Reliable connectivity critical for Navajo Nation first responders

May 20, 2024

We sat down with Navajo Nation public safety officials recently to discuss the importance of reliable communication on Navajo Nation – which stretches over 27,000 square miles across diverse geographies – including mountains, valleys and deep canyons. Here’s what they had to say about how FirstNet helps them stay connected and the other technologies they’re using to communicate among themselves and with other jurisdictions.

Helping Navajo Nation Police address its biggest challenges

Ronald Silversmith

Deputy Chief of Field Operations for the Navajo Nation Police Department


The Navajo Nation is roughly 27,000 square miles. We’ve got close to 400,000 Navajos that live on Navajo Nation. And our department consists of 120 officers who cover the entire span to provide police services.

We have public safety dispatchers – about 4-5, maybe one (or none) at each of our 7 police districts. At times when we don't have a dispatcher available, we take an officer off the road, just to provide dispatch services. That's one officer unable to respond to assist with calls.

What are the challenges of policing an expanse that covers everything from ravines and canyons to high plains to mountains?

The biggest challenge the Navajo Police Department has is manpower. We have a shortage of resources to adequately cover the span of the Navajo Nation. Even with recruiting.

What about the amount of territory you cover – is that a challenge as well? And why?

Well, the Navajo nation is majority rural, remote communities. The terrain drops into canyons and large valley areas where even our mobile police radios are unable to connect with our dispatch. Our officers go blind into a lot of these calls.

Most recently we had an officer in Crownpoint who didn't have radio communication. He attempted to communicate through our current communication system and a mobile device. But he ended up being slain on duty by an individual involved in domestic violence. It took a while for officers to find his exact location. Even though he had a cell phone on him.

These are some of the risks that our officers take on a daily basis.

Even with the latest technology, sometimes it's still hard to communicate because of the terrain and the lack of infrastructure related to cell towers. Those are some of the challenges of being a Tribal police officer on Navajo Nation.

The FirstNet Program at AT&T is building towers out here. What are the expectations for communications once those solutions are fully deployed?

If we get a reliable technology infrastructure in place for our officers, it won't be as challenging. Right now, the Navajo Police Department is making a move towards zone and grid area patrols rather than remaining at the police district. One of the reasons our officers gather at the police district is because that's where they do their reports. If we get good, reliable technology infrastructure – Wi-Fi connectivity in the remote parts of the Navajo Nation – we'll be able to deploy more resources out in those areas where officers are able to do their police reports or arrest reports in those areas and be available.

How will signal boosters help as you try to ensure police presence in the community?

A majority of our Navajo police vehicles are equipped with an MDT where they’re able to connect to the Wi-Fi. But a lot of them are not able to do that right now. They're able to do their reports while they're out in the field. But they have to either save it to the computer or a thumb drive device. Then they go back to the main field office to submit their reports.

If we had a good Wi-Fi router system, they would be submitting their reports right there.

At times we are deployed to assist other Tribal nations during their special events or major incidents – not just bordering Navajo Nation, but far up north. There are times when Navajo Nation has deployed to the Lakota Nations to provide police services. Just having that same communication services with FirstNet would be a benefit to both Tribal nations.

Even here on the Navajo Nation, having FirstNet first responder service, independent of the regular public, connectivity is not bogged down. In the past, cell phone communication was zero to none during a major Tribal event. Since we've gone to FirstNet, we haven't had that specific problem during any of our special events or incidents.

Were you part of the deployment during a major snow snowstorm end of last year?

I was the administrator gathering people for an incident command during one of the Navajo Nation's snow operations recently. Once the snow started melting, we started experiencing floods within the Chinle area. Having that service – the connection with the public safety personnel, our own officers, our frontline supervisors who carried FirstNet phones – we had direct connectivity, direct communication with them.

We were able to pass real time photos of areas affected by the flood, real time photos of snow levels that we needed to get out to the communities through our Facebook page to alert the public of the road conditions.

It’s been really helpful getting real time information and photographs of areas affected by weather storms. And we can relay that back and actually have something posted at least within the hour – a little quicker than we ever had before.

How are these grants helpful to you and to other Tribal agencies?

