Band 14 test sets the stage for Vail and Eagle County, Colorado, to join FirstNet

March 19, 2021

by Dwight Henninger, Police Chief, City of Vail, Colorado

The resort community of Vail, CO, is a tourist-oriented place. People come to ski and enjoy the summer activities. We probably get 2 million visitors a year here. Plus, with I-70, a major corridor, we have all the issues of an interstate running through the community.

We have about 30 officers to deal with those problems – with another 6 uniform code enforcement officers. We also run the 9-1-1 center for Eagle County.

In the mountains of Vail Valley and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, we have passes that go over 10,000 feet. The mountains have a significant impact in the way we use our land mobile radios. We could never really rely on our commercial cellular phones in many parts of the community that are off the interstate. So, we were looking for a solution to fix that problem.

We had an opportunity to test Band Class 14 when we hosted the  Alpine World Ski Championships here in Vail and Beaver Creek in 2015.

So, when we had the chance to get on FirstNet – which has exclusive access to the Band 14 spectrum – we jumped on it. So did the Sheriff's department. Since then, many of the other public safety agencies have also joined, because we see that it works when we have these huge shifts in population.

Testing Band 14                                                                                                             

In February 2015, the Federation of International Skiing hosted the  Alpine World Ski Championships here. That brought people from all over the world here – from many, many countries. And it was a great event.

But we knew that with the limited staff that we have here for fire, police and paramedics, we needed to be very well-organized. For three years, we met, planning how we would deal with the potential public safety issues. This event happened after the bombings in Europe. And that made us really consider how we'd done our work, because we would have grandstands with thousands of people in those stands.

I'd been hearing through IACP for years about Band Class 14. So I asked, "Would that work in our mountain community?" The answer was yes. So, we worked very hard with the folks who were bringing that technology to bear and told them we wanted to try it out here. Because if it worked here, it would work anywhere. For the 21 days of the event here, we were able to use the Band Class 14 equipment to effectively police the event and provide good public safety.

The officers really liked the ability to have the Sonim phones in their hands and to be able to get pictures and flyers on wanted persons and missing people. And when the event was over, I had a hard time getting those devices back from them. 

Using FirstNet                                                                                                     

I was really proud we were able to test this technology and show that this was a valuable and well-thought out tool for us.

Because when we had a lot of people here at Christmas or New Year's or Easter or 4th of July, it was hard to use data on your phone.

Having that FirstNet capability, with priority and preemption, has been very helpful for our officers. That’s especially true when we have a pass closure and there are thousands of people stopped on the interstate trying to figure out what to do. Or during a concert, when people are all trying to send pictures to their friends. It's super helpful to have that capability for us to be able to do that mission-critical type of emergency communication. 

What chiefs worry about

What keeps me up at night is not the communications issues. It's the big one. It's the natural disaster. It's the road closed with a significant traffic collision or crash. It's the crime that has a significant impact on our community. Those things are what keep chiefs and sheriffs and fire chiefs awake at night.

I don't stay up at night worrying about communications capabilities. That’s partly due to FirstNet's priority and preemption, and the ability to share data with our officers in a rapid manner. FirstNet has been with me each step of the way to resolve issues or problems that I have identified.

As a chief or a sheriff or a fire chief, we don't do a good job at technology because that's not our area of expertise. So my advice is to make sure the product you select is one that you know will get support beyond the sales team

The biggest benefit                                                                                                          

The biggest benefit for the Vail police department and really for the entire county is our ability to communicate with each other. Reliable communication is critically important to us. And it's in the worst of circumstances that we have to do that.

The data we share between officers is critically important. If we try to give a description of an offender or somebody that's suspicious or a missing person, it's very difficult to see that in your mind's eye. But having the photo quickly to you with good resolution is so much easier.

That wouldn't have happened using the commercial networks. Because there's so many other things going on at the same time that are using up the data.

My vision for FirstNet is that we have one phone that does everything for us. One phone that gives us access to our data systems, that gives us the ability to share data between folks in the field and maybe real-time video. Officers already have so many things on their tool belt. We need to make that one device that can do everything.

I have the opportunity to work closely with the IACP and be a member of that organization. And I'm excited about the opportunities FirstNet presents for agencies across our country to be more successful in the way we do the work in preventing crime and making our community safer.

Customer service                                                                                                              

In Eagle County, we respond to all sorts of different things with people recreating and getting in problems. Hunters having problems, ski patrol having people go out of bounds and get involved in avalanches, crashes, crimes. Plus all of the things that happen in a regular community.

So, when people ask me about FirstNet and how we use it, I routinely tell them that I have been so impressed with the customer service I have received.

And that's really the key point. They’ve been with us, dealing with the continued issues that we have with our mountainous environment. And I've been really excited about the partnership we have. I hear regularly from our elected officials and from community members that they feel like they don't have good commercial cell service. I don't hear that from the officers.

So, whether it's the priority and preemption, or Band Class 14, it's working really well for us and we're excited about that opportunity.

Dwight Henninger is Chief of Police for Vail, CO, and has more than 24 years of experience in law enforcement and serves as the 1st Vice President for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Before moving to Colorado, he served with the City of Laguna Beach, CA. Chief Henninger is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, the Police Executive Research Forum’s Senior Management Institute for Police and the California Police Officer Standards Training Command College. He has also served as the former Director of the Colorado Regional Community Policing Institute and the Colorado Police Corps in Golden.