APD upgrades cellular emergency communications equipment

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - A new partnership between the Anchorage Police Department and a cellular service provider is helping police department personnel improve the reliability of communications tools during emergency events.

The department is now equipped with cellular devices enabled with FirstNet, a communications platform designed specifically for public safety. In the event of an emergency, first responders are able to bypass general public traffic in order to more efficiently communicate with other emergency personnel.

"This is a system put together by the federal government for public safety," said Anchorage Police Department Chief Justin Doll. "Public safety through FirstNet has that bandwidth that's set aside just for us, plus it gives us the ability to have prioritization in the existing commercial cell phone bandwidth.

"If a first responder needs to use their cell phone, that is going to go through," he said, "even if there's some really large event where everybody is using their phone and kind of overloading the network."

The partnership was made possible by AT&T, which won a bid for the service and will be making changes - including installing new cellular towers across remote parts of Alaska - in order to be able to deploy the specialized wireless public safety broadband network.

"It's critical for first responders to be able to do their jobs," said Shawn Uschmann, Director of External Affairs at AT&T. "In the event of an emergency situation, there's two features - called 'priority' and 'preemption' - which puts those first responders ahead of the line.

"There are a lot of things to worry about," he said. "Communication shouldn't be one of them."

FirstNet was reportedly already in the works before the earthquake that rattled Southcentral Alaska on Nov. 30, though the incident helped highlight the need for such technology. The contract, Uschmann said, is set to be in place for the next 25 years.

"What I experienced was using that phone to contact people who were not a part of that system, sometimes calls didn't go through or even texts got delayed," Doll said. "Contacting people with FirstNet phones, I had instant communication with those folks."

Doll added that he wanted to make sure people knew the department had lots of officers out in the field in order to assist as needed.

"Our society as a whole is used to instant personal communication," he said, "so it just makes sense for our first responders to have that same kind of access."