Story by Kathy Plum, The Dominion Post
KINGWOOD, W.Va. — No one in America today should be unable to call emergency services, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said Wednesday, as she stopped in Preston County to promote a national initiative to improve cellular communications for emergency services and private users.
FirstNet, the First Responder Network Authority, is a wireless communications platform created by Congress to help first responders across the nation. In times of critical need, the network gives priority access to first responders.
It is a public-private partnership, and AT&T won the five-year contract to build cell towers to improve the network.
West Virginia was the seventh state to opt into the program, and a tower is being built on Laurel Mountain to improve communications in southern Preston County. It is slated to go online this fall.
Edward Horowitz, board chairman of FirstNet, understands the importance of communication in an emergency. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was scheduled to attend a meeting in the Twin Towers, but it was changed the day before.
“I understand what communications are about,” he said. “Because the police were saying, ‘stay in the building,’ and the fire was saying, ‘get out of the building.’ And the radios didn’t connect. With the FirstNet network, that will not happen.”
One of the recommendations after the 9/11 terrorist attacks was the creation of a nationwide emergency communications network, Horowitz said.
First responders must have “ubiquitous, uninterrupted and resilient” service, he said. “Without a reliable broadband connection, first responders would not have been able to utilize this life-saving technology. And with FirstNet we are modernizing public communications.”
Part of the legislation requires improving access, and the new tower, “fills a coverage hole in Preston County,” Horowitz said. He thanked Capito for being an advocate of FirstNet in the U.S. Senate.
Capito described herself as “very passionate about connectivity.” She noted she and her staff couldn’t get cell service on part of their trip from Bridgeport to Kingwood and told about her son being unable to call after a traffic accident in Charleston.
It would have been difficult for West Virginia to improve its network alone, the senator said. Slow or no service is tied to economic development as well as the health and welfare of residents, she said, touting her Capito Connectivity plan.
Andy Feeney, president of West Virginia External and Legislative Affairs for AT&T, said FirstNet was designed by and for first responders. In West Virginia, areas were identified where capacity needed to be improved.
“First responders identified connectivity along [U.S.] Route 50 as a priority,” he said. The build up here and nationwide is ahead of schedule,” Feeney said.
Preston Office of Emergency Management/911 Assistant Director Justin Wolfe said the new tower and others in the works for southern Preston County will help the general public as well as first responders.
George Wolfe, a volunteer firefighter with the Fellowsville Volunteer Fire Department for 50 years, said the tower is needed. “We have a lot of trouble in our area, dead spots I call them,” he said at the event Wednesday.
AT&T consulted with the state on where gaps in coverage exist in West Virginia that affect public safety. The company put its entire commercial network onto the plan and will build dozens of new towers over the next five years. One year into the deployment, Preston County’s tower is one of the first being built.