ROG: A dedicated team of former first responders who understand the needs of public safety

September 25, 2023

by AT&T

They’re available at a moment’s notice to help ensure public safety agencies have the connectivity they need – when and where they need it. The FirstNet Response Operations Group™ is a dedicated team of former first responders who have an intimate understanding of the needs of public safety. The team works in alignment with Homeland Security’s National Incident Management System to identify the right solutions in the event of a disaster – and for planned and unplanned events.

We sat down with three team leaders recently to talk about their commitment to the mission, why they do what they do and why it matters to public safety. Here’s what they had to say:  

“We've been in their shoes. We know what they're feeling.”

Ryan Fields-Spack - Deputy Commander, FirstNet Response Operations Group, FirstNet Program at AT&T Former paramedic and fire captain

Why did you go into the fire service and by extension, public safety?

EMS and fire has been in my blood since as long as I can remember. As a kid, I used to love watching those fire trucks go down the road. I started off volunteering in high school with my local volunteer fire departments and then moved up from there. I joined one of the largest metro fire departments in the Denver metro area, the Aurora Fire Department. And I served as both a paramedic and a firefighter there for about 10 years. I also served as a lieutenant and a coordinator with the Office of Emergency Management. I left as a captain to join the FirstNet program.

Having a background in the fire service, especially for our team, is a core prerequisite for people to be able to join the Response Operations Group. We've been in the shoes of public safety, we know what it feels like to be in a position where we need support from external sources. For me, having the strategic ability to see what's needed is very important.  

What is ROG?

Essentially, we are the funnel point between what public safety needs in the field and what FirstNet, Built with AT&T can provide from a resource perspective. We've got resources all across the country. When the needs come in, we work with our liaisons that have that handshake relationship with the public safety customer. They bring it to our Response Operations Group section chief, and they can make decisions with that need in mind.

What sets FirstNet apart from commercial networks?

Public safety wanted their own network. So what we have built is a dedicated program that will support public safety no matter what they need. We're required by contract to provide those solutions. Commercial carriers don't have that requirement. We're going to do it the right way.

We also have a dedicated group of meteorologists who’ve worked across the country and have a phenomenal amount of experience. We have a direct line to them. If we have an incident, we can say, “Hey, can we get a dedicated weather report for this specific location?”  

What would FirstNet be without the Response Operations Group?

We are the advocate for public safety. Everybody in the FirstNet, Built with AT&T apparatus is charged with supporting public safety. Our team is that nucleus that sees the challenges public safety is having in the moment. When we see weather events coming through or when we see there's a fiber cut in an area, we know what they're facing. We are their advocate and we channel that directly into FirstNet to provide those resources.

“My father was a firefighter. My uncle was a captain…I never imagined doing anything else.”

Fred Scalera - Director, Response Operations Group, FirstNet Program at AT&T 40-years in fire and law enforcement service

Fred Scalera - Director, Response Operations Group, FirstNet Program at AT&T 40-years in fire and law enforcement service

Why did you go into public safety?

My father was a firefighter. My uncle was a captain. I’ve just always loved the fire service. I never imagined doing anything else.  I’ve had a very successful career – starting as a junior volunteer firefighter when I was 14.  I’ve been in Homeland Security, in the sheriff's department, the state legislature, multiple different facets of hazmat, arson and fire, responded to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

When I retired, I went over to the Essex County Sheriff's Department as Deputy Director of the Sheriff's Department for Homeland Security and Emergency Management. And I wound up going to the New Jersey Department of Homeland Security, where I helped build the FirstNet Early Builder project.   

Where were you when 9/11 happened?

I was in my chief's office in the Nutley Fire Department in New Jersey, my hometown. One of my firefighters came running in from the fire kitchen saying, “Hey, a plane just hit the World Trade Center Tower.”

So I went to the kitchen and started watching… And then we started seeing the buildings collapse. All around us, agencies and towns started to self-deploy to New York City. Every career and volunteer firefighter, police officer that was off duty came to the public safety building. And everybody kept saying, “Hey, Chief, this town's going. We want to go.” But I said, “We don't self-deploy. We wait for a mission.” About 2 hours in, we got a call from University Hospital. Nutley Fire Department was one of the largest hazmat units in the state of New Jersey at the time. And we were under contract with the county.

So University Hospital arrives on scene in Liberty State Park in Hoboken and says, “Chief, we got all this soot and this smoke and coming across. Is it hazardous?” … We couldn't get information out of the city. So we made a decision – because cement dust is corrosive and could have been asbestos – that we were going to do a mass decontamination.