Each and every grant that the Navajo Police Department receives is really helpful because our contract grants are probably 80-90% of our funding source. That's just for paying police officers to be on the road. About 10% of our operating budget is from Tribal general funds. Having grants to supplement a lot of our operations is really helpful and beneficial, to our officers and to the department, as well as the communities. They allow us to get reliable police vehicles out on the road and have better service to the community.

A lot of our specialized units operate under grant funding or one-time funding to combat, crime on Navajo Nation – such as criminal drug investigations, drug interdiction operations – to buy dogs and vehicles for them.

How important is interoperability with fire, EMS, game wardens, county sheriffs?

The Navajo Police Department has a lack of manpower. So, we enter into a lot of mutual aid agreements to supplement the need for more officers when we have missing persons or lost children. The biggest resource we have on Navajo Nation is probably in Apache County. We rely upon them most because they have more equipment. They have drone capability. They have internet capability. Their mobile command unit is outfitted with access to internet or communication. The most recent incident that occurred within the Utah, Colorado Navajo Nation was where an individual had taken custody of children.

We communicated with the Colorado authorities and the county sheriffs to have us check certain areas of the community of Manco. When they told us they needed more assistance, our officers went up there and provided some resources to help them better track the vehicle and the individual. That was all communicated through cell phone service or through a regular landline or dispatch.

When you get to these communities, we don't have radio connectivity with those agencies, but we do have cell phone communication through text messaging – sending pictures back and forth of the vehicle and the individual who’s being sought for questioning.

That’s where it's really important to have reliable communication in place. If not everybody is operating in the dark. Nobody knows what to do. With reliable communication infrastructure you get real time updates as you're traveling to the area. In this case, it was 100% good outcome as far as that operation went.

Ronald Silversmith is the Deputy Chief of Field Operations for the Navajo Nation Police Department. He has been in Navajo Nation law enforcement for 36 years.

Interoperability critical for Navajo Nation Fire Department

Gerald Todacheenie

Fire Lieutenant with the Navajo Nation Fire Department.


My department is fire and rescue. We have a total of 20 personnel for the entire Navajo Nation, which is roughly the size of West Virginia. We have 8 stations that cover everything from the western part of the Navajo Nation to the most eastern part.

Tell us a little bit about that terrain you cover. And What are some of the challenges – especially during big events?

The terrain gets pretty rough. We have mountains, valleys, canyons. We're a lot different from municipal departments. Sometimes we're doing search and rescues in canyons, so that limits the reception. We have a limited number of repeaters in the area – especially for the fire department. We piggyback off the Navajo Nation Police Department system.

The challenges we have during big events when it comes to communications is the lack of infrastructure to facilitate this large number of people. For instance, cell phone service goes out. Everyone's using one tower and text messages come in late. Sometimes you get phone calls. Or you're trying to get a hold of important people and you can't – calls drop. As far as mobile communications, radios, there's not enough to go around for each department.

We have EMS, fire and police. It's difficult to get on one certain frequency just because we don't have the infrastructure for it.

So, what do you have in the vehicles?

In our vehicles, we have the radio of course – LMR – and then we have our Toughbooks. We’re using FirstNet on Toughbook’s. With that, we use our own system first to have like a map up with a location. So, if someone's available on our end, they'll input the GPS coordinates into our first due system and it'll pop up on our tablets.

Our infrastructure doesn't allow for us to use telemetry. But it would be great to be able to use that, especially with EMS if they're coming on scene. Everything from our monitors could be transferred to their monitors and they could see real time patient vitals. That’d be great, even with the hospitals. But unfortunately, we don't have that set-up yet.

How is FirstNet MegaRange going to help you cover the vast terrain?

One way FirstNet MegaRange™ will help fire and rescue, is just by having access to real time updates.  Having that boost in signal and service so we can get real time updates. Whatever EMS is experiencing, they can forward to us or the PD.  It'll be forwarded to our tablets, our Toughbooks in the trucks. It’s just getting information quicker so we can better respond to certain situations – whether it's a fire, hazmat rescue situations. We will have that capability of knowing what we're facing.

How will it help with coverage gaps?

The Navajo Nation fire department only has 20 firefighters. On weekends, you only have one firefighter on duty. So, it'll help greatly with getting some reception so you can say, “Hey, this is too much for me. I need help.” And we'll have another station deploy. In the past, we've had Chinle Station 50, call us out and they used their FirstNet phones from the location.

