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AT&T's FirstNet adds to, but doesn't replace, existing communication system

Communication tower in Cook County. File photo by Rhonda Silence
Communication tower in Cook County. File photo by Rhonda Silence

FirstNet, along with AT&T, recently announced an expansion of wireless communications for emergency responders. FirstNet says two new “purpose-built cell sites” have been located in Cook County. WTIP reached out to Cook County MIS Director Rowan Watkins to find out if these sites are new or if they are additions to existing towers—and to learn how this affects our local emergency responders.

FirstNet announced that one of these two “new” cell sites is along the Gunflint Trail near Gunflint and Magnetic lakes. The second site is described as being near Lichen Lake in the Lutsen area.

Watkins told WTIP that the Gunflint Lake site has been in the news before, as have all of the FirstNet sites. It is the second tower at the Gunflint Lake tower site.

He said the tower that FirstNet describes as the Lichen Lake site, is what the county and the Minnesota Department of Transportation call the Sawbill site, located where the Sawbill Trail and The Grade meet. Watkins says it is not a new tower, it is a “co-location” on an existing ARMER tower. But, it was activated in the last 30 days, added Watkins.

Asked if the ability to use FirstNet will mean local responders will be using cell phones instead of radios, Watkins said no, at least not in the immediate future. He said the Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Responders (ARMER) system has a level of “reliability and resiliency” that is not yet available from the FirstNet system.

However, the computers in police squad cars and onboard ambulances and fire trucks to send and receive data will be enhanced by the FirstNet system.

Another advantage of the FirstNet system, explains Watkins is the feature that gives emergency responders "priority and preemption" on the FirstNet/AT&T system. An example of when that would be important, Watkins said, is in a disaster situation, something like the explosion at the Husky Refinery in Superior, Wisconsin in April 2018. At times like that, the general public tries calling or messaging family and friends to check in which can overload the system. That is when callers get messages stating “all circuits are busy.” The priority and preemption would prevent that from happening to public safety officials to ensure critical information can be shared.

There is another FirstNet site in the Hovland area on another existing ARMER site that went live in February.

WTIP’s Rhonda Silence spoke with Cook County MIS Director Rowan Watkins to get more details on the part FirstNet plays in local emergency communications. 
 

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