We brought every hazmat team in the state to Hoboken, N.J., where we actually ran the process. And we de-conned about 10,000 people who were being brought over by watercraft, boats, anything that could float. All of our rescuers going back and forth to the city would come through de-con when they came back. So we were able to protect our responders and the citizens that were coming back to New Jersey. 

What does the ROG team do?

The Response Operations Group is made of professionals from all different disciplines around the country who have come together to help build this program. We have about 12 personnel on the response side. We have different teams that tie together. We’re the overall umbrella for public safety. But we also tie in with the AT&T Network Disaster Recovery group – which has additional assets we can use, volunteer drivers and other equipment – and the AT&T Weather Operations Center, which provides us weather forecasts and updates for continuity. 

What sets FirstNet apart from commercial networks?

FirstNet and ROG tied together totally differentiate us from any other carrier. We're a complete program, not just a network. That's the big difference. We’re public safety's network across the country. We have Band 14. We can dedicate spectrum just for public safety. And the only ones who can request all this equipment are FirstNet customers.

Our team has lived that life. We’ve done all those jobs. We know the stress that's on them. We know what they need at the scene. When we arrive, we show up with the same credentials they have. Our wildfire person who runs the wildfire force got his red card as a wildfire fighter. He speaks their language. That's why we brought him on for the West Coast. We specifically hire people who work in those regions, because firefighters, police, EMS all operate differently across the country. 

What would FirstNet be without the Response Operations Group?

Most problems and unsafe conditions occur when communications fails. When I can't talk to you, and you can't talk to me, and you might be in a problem state or in a flood or a hurricane, that’s a problem. That’s why we’re here. The better our communications, the better response for the safety of the citizens. 

“What is most rewarding to me is the ability to still continue to serve.”

Shannon Browning, Section Chief, FirstNet Program at AT&T, Former Dallas Police Officer, Dallas, Texas

Shannon Browning - Section Chief, FirstNet Program at AT&T Former Dallas Police Officer, Dallas, Texas 

How long have you been in public safety and what roles have you held at agencies where you’ve worked?

I started out with the Dallas Police Department in 2007. I held various roles as a police officer, including burglary task force, specialized units, and then progressed into a field training officer when I was promoted to senior corporal. I progressed through the ranks and became sergeant, worked in various roles, including the SWAT team, for Dallas. After about 14-1/2 years, I made the transition to FirstNet. 

How does your public safety background inform your role in the ROG?

We had FirstNet with the Dallas Police Department. So I knew a little bit about its vision, the body of work it actually did. When we called, they showed up, whether we had connectivity issues, communication issues. It was that initial exposure that got me interested in FirstNet.

To be out there as a former public safety practitioner, we know what they're going through. We can focus on that connectivity side, but we can also be sensitive to the mental health aspect, the wellness, what they're actually going through. We can pick up on those clues, those stressors that they're having. And we can integrate and maybe provide a little relief. Because a lot of the time, they don't have enough champions supporting public safety. 

Can you speak to the process and issues section chiefs face in extreme circumstances?

You can never prepare for going into these situations. They're all different. I look back over the last year and we've had tornadoes, hurricanes. I've been on the top of a mountain where it's 30 below zero and I've been in 150 degree weather. You don't prepare on that. You rely on the skill sets that you took growing up in other careers, but also the training that we do throughout the year.

The most recent deployment was Hurricane Ian in Florida last year. This was a unique situation because it was the first time we had been able to use our AWOC. They were able to get me in close – just outside of harm's way, but close enough that I could respond within hours, not days, after the hurricane passed. As the model changed, we moved in closer, and then down to Fort Myers. When the hurricane passed, I was just north of Orlando. Our federal partners were all hunkered down and we were right there with them waiting for this storm to pass. We have two amphibious vehicles… So we were able to get through the floodwaters and begin deploying solutions as soon as we got the all clear from our meteorologists and then from leadership to go out there and start network restoration.  

What do you find most rewarding about serving public safety through ROG?

What is most rewarding to me is the ability to still continue to serve. It all goes back to serving the community.  Every section chief assigned to an operation stays with that asset – with that agency – for the duration of the incident. They have access to the deployable, but they also have eye contact and boots on the ground access to the ROG team. 

What would FirstNet be without the Response Operations Group?

The brilliance of FirstNet is you would still get priority and preemption. But you also get this intangible Response Operations Group that is willing to go wherever, whenever, however they're needed. And that is probably the true difference between FirstNet and commercial networks. FirstNet has the network, the tools and the people to serve public safety.