Cellular Coverage - A Public Safety Issue
Published: 8/22/2023
Author: Jeffrey D. Johnson, Executive Director, Western Fire Chiefs Association

It wasn’t long ago that 911 calls originated from landlines in homes or businesses. During this time, navigating to emergencies was via “map books” and community alerts were via civil defense air-raid sirens or the “Emergency Broadcast System” on your radio or TV. Also, public safety officers received all their information from “dispatchers” who had spoken to the RP (reporting party) and then shared with responders.  
Times have changed! Conservatively, 80% of 911 calls are from cell phones which instantly supply the dispatcher with an address and caller information. Routing to emergencies is now done via digital mapping, and in many cases, that route is electronically coordinated with the traffic management system (traffic lights) to ensure the road ahead is clear for responders.  
Community alerts have changed too. Evacuations, emergency broadcasts and lifesaving news are simultaneously broadcast to the community via the Emergency Broadcast System and IPAWS, which sends messages directly to every cell phone. Other alerts which go directly to every cell phone in the affected area include reverse 911, emergency management software platforms, and social media.
Recent public criticism of notifications during the Maui fires highlights the importance of community alerting. The public’s thirst for real-time data is driven by their daily experiences, and when public safety doesn’t meet those expectations, they are critical and vocal.  
A wise chief once told me, “Never waste a disaster without learning something that saves lives during the next disaster.” What should we have learned? The general public is reliant on their cell phones for nearly everything. During an emergency, they will expect meaningful information to come via their phone. People will be expecting emergency event information, navigation, and evacuation information… and they expect it in real-time.  
As chiefs, we have been slow to change and recognize that cellular coverage is an absolute necessity to an effective response. Absent cellular coverage, calls to 911 are delayed, scene information is stale and emergency alerting less than ideal.  
As a public safety chief, the time has come to embrace your role in advocating for and improving cellular coverage.  
Most of us have no trouble seeing the logic of adding or replacing our LMR/Push-to-talk towers, but somehow, we haven’t seen our role in improving the cellular network that brings us the 911 call and our data while responding.   

Some insight… cellular towers exist where they make financial sense to the cellular carrier. We are different! Public safety places towers (coverage) where we need it to maintain communication regardless of the economics.  
What if… we changed our mindset to embrace our role in providing cellular coverage? How can we play a role?
  • Offer our existing LMR tower locations to cellular companies. They get a tower site where it otherwise wouldn’t make sense and we get coverage for free.
  • Offer public safety support for new cellular towers during the public planning processes. The community would benefit from understanding why cellular coverage helps us do our job, which in turn helps the community.
  • Identify locations where your department needs coverage and allow us at the Western Fire Chiefs Association to tell cellular providers what you need and where.

To that end, attached to this editorial is a very short survey. This survey will allow you to identify those areas where your department needs coverage (of any kind). The Western Fire Chiefs Association will package those locations and push carriers to add coverage for you.  
Please take a few moments to complete this simple survey and let’s adjust our thinking to see cellular coverage as something we can help solve!
The next time you don’t have cell service, ask yourself… have I placed my shoulder into the effort to improve service?  There is a role for you if you embrace it and we are here to help.  


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