The Cayuse Mountain Fire, or the Cayuse Fire, struck the Spokane Reservation in Washington in August 2016. Photo: The Rawhide Press

Tribes stand to benefit from public safety network as deadline approaches for states

Tribes stand to benefit from new public safety network

By Kevin Abourezk

As fires raged toward a northeastern Washington tribe’s homes in August 2016, firefighters had to fight another disaster — lack of communication.

The fires had destroyed much of the Spokane Tribe’s electrical and phone lines, forcing firefighters to rely on word-of-mouth to pass along information from one part of the reservation to another.

Dave Browneagle, the tribe’s vice chairman, said firefighters actually had to send messengers to deliver important information about the wildfires threatening to engulf the tribe’s homes, government offices and businesses.

“They were running the trucks down to give the information," Browneagle said during a breakout session at the 74th annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians last week.

Another leader, Adam Geisler, understands the challenges facing tribes and isolated communities when it comes to fighting and recovering from natural disasters, such as wildfires. As the disaster recovery coordinator for the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians, Geisler was responsible for helping his tribe rebuild after wildfires destroyed 92 percent of his tribe’s reservation in southern California in 2007

Adam Geisler, the FirstNet Regional Tribal Government Liaison, speaks at a breakout session during the 74th annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 17, 2017. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

His experience led him to a new endeavor, one that promises to help tribes and public safety organizations across the country as they work to protect residents. He now serves as a tribal government liaison for FirstNet, a federal program established in 2012 by Congress to develop the first nationwide public safety broadband network.

Its goal: Ensure first responders have access to high-speed wireless communication during times of crises.

“Our mission is to make sure public safety has what it needs,” said Geisler, who also served as the secretary of his tribe.

Congress provided $7 billion to FirstNet to establish this nationwide broadband network. FirstNet later chose ATT to actually build and operate the network.

Congress also gave states the opportunity to decide whether they wanted FirstNet to establish that network or build the network for themselves. Each state’s governor has right to “opt in” or “opt out” of accepting FirstNet’s services.

Governors have until December 28 to make that decision, and as of late October, 27 states have opted into the program, said Richard Reed, the chief customer officer for FirstNet.

“It’s a very exciting time,” Reed said at NCAI's conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, last Wednesday. “We look forward to deploying this network nationwide.”

David Browneagle, the vice chairman of the Spokane Tribe, addresses the 74th annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 19, 2017. He spoke about the wildfire that his tribe's reservation during a breakout session at the convention on October 17. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

At the breakout session during the meeting, some tribal leaders questioned why states were being allowed to decide whether tribes would opt in or out of the FirstNet program.

Margaret Gutierrez, FirstNet's regional tribal government liaison, said she would have preferred to see tribes given that choice but Congress made the decision to give states that power instead. The decision given to governors, however, relates only to who will fund the broadband network. States that choose not to accept FirstNet’s services must then build the network themselves.

Once a governor has made the decision to take part or not take part in the program, FirstNet will establish a nation-to-nation relationship with federally recognized tribes, according to a policy statement on FirstNet’s website.

FirstNet also will continue to consult tribes under its tribal consultation policy, which was officially released on Monday. NCAI had been pushing for such a policy, citing "confusion" in the law that authorized the program.

Browneagle, the Spokane Tribe's vice chairman, said he supports the effort to build a nationwide broadband network, devoted to public safety needs.

“I’m all for this,” he said. “This is the reality today.”

Relevant Documents:
FirstNet Tribal Consultation Policy | FirstNet Press Release: New Consultation Policy Codifies Nation-to-Nation Relationship with Tribal Governments

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