ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The police chief of Alaska's largest city hurried out of the department's glass building after the ground began to shake. Phone lines jammed and even police radios were spotty after a major earthquake, but his cellphone was recently equipped with a national wireless network dedicated to first responders.
Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll was able to reach other officials who had the new high-speed connection after the 7.1 magnitude quake last year caused widespread damage.
It proved to be a trial run in Alaska for the FirstNet network, which Doll and other commanders had just signed on to test with their personal cellphones. The crucial calls made possible by FirstNet helped first responders set up an emergency operations center and coordinate the response to the Nov. 30 earthquake.
"It was just random chance that we had started sort of testing this a little bit right before the earthquake happened," Doll said. "I felt a lot more confident rolling it out to the whole agency after we had that kind of trial by fire with the earthquake with just a few phones. I was like, 'This actually works.'"
Anchorage police officially opted in to the service in January, joining thousands of public safety agencies nationwide that can use the connection during emergencies and for everyday work like communicating by smartphone, routing officers to calls and looking up suspect information in the field. Agencies also can tie the network to apps, including a push-to-talk option that turns cellphones into high-tech walkie-talkies.
In Alaska, the network is seen as an emerging tool to connect emergency responders in a massive state with scores of tribal villages far removed from roads. High-speed internet has been built up in remote areas in recent years, but connecting rural communities is still a significant challenge, even with FirstNet.
The network is secure, encrypted and off limits to the public. But it has raised concerns among media advocates that the secrecy shields police and others from scrutiny as more agencies cut access to their traditional radio communications.
Both FirstNet and AT&T, which runs the high-speed system, say it's up to subscribers to open aspects of the network. The communications giant didn't know any agencies that have done so.
Launched last year, the network was established by Congress in 2012 after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when some police and fire departments couldn't communicate over incompatible radio systems.
The First Responder Network Authority, an independent federal entity, oversees it with AT&T, which plans to invest $40 billion over its 25-year government contract.
Verizon has rolled out a similar service for first responders not tied to the government but would not say how many agencies have signed up. More than 7,250 departments nationwide have joined FirstNet, AT&T said.
"I would say it's the most important network in our country because it's serving our first responders who are taking care of us every day," said Chris Sambar, AT&T's senior vice president for FirstNet.
In cities like Anchorage, police have issued FirstNet-linked cellphones to officers and equipped laptops in patrol cars with mobile hotspots.
During a recent shift, Anchorage Officer T. Scott Masten used the network to look up photos that confirmed the identity of a man found sleeping in a car in a church parking lot. Previously, officers would have to drive to a substation to get that information.
"It makes my job easier; makes it much more efficient," Masten said.
FirstNet's lack of public scrutiny is raising concerns about further erosion to freedom of information rights.
J. Alex Tarquinio, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, believes a government-sanctioned service should include a portion that's open to the media.
"The government has an obligation -- because this is a public service -- to find a way to provide that information to journalists, so journalists can continue to cover incidents and emergency response in a timely way," Tarquinio said.