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One Smartphone or Seven Radios: Insights From a Visit to the Seneca Nation?

Informing and involving Indian country is vital to the successful deployment of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) network and a key component of our coordination with state single points of contact (SPOCs). FirstNet is committed to engaging sovereign tribal nations and has made progress in involving tribal members in the planning of the network. In 2015, FirstNet hired two enrolled tribal members (Margaret Muhr, Citizen Potawatomi Nation and Adam Geisler, La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians) who have been active nationally and are respected by the communities they serve. 

FirstNet continues to benefit from input from Kevin McGinnis, a Board member who serves as an executive tribal government liaison, as well as seeking advice, assistance, and guidance from the Tribal Working Group (TWG) of the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC). We continue to make strides towards collaborating directly with states and territories in collecting public safety data, which is vital to network planning.

Additionally, we have met, and will continue to meet, with tribal officials on the reservations where they live and work to better understand where FirstNet coverage is needed. One such face-to-face meeting was with members of the Cattaraugus Indian Territories of the Seneca Nation of Indians, near the town of Irving, in rural western New York (WNY) State.

FirstNet works on multiple devices

Proudly carrying the role “Keeper of the Western Door” within the Iroquois Confederacy throughout history, Seneca leaders have been noted statesmen and orators who value community and family. Strengthened by those connections, the Seneca Nation of Indians have made long standing treaties with other governments still in effect today. This all according to Mike Gates, Director of the Seneca Nation of Indians Emergency Management Department, who is committed to helping protect the land he calls home. Notably, in 1865, Ely Parker, former brigadier general and later an aide to Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant, wrote the terms of surrender that Grant offered to General Robert E. Lee. Parker also was the first Indian to hold office as Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

“We are proud of the legacy of our people as hunters and gatherers, and we have stood the test of time even as our land base eroded from us due to outside influences,” said Mike. “We look to the future and any of our good deeds now should have some effect on those seven generations from now.”

Mike was born on Seneca land, but left New York to move across the country, and for nearly 30 years he lived in the state of Hawaii where he served as a firefighter for 17 years. He came back home a few years ago, admittedly missing his native land, and wanting to bring back the experience and professionalism he gained as a career firefighter. 

The Seneca Nation of Indians has a total enrolled population of nearly 8,000 citizens, and in Western New York the first responders are responsible for an area of roughly 27 square miles, bordered by three counties: Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, and Erie. The Seneca Nation of Indians Cattaraugus Volunteer Fire Station runs about 1,000 calls a year and provides a lot of mutual aid to the surrounding districts that need either fire or emergency medical services (EMS) backup; interoperability is key. ??Fire Chief Pressley Redeye says that while the three counties have made strides towards overcoming the jurisdictional complications of interoperability, challenges still exist. “One issue is that not everybody’s using the same technology so it’s kind of hard for us being in the middle of all that to try and adapt to everybody else’s technology,” Chief Redeye told FirstNet. “In all of our trucks we have the capability to speak with our form of law enforcement, which is the marshals. So it helps us better to communicate with them because they’re right in our trucks. When we need to speak with them, we can turn to their [land mobile radio (LMR)] channel and speak with them, which you don’t see a lot in outside districts.”

Seamless as it may seem, it’s not the most practical or efficient way to adopt interoperability.

“We actually keep different radios in all our trucks that are able to communicate with each agency’s different frequencies,” he said. “So if you look in our ambulance, you’ll see six or seven different radios that all communicate with different agencies in order to keep communication going.”

“I paid $7,000 for this portable radio that can do three different bandwidths. But it [interoperability] is still not there yet. We have two or three different agencies that use different types of coverage or radios that aren’t covered under the radio that we just purchased. And that’s only one device. I mean, you see ten trucks here that all have to be fitted with mobiles and portables for the membership and the chiefs.”

FirstNet’s interoperability strategy is focused on open standards for network infrastructure and services, data access, and apps. It envisions vastly improving the public safety user experience in these areas. 

FirstNet works on multiple devices

Having a single device that bridges the gap between agencies is definitely appealing to the Seneca fire chief, and something that has caught the attention of Emergency Management Director Mike Gates. “Knowing that new and improved communication systems were available led me to drive the push for an interoperable communication system among all departments, versus the six to seven separate systems currently in use,” said Mike.

