Imagine the county emergency manager’s phone rings at 2:00 in the morning. It’s the county’s IT department calling in a panic. The entire county’s internal communication network is failing because of a rapidly accelerating ransomware cyberattack

It sounds like a nightmare, but this is what Mykel Kroll, Emergency Manager of Fremont County, Colorado, woke up to on August 16, 2022. Communication connectivity to — and between — county departments was down. County business came to a halt. Thankfully, the state’s radio system remained uncompromised, and most emergency response agencies were still in operation. But across the county, other departments — including the transportation department, emergency management agency, and sheriff’s office — were locked out. As Kroll put it, “Everything was just unplugging.”

As a first responder, Kroll was able to stay connected with the help of FirstNet — a broadband network for public safety communications. 

In those pre-dawn hours, Kroll went from being a central commander to being a central command hub. Just 30 minutes after getting the call at 2 a.m., Kroll was in his office. Relying on his phone’s hotspot, he was able to access his list of contacts, which were stored online. He then began contacting leaders of local agencies to assess the situation and coordinate next steps. At the same time, he reached out to FirstNet for assistance and equipment through the company’s deployable asset program. 

Armed with a cache of FirstNet hotspots, laptops, phones and routers, Kroll got to work. He used a hotspot to connect six laptops so dispatchers could resume digital operations. While the county network was down, dispatch was supported by a neighboring jurisdiction to ensure emergency calls were received. 

Next, Kroll deployed mobile data terminals (MDTs) to the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office, which manages the county jail and detention center. The MDTs operate on FirstNet, which meant they were off the county network and uncompromised. With the help of these laptops, deputies were able to stay connected and continue managing daily duties, including prisoner detentions and transports.

As the ransomware attack continued that day, hour by hour, Fremont County’s inter-departmental safety services were brought securely back online so public safety agencies and county officials could perform their critical work. 

Within 24 hours, a FirstNet Compact Rapid Deployable (CRD) arrived on the scene, bringing cellular coverage and a secure, reliable network connection. The CRD is a portable cell tower that generates a one-mile area of cellular, wired Internet and wi-fi coverage. The CRD provided Fremont County with multiple wireless access points, a high-performance router and a satellite connection to provide redundancy in case the cellular network became unavailable.

It's been a busy year since then for Fremont County’s public safety and first response leaders — a period of rigorous recovery and reinforcement, system optimization and comprehensive testing. It’s also been a year of serious expansion in the county’s use of FirstNet across several departments.