County leaps into cell phone switch

By Kristen Tribe | Published Wednesday, May 30, 2018

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Wise County will be one of the first counties in the state to join FirstNet, a high-speed network dedicated to public safety.

Emergency Management Coordinator Cody Powell made the pitch at the April 30 county commissioners meeting, and commissioners gave the go-ahead when the issue was re-visited May 14.

“It uses the existing network but provides those who are attached to FirstNet pre-emption and priority on the network,” Powell said.

The object of FirstNet is to provide real-time communication to first responders during crises – large grass fires, tornadoes or shootings. Wise County offices that will be switching from regular cell phones to FirstNet devices are the fire marshal’s office, emergency management and EMS ambulances.

Powell said many of the cellular problems experienced in Wise County aren’t a coverage issue, but a capacity issue instead.

“The towers don’t have enough capacity to support the number of people trying to use them,” he said. “So if you’ve ever seen bars on your phone and you’re trying to make a call and can’t get out, that’s not actually a service issue, that’s a capacity issue.

“If there’s a FirstNet device trying to use one of those towers, it gets pre-emption and priority on that tower. It would kick somebody else off to allow that device to connect,” he said. “This will help with mobile hot spots, especially, (which are used in the sheriff’s office patrol cars).”

Powell said it’s not a replacement of the public safety radio system, but “it gives us a second means if, for some reason, we were to lose that.”

The FirstNet phones also have push-to-talk capabilities so users can create a talk group, and during an incident, through geo-fencing, a high priority zone can be created, so that FirstNet users within that zone take priority over all others, even other FirstNet users who are outside that zone.

The original pitch included switching the sheriff’s office from regular cell phones to FirstNet devices, too, but at the recommendation of county auditor Ann McCuiston, commissioners decided to hold off on the S.O. until more information is available about the expense.

Powell told commissioners the switch would come at a significant cost savings, but McCuiston disagreed, saying “it might break even.” She explained that any “savings” would be consumed in administrative costs to make the switch and overseeing the accounts every month. Currently, employees are issued a monthly stipend to go toward their cell phone, which is for work and personal use. McCuiston was also concerned because some employees are on cell phone contracts, which may prove difficult to get out of.

Chief Deputy Craig Johnson confirmed at the May 14 meeting that sheriff’s office administration was OK with delaying the switch to FirstNet for their office.

At the April 30 meeting, Akin said he anticipated pushback from the deputies “because they’d prefer to stay with what they have, but it’s the right thing to do.”

He joked and said they may have to issue backpacks with the FirstNet phones.

“These things are like bricks,” he said. “You lose the convenience of slipping it in your pocket, but we’ll make it up in improved communication.”

The network supporting FirstNet was built and is managed by AT&T under a 25-year, $47 billion contract. The contract was issued in 2017 by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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