Georgia homeland security: We rely on IoT and FirstNet for emergencies and disasters

From law enforcement to hurricanes and even the Super Bowl, Georgia Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security is relying on smart cities and IoT technology backed up by AT&T's FirstNet.

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Atlanta, Georgia

Image: File photo

The state of Georgia is not only relying on AT&T's first responder network FirstNet for total and immediate coverage during emergency and disaster situations, it is also implementing smart cities and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions across police, fire, ambulance, and emergency management.

According to Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) and Homeland Security manager of Critical Infrastructure and Key Resource Unit Warren Shepard, Georgia was one of the first adopters of FirstNet back in November 2017, signing a contract in January 2018 before the services were deployed in March last year.

In an interview with ZDNet, Shepard said it was "extremely important" for public safety agencies to have a dedicated network, as normal cellular networks collapse in the event of an emergency or natural disaster.

"The first thing that happens when something bad goes on—everyone picks up their cell phones and calls 911, and then the next thing is FaceTime, or Twitter Live, or Facebook; they're trying to stream all this data," he said.

"We knew that if we had something happen in the downtown area at that scale that it would grind to a halt, and we wouldn't be able to get the information that we needed."

Hurricane Michael and FirstNet

In October, Hurricane Michael made landfall in Florida, ripping through Georgia. It caused around $3 billion in agricultural damage alone—across trees, pecans, peanuts, cotton, and blueberries—with the state still calculating the bill of damage from destroyed homes.

"We had areas that were complete electrical systems just destroyed, the entire grid. It wasn't a matter of repairing, it was 'let's start over from scratch'," Shepard said.

"But with FirstNet, we still were able to get communication there."

If emergency services had relied on traditional 4G LTE networks, Shepard said GEMA would have struggled for coverage in the hardest-hit areas of the state, especially along the Florida-Georgia border.

SEE: How disaster relief workers are using data analytics to support and measure their efforts (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

"One of the providers was saying, 'we've got 85 percent of the network up and functioning'—well, sure it was, in 85 percent of the state, but not in the 15 percent of the state where it was needed," Shepard said.

"We rely so much on what we use now—our data terminals, mobile computers in police cars, fire trucks, ambulances, emergency management, building inspectors, parking meters, it's just so much stuff now with the Internet of Things that we're relying on."

Under FirstNet, GEMA had access to satellite vehicles and cells on wheels (COWs), enabling it to set up a network within a guaranteed 14-hour response time window.

Shepard said it is often faster than this. When a hiker went missing in the woods at the start of 2018, FirstNet delivered its vehicles within four hours, with the network set up and ready to go an hour after that to help with the search effort.

Search and rescue, body recovery teams, and homeland security coordinators are all using FirstNet in Georgia, with many workers carrying FirstNet phones as their "primary and almost sole means of communications" when they're working in the field.

"They're switching to FirstNet for that reliability, that assured connection, the quality of service that's offered, the priority and pre-emption, enhanced push to talk," he explained, adding that it allows them to communicate on weather and other hazards and ensure the safety of responders.

In the future, they'll be able to link traditional land mobile radio systems (LMRS) to an LTE system so they can use their phones like an LMR as well.

Smarter law enforcement through IoT

A combination of IoT technology and FirstNet will also help police and emergency services respond to situations such as bombings and shootings, Shepard said.

"Following the Boston Bombing, for about 45 minutes cell phone communications was really non-existent, and in the greater Boston area you could see the systems being overloaded," he said.

GEMA is looking to the network to support IoT solutions across biometrics, body cameras on police officers, officer devices to detect gunshots, real-time crime analysis, and heart rate information, all the while streaming this data and footage in real-time by using FirstNet as the backhaul.

In the future, phones could detect acceleration to see when an officer is chasing somebody; when an officer is knocked to the ground; or when an officer draws a weapon; and all of this footage will be viewable by live-stream.

