Narrowing the ‘digital divide’: Funding tech projects in rural areas for enhanced training

How a unique partnership created more reliable connections for fire response and training

The result of an unconventional partnership is often a successful grant application.

This was the case when four volunteer fire departments, a county emergency management agency, a community development corporation, a national intermediary, a multi-state financial institution and a telecommunications giant banded together to increase capabilities for first responders in rural west-central Pennsylvania.

Being a first responder in unconnected areas

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.
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. (Photo/Getty Images)

Did you ever stop to think how many times a day we depend on information from our cell phone, 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.

A 2019 study by BroadbandNow estimated that 42 million Americans do not have access to broadband. In Pennsylvania, about half the population lacks proper connectivity. Now imagine being a first responder operating in one of these unconnected areas.

Every day there are positive outcomes to life-threatening situations because of advances in telecommunications. But every day people are dying needlessly because their incident happened in a zip code that isn’t connected.

Rural departments that lack connectivity also experience difficulties delivering training, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. With most training facilities closed or offering limited in-person training programs, virtual training has become the norm across the fire service. The benefit of virtual training is the ability of the fire department to access instructors and programs from anywhere in the nation. Online training allows departments to locate courses that they might not be able to access in their area. It also permits firefighters to train when they have the time, addressing one of the barriers to recruiting or retaining firefighters.

A unique partnership to achieve connectivity

A lack of connectivity, plus a lack of financial resources, plagued the volunteer departments in the northern portion of Cambria County, Pennsylvania. Because of the terrain and a sparse population, access to reliable telecommunications was spotty at best.

The Northern Cambria Community Development Corporation (NCCDC), a private nonprofit organization focused on redeveloping the communities in the area, approached me with a grant opportunity that focused on addressing the digital divide in low-income rural communities. The grant was being funded by the Local initiative Support Corporation (LISC), established by the Ford Foundation over 40 years ago to act as a national intermediary for community development.

My suggestion for the grant: Why not assemble a pilot project for first responders to address our lack of connectivity so fire departments had increased access to different training types and more reliable connections during responses?

NCCDC Executive Director Matthew Barczak and I pitched our idea to the program officer at LISC. They loved it.

That type of reception continued as we assembled the partners for this endeavor. NCCDC’s Digital Inclusion Program developed a unique partnership to address the lack of connectivity for area fire departments without taxing the budgets of the departments. NCCDC would serve as the recipient of grant funds and would administer the program. NCCDC agreed to also provide a “digital navigator” position, a career firefighter who is responsible for the city fire department’s technology program. The navigator’s job would be to help design the specs for the project equipment and train the firefighters in its use. The navigator would also remain available for the two years of the program to answer any questions.

Four volunteer departments – Adams Township Volunteer Fire Company #2, Hope Fire Company, Nanty Glo Volunteer Fire Department and Patton Fire Company #1 – joined the partnership along with the Cambria County Emergency Management Agency. NCCDC reached out to FirstNet to be a partner in this initiative as well. FirstNet agreed to provide nine iPad tablets and four Cradlepoint devices to the initiative at special pricing. The Cradlepoint devices would act as a booster and WiFi network in the apparatus, boosting the signal as much as 30%.

Project approval and initiation

In September 2020, NCCDC was notified that the project was approved for funding.

In the past several months, all the hardware for the project has been purchased and installed. Crews at all the fire stations were trained by the digital navigator, and the system is being utilized to answer alarms and to train firefighters.

The iPads were loaded with apps like ERG 2020, Cameo, CDC, CMC and WISER. The departments have utilized these apps in hands-on training for recognition and identification of hazardous materials. One department has used the CMC app in rope rescue training. The iPads have been utilized in incident command classes and scene set-up scenarios. Recently one of the departments employed their iPad to shoot video of residential structure fire, then used this in their critique of the incident with the two mutual-aid departments that also responded to the incident.

LISC funded nine projects nationally. The NCCDC project was the only one focused on public safety. LISC’s funding came from Truist Cares, which is a cooperative effort between Truist Financial Corporation, Truist Foundation, Inc., and Truist Charitable Fund to provide communities, organizations and individuals disaster relief and assistance during the COVID-19 crisis.

Show me the (new) money

Financial assistance for training has always been a priority with state and federal programs, such as the Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG), Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) and Fire Prevention and Safety (FP&S) programs. In recent years, though, the private funding community has caught the “training bug.” Now funders like financial institutions, insurance companies, private corporations and community foundations place training in a high category. When you marry these circumstances with the love of technology that this same group has had for years, you come up with a winning situation for grant applicants.

Training and connectivity 

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the fire service to accelerate its move from traditional face-to-face training to a program that has more of a virtual platform. The concept of online training offers more options as far as instructors, courses and training agencies. It also addresses one of the significant drawbacks to recruiting and retaining firefighters today – time constraints. With individuals trying to balance family commitments, their employment and firefighting, there just isn’t time to work training (that was based around someone else’s schedule) into the schedule. Virtual training now permits you to do so.

However, rural departments with spotty or no internet service in their coverage area find themselves at a disadvantage in providing virtual training. I have spoken to firefighters who have taken up to three hours to complete a 90-minute class because of their slow internet speed. I have also talked with firefighters who have driven to a convenience store or their local high school parking lot so they could access virtual training classes because of insufficient connectivity.

The ability to efficiently access training and other similar data on apps and other online services will ultimately improve firefighters’ ability to make a difference which will lead to a successful outcome on incidents.

If your department has sufficient connectivity, then providing virtual training to your firefighters should become a department priority. If your department is in an underserved area, then you need to make your elected officials aware of this situation and the disadvantage it places on your firefighters.

One thing is certain: Virtual training is here to stay. How you react to this opportunity will determine the future of your department.

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