Equipping Volunteer Responders with Broadband Technologies

By Vicki Lee, FirstNet Association Manager
FirstNet has been charged by Congress to build, operate, and maintain the first high-speed, nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety. Knowing those that we serve at FirstNet is all too important.
Throughout FirstNet’s consultations with the states and territories, we have been learning about the complexity and incredible commitment of our nation’s public safety community. The input from these meetings, the public safety data that states provide, discussions and meetings with the FirstNet Public Safety Advisory Committee, and firsthand experiences like fire academy training are shaping our vision of the nationwide public safety broadband network (NPSBN). We need to know how first responders prepare for and respond to emergencies of all sizes, as well as the communications capabilities they need to execute their mission. 
As a former volunteer firefighter and EMT, I understand firsthand that volunteer first responders play an important role in keeping our communities safe, particularly in rural areas. FirstNet team members recently had the opportunity to join the Wheaton Volunteer Rescue Squad (WVRS) in Maryland to get a firsthand look at how wireless broadband is already improving emergency response. 
Members of Wheaton Volunteer Rescue Squad. (Photo courtesy of FirstNet)

When you think of volunteer responders, you may imagine members of the community carrying a pager and meeting up at the station before responding to an emergency. That’s not the case in Wheaton; the department’s too busy. In 2014, the station responded to more than 9,000 incidents. That’s spread across three EMS units and a heavy rescue squad. WVRS is fully integrated with the Montgomery County (MD) Fire and Rescue Service. During the day, Monday through Friday, staffing is provided by county personnel. Nights and weekends, WVRS is staffed 100% by volunteers, many of whom ride after working a full day at their full-time jobs. 

Mark Reddish, responder with the Wheaton Volunteer Rescue Squad, uses a digital map in one of the vehicle’s mobile data terminals (MDTs). (Photo courtesy of FirstNet)

WVRS has fully embraced technology. In addition to using mobile data terminals (MDTs) to receive dispatches and update the unit status, many of the responders are using personal devices to map directions to the scene, look up a patient’s medications to get a medical history, and check the status of local hospitals.

In the FirstNet blog, we described how first responders are coming up with some innovative solutions to improve operations, and we saw more of this in Wheaton. Notably, a deputy chief at WVRS – whose day job is in IT – set up a dispatch feed that authenticated users can access via smartphone to quickly map directions to the scene, and the station’s TVs are triggered to display the nature and location of an incident whenever one of their units is dispatched. 
Stefhan Dassoulas, responder with the Wheaton Volunteer Rescue Squad, uses a smartphone while on scene of an incident. WVRS has a dispatch feed that authenticated users can access via smartphone to quickly map directions to a scene. (Photo courtesy of FirstNet)

Wheaton responders were intrigued by the idea of a NPSBN and the possibility of advanced capabilities like helmets with pull down screens and mission critical data, but in the meantime, they’re looking for improvements to the tools they already have. Between the county’s computer aided dispatch (CAD) system and less centralized resources like incident pre-plans and notes maintained by individual stations, there is a lot of useful information being underused. Of course, this is where mobile apps can really help, and in some cases they already are. For example, it’s common to encounter non-English speaking patients in Wheaton, and a few members were recently given access to a beta version of an EMS translation app. 

The technology FirstNet brings to public safety will be a game-changer, but ultimately, it’s the commitment of our nation’s public safety professionals that keeps our communities safe. The willingness to serve on a voluntary basis epitomizes this commitment. “I am honored to be a part of this unit and the important mission we have every day to keep [this county] safe,” said Chat Halambe, a volunteer firefighter who is also a full-time student. At FirstNet, we’re honored to do our part, too, and we strive to ensure that first responders have the best tools available to protect our communities. 
Vicki Lee is FirstNet’s Association Manager and Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) liaison. She previously worked at the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) for 17 years, where she served as a project manager on programs which focused on collaborative work with other national fire and emergency service organizations such as the International Association of Fire Fighters, the National Fire Protection Association, and the Congressional Fire Services Institute. Vicki led several projects that brought together representatives from these organizations and others to develop reports, training programs, and other work products for the fire and emergency services.