisition immediately,” he said. “We would need to stay in close communication with both community leaders and first responders to prioritize where network enhancements are needed.”
Local decisions, lingering doubt
If the state opts in, local public safety agencies, government officials and others who would utilize FirstNet capabilities would have to decide whether to sign contracts with FirstNet that provides priority access on AT&T commercial networks.
Public-safety agencies in “opt-in” states are eligible to sign FirstNet contracts that give first responders priority access across AT&T’s commercial networks immediately. By the end of the year, FirstNet will also provide preemption to fire, police and Emergency Medical Services (EMS), which gives them dedicated access to the network when they need it.
“If the state opts in, AT&T takes on responsibility for building the broadband public safety network,” Braunstein said. “Every local agency has a decision of what they want to do and who they want to use.”
He said new technology is being developed to increase the communications capability of emergency responders, including phones that use press-to-talk features, much like police walkie-talkies do.
Cody Acord, interim chief of Okanogan Fire District 6, expressed concern about the potential cost of joining the system. “Everyone is talking about reliability. That’s a huge issue for us. But no one’s mentioned affordability,” Acord said.
Braunstein said pricing to contract with FirstNet would be “on a par with what government pricing is today.” He mentioned $60 per month as a potential cost for a plan with unlimited data and texting, but did not provide specific costs. In response to a request for further details, an AT&T spokesman said, “For competitive reasons, we aren’t sharing the pricing at this time, but we can tell you that pricing will be compelling for public safety.”
Another concern expressed to Braunstein during the meeting was lingering doubt about AT&T resulting from the failure of AT&T cell services during and after the Carlton Complex Fire.
Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover wondered how AT&T would ensure the reliability of its services in the Methow Valley.
“What about actual boots on the ground?” Hover asked. During the Carlton Complex disaster, Hover said, “AT&T generators went down [during the power outage] and no one was here to refill them. AT&T effectively went down and that’s when a lot of people switched to Verizon. What kind of people services do we get?”
Braunstein said AT&T is working on “building relationships” with communities. He said the company is also proposing options like deployable cell towers mounted on trucks, called “cell on wheels” or COWS, that could be brought in to provide service if needed.
“If the roads are closed, deployables don’t do us any good … and we are prone to closures,” said Ing-Moody. She suggested storing a deployable cell tower in the valley.
Braunstein replied that the COWS cost $500,000 and require highly trained operators. He said Twisp might consider owning and operating a less-expensive option that could be delivered by trailer or even backpack.
Ing-Moody gave Braunstein and Westall a brief tour before the meeting, taking them by bus out Twisp River Road, where she pointed out where the 2015 Twisp River Fire began, and noted areas where AT&T cell coverage is minimal. Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow and Okanogan Emergency Service Manager Maurice Goodall went along on the tour.
“Where the fire was being fought, where firefighters were staged, you will find there is no service,” Ing-Moody said.
The bus also made a stop at Hank’s Harvest Foods, where Ing-Moody encouraged Braunstein to test his cell service inside the store. “I could get one to two bars,” he said. “I couldn’t call my wife.”
Ing-Moody said she wants the needs of the Methow Valley to be on the radar of state officials as a decision is made about FirstNet.
“We’ve had natural disaster declarations in 2014 and 2015,” she said. “We know we have natural features that make communication more difficult. We live in a long narrow valley. Couple that with the fact that the community is prone to natural disaster — wildfire, flooding, landslides. And we are a small community in a rural setting, in the largest and one of the poorest counties in the state,” Ing-Moody said.
“It had better work for us given our history and vulnerability. It’s a good thing if it works. The devil is in the details,” she said.