FirstNet Supports First Responder Communications at Oklahoma Balloon Festival

FirstNet services, devices and training prepare first responders and emergency communications at the Citizen Potawatomi Tribe’s annual FireLake Fireflight Balloon Festival in Shawnee, Oklahoma.



By Margaret Guiterrez, Senior Public Safety Advisor – Tribal, Public Safety Advocacy Division

In August 2018, the Citizen Potawatomi Tribe hosted its annual FireLake Fireflight Balloon Festival, a two-day event that attracts crowds as large as 34,000 people to Shawnee, Oklahoma, every year. As with any gathering in a place not accustomed to large crowds, commercial networks can become overloaded and congested, delaying or sometimes impeding communications among public safety officials working the event. During times like these, a reliable communications network is more valuable than ever. With FirstNet, the first nationwide network dedicated to public safety, first responders are guaranteed priority service, preemptive use, and an “always-on” connection during large events, natural disasters, or man-made catastrophes.

The Citizen Potawatomi Nation, with a statewide community of 10,000 people and a global membership of 34,000, encompasses nearly one thousand square miles in Oklahoma. The tribe’s membership in Pottawatomie County and adjacent Cleveland County saw an opportunity to streamline public safety communications by utilizing FirstNet and FirstNet-ready devices during the FireLake Fireflight Balloon Festival.

In preparation for the festival, Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Tribal Director of Emergency Management, Tim Zientek, arranged for first responders working at the festival to be equipped with FirstNet Sonim devices. Zientek also coordinated with AT&T to ensure deployable network assets were on site to supplement emergency communications during times of heavy use. These deployables are part of a fleet of 72 dedicated deployables that are available to FirstNet subscribers at no cost.

Prior to the festival, FirstNet representatives with AT&T were “on the ground” to offer instruction and training on FirstNet, working with first responders closely to ensure they were confident using the FirstNet devices. The team also trained responders how to leverage the device’s full capabilities, including push-to-talk, which allowed users to communicate across multiple public safety agencies at the push of a button.

FirstNet proved most valuable when Citizen Potawatomi first responders handled emergencies that required a rapid response, including a lost child, heat-related incidents, and cardiac issues.

The variety of injuries cannot be predicted. You just have to be prepared for whatever may arise while you’re here,” said Lisa Tiger, nurse and medical responder for the FireLake Fireflight Balloon Festival.

Some of these medical emergencies occurred in noisy environments that made it difficult for first responders from the Citizen Potawatomi Nation to communicate or respond effectively. In past years, this was a serious problem as first responders were unable to hear each other using their traditional radios and cell phones. At this year’s balloon festival, responders saw a marked difference in the audio quality during their response efforts. When a medical incident occurred during a festival concert, the FirstNet-issued Sonim devices were able to cut through the noise of the crowd and band. Tiger and her team were able to clearly communicate with EMS and dispatch and, as a result, respond faster and more efficiently. “The whole purpose is to create a safe environment for everyone that attends the balloon festival. This Sonim device made it very feasible. I’m very grateful that we had it,” said Tiger.

Compared to prior years, local public safety working the festival experienced a major difference in communications with the help of FirstNet deployables and devices. Reflecting on the event, Zientek noted, “Anything and everything that was tied to the FirstNet tower or connected to it has performed flawlessly.” The deployable on site provided dedicated bandwidth for first responders from the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, ensuring reliable communications even when commercial networks were oversaturated. Tiger added, “I can’t imagine having a big festival like this and not having FirstNet now that we’ve had it.”

As FirstNet continues to build out and deploy across the country, the network is proving to be a valuable tool for public safety, no matter the size or location of the event. “When nothing else works, it will,” said Zientek.

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