The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, the law that established FirstNet, mandated that the network provide coverage in rural areas. When emergencies happen in remote areas, public safety often lacks access to a radio signal or broadband connections that could call for and support expert medical care during transport to a clinic or hospital. 

“We have a lot of rural areas, including hills and creeks, within our land,” said Chief Redeye. “ATVs [All-terrain vehicles] and dirt biking are big out here. People come from all over to fish. So, there are a lot of remote areas that we have to cover, and sometimes we don’t have the capability. We use a lot of [global positioning system (GPS)] coordinates when we use air medical services in the area, but because the GPS Google maps doesn’t work in the area, they’ll put you five or six miles down the road.

“I think something big that FirstNet could do to help us would be strengthening the coverage area, even to the point where we’d be able to stream video back and forth between our trucks or actually chat with our trucks versus using radio.”
Technology can help first responders use their resources more efficiently. The use of mobile computers, smartphones, tablets, and other types of modern technology—to include public safety apps—is improving speed and efficiency of public safety. Throughout his time working in emergency management, Mike Gates has seen many opportunities for innovation to adapt this technology for public safety use. “The development of various first responder apps that have proven to be life savers is probably one of the biggest evolutions I have seen,” he said. 

He also sees the challenges technology may present as the job of the responder changes. “This will be the challenging job of the fire chief, police chief, or incident commander with the overflow of information and learning how to prioritize the picture for the most effective use of resources, which at times are rather scarce,” said Mike. “We have to be careful in how we allocate our response to the most urgent call.”

FirstNet truly understands the need to engage and deploy the network correctly for Indian Country. When it comes to tribal outreach, FirstNet is redoubling our engagement and actively seeking help from tribal nations to continue to assert themselves in the state planning process. On January 13, 2016, FirstNet issued its multi-billion dollar request for proposals (RFP) for the deployment of the network, marking a major step forward in FirstNet's efforts to modernize communications for public safety.

The release of the RFP follows more than a year of dialogue between FirstNet staff, public safety officials and industry executives on the objectives and scope of the RFP for the FirstNet network. Through the RFP, the federal government seeks to ally with a private sector entity to establish a mutually beneficial and first-of-its-kind public-private partnership. 

“I have been privy to some FirstNet discussions through USET [the United South & Eastern Tribes] and as a sitting member of its Tribal Emergency Services Committee,” said Mike. “Although it has been some time since these discussions have come about publically, it is finally being pushed out to the tribes who are among some of the least served by these platforms currently in use around the country. 

“Whether this underserving is by just total omission on the part of their partner agencies or lack of funding from their own tribes, there are urgent needs in Indian Country.”

According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey of 2006-2010 data, nearly 19 percent of Indian homes lack telephone service. Significantly more lack broadband access. 

We will be continuing to work with tribal leaders and tribal associations, as well as leveraging the FirstNet TWG (which includes USET, along with 12 other organizations with interest in tribal public safety) to help us recruit and support key staff members in the field. We want to ensure we spread the word on how FirstNet can make a difference to the well-being of their communities. 

“When this platform is presented let it be known that it is not an instant solution but a step forward into providing the type of service that your members require,” said Mike. “It will lessen the response time for life-saving interventions in some of the most remote areas of the country. With a more robust system on the horizon why would any tribe balk at serving their people more effectively?”

FirstNet appreciates the discussions over the past several years with various tribal public safety personnel on the unique public safety needs that face tribal communities. There is plenty of work ahead until FirstNet is a reality. As we continue to plan for the network, we will continue to strive to meet tribal coverage objectives, leveraging existing tribal assets, and being respectful of culturally sensitive sites and lands. 

We take seriously the responsibility to provide tribal nations with better resources to protect their communities. To that end it is essential tribes work with their SPOC to detail requirements for the network to assure it will be one you can rely upon. 

A list of SPOCs can be found on FirstNet.gov.

You may reach Carl Rebstock, FirstNet’s National Tribal Government Liaison at carl.rebstock@firstnet.gov or (202) 657-2777 (mobile; Eastern Time).

You may reach Margaret Muhr, Regional Tribal Government Liaison and principal POC for tribes in FirstNet/FEMA regions I-VIII margaret.muhr@firstnet.gov or (202) 738-8344 (mobile; Pacific Time).

You may reach Adam Geisler, Regional Tribal Government Liaison and principal POC for tribes in FirstNet/FEMA regions IX and X at adam.geisler@firstnet.gov or (202) 631-1188 (mobile; Pacific Time).