La PORTE — The occasional service interruptions and disruptions that cell phone users have come to know – and hate – will soon be a thing of the past for La Porte County’s first responders.

On Wednesday, the La Porte County Board of Commissioners approved a service agreement with Indiana FirstNet, a cellular service specifically for public safety personnel use. Members of the county sheriff’s department, emergency medical services and emergency management plan to switch to FirstNet, which should offer more reliable service than public wireless networks, said Emergency Management Director Larry Butcher.

Currently, sheriff’s deputies, paramedics and other emergency personnel use the same Verizon wireless service as other La Porte County officials on their government-issued phones and smart devices. While the telecom gives the county data preferential treatment over that of the general public, first responders still suffer from the same service issues as civilians during network outages or periods of heavy wireless traffic, such as during festivals or large-scale disasters, Butcher said.

“If you’ve been out to the fair, you know how hard it is to get a phone call out there,” said Information Technology Director Darlene Hale.

The use of FirstNet, conversely, is limited solely to public safety officers.

Born from a 2012 partnership between the federal government and AT&T, the FirstNet program is the first high-speed wireless broadband network dedicated to emergency personnel. Indiana has offered the service since 2017 to local governments that choose to op into the system.

FirstNet will also allow county officials to connect to 800-megahertz radio frequency through their devices, Hale said.

Butcher and Hale did not find any issues while testing cell phones and mobile hot spot devices that use FirstNet, she said.

EMS also conducted a thorough network test of one of the wireless modems, where officials found that FirstNet provided better overall coverage throughout the county, said Assistant Administrator Eric Fenstermaker.

Switching to the new wireless service will be tremendous for the ambulance service, Fenstermaker said.

Each vehicle currently uses a Verizon modem to access the internet, which crews use to transmit reports, patient readings and other crucial data to hospitals while en route. Several weeks ago, a major Verizon outage threw this system into turmoil, Fenstermaker said.

“If we’re trying to transmit a STEMI EKG to the hospital, time is of the essence,” Fenstermaker said. “If you can’t do that, it really hurts the patient’s outcome.”

Hale said the monthly service costs of using FirstNet are comparable to the current rates Verizon is charging the county. In addition, the service should work with most first responders’ equipment, with AT&T offering to exchange devices that don’t work with the system for minimal cost, she said.

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