This also helps the community have that confidence in public safety on the Navajo Nation. It provides more comfort for them knowing that we do have access to FirstNet and its capabilities. It allows us to do our job better.

Have you ever been the one firefighter on shift that's been out there?

Three weeks ago, we had a rescue on Route 7 – on the mountain. One rescue turned into four. The roads up there during this season get really muddy and snow packed and some people misjudge. They think it's passable and they'll end up getting stuck. So, by myself, I had to call for help. I couldn't get anything on my radio. I had some reception on my phone and I was able to get a hold of dispatch here. They were able to dispatch another truck to come and help me. We pulled out 3 vehicles and we got one vehicle out of the mud, so 4 rescues in one night.

Do you have a wish list for FirstNet connectivity – perhaps to send drones in to get a view of the fire line, protect lives?

Using FirstNet connectivity for drones and seeing what's going on in the fire line would be great capability. Not just for fires, but for search and rescue, as well. The drones we would like to have would have the infrared capabilities to see not only what the camera sees, but to see the heat signatures as well. It'd be great when it comes to the fire line to see what the fire is doing – whether it's switching directions with the weather or if it's just confined to one area. Or even if any homes are involved and public safety is a risk.

Is interoperability something that's necessary out here in this rural expense?

Interoperability with all the agencies on the reservation using FirstNet would be great. There are times where we're responding as one person. EMS only has two people in a truck – and they have one truck for 100 square miles. Things could go south, where we would need a police officer on scene. If they're on an accident, a fire could break out and they could get a hold of fire. We might need more help treating patients. Interoperability would be great – especially that time we had 4 rescues in one night. It would be great to just say, “Hey, I need emergency management out here. I need resources – maybe a snowcat – to help out.

How will FirstNet help you eventually share information about patients and send EKGs?

That’s where interoperability would come in. The monitors that Navajo Nation Fire Rescue are receiving have Wi-Fi capability. And with that capability, we can send real time, vital signs to either the hospital or to an incoming EMS unit so they know firsthand what's going on with this patient. It paints a better picture when you see it as well. You hear it on the radio, but when you see it, it shows up differently. And that would be a great help if we could continue and it will continue to use FirstNet.

Navajo Nation used an NTIA grant to help cover the costs for the technology. How important is that?

Grants in general would benefit a lot to other tribal lands – for updating infrastructure, providing more training, saving on costs for what they're already putting into their communications or training. And it will benefit in the community to know that they have these professional professionals within their departments already

Gerald Todacheenie is a Fire Lieutenant with the Navajo Nation Fire Department.

Keeping wildlife conservation officers connected

Harold Moses

Navajo Nation Wildlife Conservation Officer


I patrol the mountains and fishing lakes looking for poaching violations, wildlife violations, civil or criminal traffic or criminal violations on the mountains. And then the fishing lakes. Cover all the lakes from Morgan Lake all the way to Wheat Fields and Sailing Lakes.

What are some of the possible infractions that you encounter?

We could have people fishing without a fishing license, which is basically poaching on the Navajo nation. Or they could be hunting without a license. Or they could have illegal firearms, such as a magazine that holds 10 rounds where they're only supposed to hold 5. Or they could be using a smaller caliber for big game.

Tell me a little bit about the structure of your organization. What areas do you cover? And how is the geography?

Altogether, we have about 6-7 game wardens and one supervisor. Six are in the field and we patrol the whole Navajo Nation – all 27,000 square miles.

The terrain and geography of the Navajo nation can go from the lowlands – like in Morgan Lake where there is a lake there and off roads. And it can go into rough terrain like the Chuska Mountains, which is very rough. Two track roads, wood hauling roads, and some are slopes, some are downgrades, upgrades and range from mud to rocky to razor rock roads. So, it's a rough terrain on the mountains.

What are some of the challenges of that for your job?

Some of the challenges are breaking down out there by going on razor rocks where you have flat tires. You can get stuck, bogged down into mud, or you can get high centered on the rough roads. It's a challenge driving.

