Imagine getting into a serious car crash or having a heart attack in the middle of nowhere and not knowing when help will arrive. This is the reality many rural Americans face. While small Midwest towns exhume a strong sense of community that’s hard to find nowadays, when dire situations arise, they often have a disadvantage.

This was the rationale behind the recent decision by Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa to move forward with a plan enacted by FirstNet, www.firstnet.com, and AT&T, www.att.com to build, operate, and maintain secure wireless broadband networks for the state’s public safety community. This public-private partnership will come at no cost to the state for the next 25 years and will also drive new innovation in devices, apps, and tools that will be crucial for first responders.

With the need for expanded coverage for fire, police, and EMS (emergency medical service) workers in areas with spotty wireless connectivity, the result was a communication upgrade.

“Traditionally, in the 1920s and ‘30s, first responders and dispatch in these areas were only equipped two-way radio systems to coordinate who would be responding to a call. These are the big, bulky radios that we often see first responders carrying,” says Bill Schrier, senior advisor, FirstNet. “While two-way radio is not being replaced, using these networks to further the use of smartphones opens the door to new technology and applications that first responders—urban and rural—do not typically have access to today.”

Now first responders can share critical data on more secure networks for day-to-day processes, or coordinate with public safety jurisdictions and agencies across the state in the event of natural disasters like tornados or flash floods. This gives them a better command of safety throughout the state of Iowa.

When it comes to developing innovative solutions, FirstNet and AT&T are planning to create new public safety apps and specialized devices that will work in tandem with IoT (Internet of Things) technologies.

According to Schrier, this will create a situational awareness map of sorts. He says, “Here, a one-way siren will come on similar to a pager that let’s first responders know where a fire or medical emergency is going on, who is on the way, how many volunteers are at the location, and also enables them to call for more help if needed.”

The benefit of this innovation really hits very close to home for many emergency personnel in smaller towns who are volunteers. They are the ones that answer the call whether they are at work or home with their families. With certified training in medical and safety emergencies, they have the right tools to share critical information with one another instantaneously.

“Volunteer first responders will have so much more capabilities now during emergencies,” Schrier adds. “They can talk with first responders and send photos, video, and EKGs that gives first responders a better idea of who may be injured and who to send in. This not only improves response time, but establishes an efficient way of when and how people are notified to save lives.”

When it comes to more populated areas, the establishment of a wireless ecosystem will lead to integration with NextGen 9-1-1 networks, as well as new jobs from further investments in smart city infrastructure.

Challenge: Emergency workers and volunteers struggle to share critical information with one another during high risk events in remote locations with poor connectivity.

Risk: Natural disasters in rural areas continue to make it difficult for first responders to effectively help and assist residents during emergencies.

Solution:  Building and maintaining wireless broadband networks for first responders and public safety organizations in Iowa.

Payoff: Volunteer first responders can share critical data with other emergency stations around the state. Wireless networks also drive further innovation in safety apps and devices to increase communication for rural and urban communities.