Testing New Technology to Enhance Communications for Rural Responders

The Siren is a publication of the First Responders Group (FRG), Office for Interoperability and Compatibility (OIC).

Across the nation, rural first responders face numerous challenges as they respond to incidents in their environments – especially when it comes to communications and connectivity.

In June, FRG partnered with Grant County, Washington, first responders to assess their existing communication tools and introduce new technologies designed to address capability gaps. This effort, known as the Grant County – DHS S&T Next Generation First Responder (NGFR) Apex Program Technology Experiment (TechEx), provided responders the opportunity to test the interoperability of deployable communication hubs with their existing communication tools.

The experiment was the culmination of a year-long partnership that began with an assessment of Grant County’s technology-based challenges, which highlighted operational gaps while communicating in rural and mountainous terrain. Grant County offered the perfect backdrop for the TechEx due to its resemblance to 55 percent of rural areas within the United States. Like many rural environments, its small responder community is tasked with responding to incidents in a vast geographical area. Grant County’s 55 full-time deputies patrol over 2,800 square miles of rolling hills and farm-land. What makes the county unique, however, is its famous outdoor music venue, the Gorge Amphitheatre. Almost every weekend each summer, the county’s population of almost 93,000 grows to almost 120,000 as music goers and campers descend upon the amphitheater.

The TechEx was held over a two-day period and was based on a routine concert scenario at the amphitheater. Sixty participants from law enforcement, fire and emergency services participated in the event. The concert scenario featured three vignettes simulating incidents to prompt response from law enforcement and emergency responders using NGFR technologies, including missing persons, an altercation at the campsite and a fire at the gorge.

For Grant County responders, perhaps the most significant capabilities the TechEx presented were situational awareness and location reporting, as well as the ability to transmit video from the Sheriff’s Office Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to their command centers.

“I think the most amazing part about the whole experiment was the ability to sit at the command center and watch our deputies, fire departments and EMTs respond to these incidents,” said Chief Deputy Darrik Gregg. “Being able to use our UAVs in this way means that we have eyes in places we didn’t have before – all while sitting at command.”

Upon completion of the experiment, NGFR anticipates integrating lessons learned toward further development of an interoperable environment – creating an architecture intended to work for responder organizations with different environments, budgets and mission requirements.

“What we learned by using this technology is how much safer and informed our responders and incident management team members will be,” said Sheriff Tom Jones. “DHS has really focused on making our sometimes-dangerous jobs much safer, especially for rural responders who many times don’t have access to such advanced resources.”

FRG’s National Urban Security Technology Laboratory (NUSTL) led the testing and evaluation component, along with technical experts from Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, Nation-al Institute for Science and Technology, ArdentMC, IS4S and SpectraRep.

The TechEx is the first experiment integrating new and current technologies to enhance real-life, rural capabilities. Future experiments will work to integrate more technologies as they mature, aim to define and test how commercial capabilities can plug-and-play into the NGFR system, and invite more first responders across the nation to test and evaluate NGFR program technology.