Opinion: Lack of broadband access puts emergency responders, patients at disadvantage

Did you ever stop to think how many times a day we depend on information from our cellphone, laptop or tablet? Phone calls, text messages, video and access to the internet are so commonplace that we don’t even give them a second thought except when we can’t connect.

Recent studies indicate that approximately 95% of the land area and about half the population of our state lacks proper connectivity. Now imagine being a first responder operating in one of these areas. With the advent of the internet new avenues of treating patients, rescuing individuals trapped in vehicle accidents and operating at structure fires became available to responders.

For years, we depended on a large siren located on the roof of the fire station to alert firefighters that they had a call. Today firefighters can receive a text message that they have an alarm which will then bring up a map and directions to the location of the call. Of course, all of this is predicated on the fact that you can get the message and access that wonderful information.

From the moment of dispatch, first responders are at a disadvantage if they are not connected. When an EMS unit responds to a suspected cardiac incident their personnel immediately attach a monitor to the patient. The monitor sends vital signs to a local doctor, emergency department, and/or the patient’s cardiologist. Quickly that doctor can inform the crew if the patient is in fact having a heart attack. The doctor can tell the crew about pre-hospital treatment for the patient and the doctor can inform hospital personnel what preparations are needed for the soon to be arriving patient. Again, all of this is possible only if this incident occurred in an area that has connectivity.

Everyday there are positive outcomes to life threatening situations like this because of access to telecommunications. Everyday individuals are also dying needlessly because their incident happened in a zip code that isn’t connected.

Recently, Jerry Ozog, executive director of Pennsylvania Fire & Emergency Services Institute, testified before the House Consumer Affairs Subcommittee on Telecommunications. In his comments Ozog stated, “The key to effective incident response, incident command, and safe demobilization after the incident is the concept of pre-incident planning. Pre-incident planning includes use of mapping technology, digital pictures, and videos. Information about chemicals, building plans and layouts, and internal disaster and evacuation plans are used to improve situational awareness and leads to better decision making. The ability to quickly access data on apps and other online services that will be used to assist in decision making will ultimately improve Pennsylvania’s first responder’s ability to make a difference which will lead to a successful outcome. “

Today we live in a highly mobile society, as you finish reading this column you may feel nice and comfortable in your 4G home anxiously awaiting 5G service but the next time you get in your car, step on a train or board a plane you will be traveling through areas that have poor or no connectivity. Should an incident happen in one of those areas your chances of survival are greatly diminished simply by the fact that the area is not connected. For these reasons statewide connectivity should be everyone’s concern.

Jerry Brant is is a life member of the Hope Fire Company of Northern Cambria where he served as Chief for 15 years. he is a founder of Decoplan Associates LLC. a firm specializing in grant writing, strategic planning and project development for fire, and EMS organizations and municipal governments.