This is a remote area. There are hardly any towers up there. There's a lot of dips and valleys that we go into where we lose communication. Cell phone service doesn't work at all and our radio cuts out. We just don't have any communication with dispatch because of those areas.

How important is it to have reliable communications out there and why?

It's especially important that the dispatcher knows where we are. We’ve got give our location just in case something happens. We might go off a road where we can't contact our dispatch and let them know that we do need help. Or we might run into an aggressive person up on the mountain. Or a violation that we need to pass to our dispatcher. Whether we need assistance or other equipment up there, communication is important.

How long might you be without backup or aid if that happens?

Our backup is about an hour, 2 hours, depending on where we are. We can be at one point of the reservation and our backups could be on the other side of the reservation, which is about a hundred, 200, 300 miles.

You recently got FirstNet phones. What was the reason for the FirstNet phones?

We recently got the FirstNet phones for better communication. Right now, just the officers have it. It's better communication. For instance, I can talk to someone in Shiprock and the communication is clear and it's fast compared to our installed radios.

I know you're in the process of deploying FirstNet MegaRange. What is the hope for the technology once it’s up and running?

Once FirstNet MegaRange is installed, it'll help us with our laptops, where we can hook up on Wi-Fi and communicate with other officers in the field. We can do our reports. We can even send our reports via email to our supervisor instead of coming here to Window Rock. And communication will improve.

How does it work now?

Right now, we can email, but we need a place where we can log on. Or we just come all the way down to Window Rock and turn in a hard copy. Or we put in our jump drive into our computer at our office and download our reports and print.

Having this technology will cut down on our mileage and our travel time.

I work in the Shiprock District. It's about an hour and 45-minute drive to Window Rock. It will cut down on the drive time. I can stay in the field and I can upload my reports just using the system we got for FirstNet.

How does being connected keep you safe?

When we're out in the field during the hunting season, we know every hunter is armed either with a firearm or a knife. When they're fishing, they're armed with a knife. Anything could happen out there. And the faster we can get help out, the better it'll be for us. That’s where the reliable communication would play a role for us.

And it helps keep the community safe by keeping the lakes and the mountains safe.

You’re likely in places where other emergency responders don’t go – police, EMS and fire. How do you help them?

We’re usually the first on scene up in the mountain and we have a better understanding of where people need to go and which location they can go to. For instance, a missing person. We know the area. We can start breaking up officers or EMS where they can stage and where they can start looking for in the areas they need to cover. This would be a lot faster with FirstNet instead of trying to communicate with our cell phones – or a radio, which does have limited service areas.

How will FirstNet MegaRange help with that?

FirstNet MegaRange will help speed up everything. We'll have direct contact with the officers in the field. And we can have them go where we need them to cover the areas that need to be covered. It will allow us to get a better description of the missing person or the person that needs help. It'll be faster broadcasting.

And FirstNet MegaRange will help extend the service that we currently have. It'll go a longer and a further distance than our communication that we have now.

Recently we had a, a missing person out in Sawmill who was dropped off in an area. He was intoxicated. That night they did a search for him and it continued to the next morning. If we’d had FirstNet, we could have had the description of the person faster and the area that they covered. And we would be more in communication with each other as far as areas we had covered. But we didn't have that technology then, or FirstNet.

If we had FirstNet, the six officers that were there, could've sent a picture of the missing person, what he looked like, his physical description and GPS of where he was dropped off.

How are you using FirstNet Push-to-Talk?

We have the mission-critical FirstNet Rapid Response on our cell phones and that's been helping us a lot in the field. For instance, I was in Shiprock one day and there was an officer in Chambers or Sanders area. And it was really clear, compared to our radios that we do have now. The distance was maybe over 300 miles.

How is that helpful to you and your safety and their safety?

If we need backup right way, we can give our GPS coordinates. We could give them the full information, vehicle description, if the person had a weapon, which way he was going, and also send a GPS of our location.

In the near future, we'll be able to look on our phones and see the location of all the units. They'll have GPS and it'll be monitoring our location – just in case we need backup. We can just look at the phone and see where they are at and we can start heading to that location.

It’s exciting to have the FirstNet Rapid Response as part of my equipment because the system we have is limited. This one here is more convenient. The communication is better.

Harold Moses is a Navajo Nation Wildlife Conservation Officer.