SEE: Internet of Things: Progress, risks, and opportunities (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Across the fire service, there will be temperature gauges to provide information on the internal temperatures of buildings and the body temperature of the firefighters; heart rate and respiration rate monitors; helmet cameras; and access to information on how much oxygen is left in a firefighter's pack.

Ambulances will be equipped to become "almost a mobile ER," he said, with doctors able to see real-time emergency situations and provide instructions.

"As the future comes, we're looking forward to this network being able to support all the new Internet of Things that we're looking at," Shepard said.

5G, FirstNet, and the 2019 Atlanta Super Bowl

Not only is FirstNet being used for emergencies and disasters; it is also being relied on by law enforcement and homeland security during large events such as the most recent Super Bowl in Atlanta.

Three years of planning goes into each Super Bowl, Shepard said, with the 2019 event involving 27 committees across law enforcement, traffic planning, hotels, critical infrastructure, federal communications and key recourses, cybersecurity, utility providers, and communications, including all wireless, landline, fiber, and cable vendors in the city.

By game day, there were 13 different command posts, two of which were GEMA and homeland security, covering law enforcement. This included radiation technicians and bomb technicians, as well as cybersecurity and communications.

There was one command center to oversee all activities.

SEE: Super Bowl 53 crushes digital records (TechRepublic)

During the Super Bowl, 75,000 fans and 12,000 employees and law enforcement officers were present in the stadium, in addition to almost 100,000 people within a one-mile radius at nearby bars, restaurants, and outdoor events.

Shepard said that with all this traffic on the standard LTE networks, it was only via FirstNet that critical services were able to continuously communicate.

"We were able to constantly communicate back and forth with all command posts; the communications group had no problems with connectivity," he said.

Enhanced push to talk was also used during the game for problems that required fast answers rather than phone calls, and drones were used for spotting, law enforcement purposes, and "eyes-in-the-sky situational awareness."

Three days before the Super Bowl, the company supplying the drones was forced to make a last-minute request from GEMA on whether it could use FirstNet too, because it was having issues connecting to its cellular network provider even in the lead-up to the big game.

"We were able to get SIM cards out to them, they were able to get up, and the drones functioned flawlessly," Shepard said.

"We had no pixellation, we didn't have any issues with screen jumpiness where it sort of freeze and jumps a few shots ahead ... [it was] clear video."

Multiple security cameras from downtown Atlanta were also available for GEMA and law-enforcement officers to live stream on their mobile devices from wherever they were located.

GEMA saw download and upload speeds of 80Mbps and 50Mbps, respectively, in the days leading up to the game. On game day, speeds were around 60/30Mbps.

In addition to providing FirstNet, AT&T also set live its 5G capabilities in Atlanta in late December and made temporary and permanent upgrades across its LTE network in and around the city.

This included upgrading or installing new distributed antenna systems (DAS); adding hundreds of small cells on traffic signals, buildings, street lights, and poles; and deploying five cell on light trucks (COLTs) across the stadium, hotels, arenas, airports, convention centers, and other venues within the metro area.

SEE: Disaster recovery: Tech tips and leadership advice (TechRepublic on Flipboard)

For first responders, AT&T ensured the Band 14 spectrum was: Deployed across the area; installed new DAS at multiple local and federal public safety agency centers; and set up a FirstNet SatCOLT outside of the stadium.

"As one of the year's biggest sporting events, the FirstNet team at AT&T and the First Responder Network Authority have been working hand-in-hand with dozens of public safety agencies to prepare," the carrier said in January.

"This prep work helps ensure first responders have the coverage, capacity, and capabilities—priority and pre-emption included—that they need to stay connected throughout the festivities, so they can keep fans safe."

AT&T said it invested more than $43 million ahead of the Super Bowl in order to improve coverage and capacity for fans and first responders.

"We had almost instant communications throughout the event," Shepard said.

"Our needs are immediate."

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