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A crowd of first responders and local and state leaders gathered at the Jefferson City Fire Department Training Center on Wednesday to celebrate.
EMS workers, firefighters and law enforcement officers mingled with officials and industry personnel under the hot sun, surrounded by shining firetrucks, ambulances and specialty vehicles.
Among the crowd were Cole County EMS Chief Eric Hoy, Cole County Sheriff John Wheeler, Cole County Presiding Commissioner Sam Bushman, outgoing and new Jefferson City mayors Carrie Tergin and Ron Fitzwater, Jefferson City Fire Chief Matthew Schofield and many others.
As Gov. Mike Parson arrived, the crowd moved toward a raised stage.
The cause for celebration? The five-year anniversary of Missouri’s participation in FirstNet, a national network built to assist first responders in emergency situations.
The FirstNet network is the product of a partnership between AT&T and the First Responder Network Authority, which is an independent federal agency.
FirstNet currently serves more than 25,000 public agencies across the United States.
Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe stepped up to the microphone and kicked off the celebration.
Kehoe thanked everyone for being there and shared how “cool” he thought it was that the celebration was happening. He said many of his family members have been and are first responders, so FirstNet and its efforts are really important to him.
He said FirstNet has been keeping Missouri’s first responders at a different level of safety.
The “great” partnership between a private company and the federal government is rare, Kehoe said.
“As a matter of fact, when they came in I told them, “You know we don’t really like the federal government,” Kehoe joked. “But this has been great. I really appreciate the partnership AT&T has brought us to our state and all over the country to keep those men and ladies (first responders) safe.”
Next up to speak was Craig Unruh, the president of AT&T Missouri and Arkansas.
Unruh remarked on the warm temperature but said it was much better than 30 degrees and rain, garnering some laughs from the crowd.
“These days, so much of life depends on connecting – connecting information to resources – and on being able to make those connections when and where we need them. At AT&T, we believe that no connection matters more than the one that might save a life,” Unruh said.
He said AT&T and FirstNet’s work to provide first responders with the tools and services they need to serve their communities more efficiently is something everyone can be proud of.
Unruh took a moment to thank first responders for dedicating their lives to serving and protecting their communities.
“Their unwavering commitment is truly commendable, and I thank you for that. FirstNet is here because of them, and FirstNet is here to serve them,” Unruh said.
So far, he said, AT&T has invested $3 billion into the network.
AT&T has built hundreds of new towers and upgraded thousands more in the state, Unruh said. They’ve connected more than 800 communities in Missouri and have more than 150 deployable assets, including blimps, drones, towers and vehicles.
While Wednesday was about celebrating the past five years of partnership, Unruh said he’s excited about the future. He said AT&T will continue to drive and support innovation to meet public service needs for years to come.
“AT&T has been serving Missouri for over 140 years. While the technology has changed, our commitment has not. Our goal is to keep communities connected no matter how technology evolves and to build networks like FirstNet that are future-proof,” Unruh said.
Unruh finished his remarks and welcomed Joseph Wassel, the new CEO of the First Responder Network Authority to speak. Unruh mentioned Wassel has only been in the position for 23 days.
As Unruh made the introduction, Parson could be seen leaning over and whispering something to Wassel with a smile.
“The governor leaned in and said, “I thought he was gonna say you’re 23 years old.” I said I think I’m gonna use that,” Wassel joked, getting laughs from the crowd.
Similar to Unruh, Wassel said the question on his mind, only 23 days into his tenure as CEO, is “What’s next?”
That being said, he noted the five years of participation shouldn’t be taken for granted. He has the coordination and collaboration required to make the partnership possible were tremendous and deserve to be celebrated.
He said the celebration was a great testament to Missouri and democracy to be able to take a few moments to thank one another, “plant the flag,” celebrate for a minute and then keep working.
He noted that FirstNet only exists because the 9/11 Commission report said first responders needed a dedicated communications network.
“I don’t mind telling you that I was at the Pentagon on 9/11 and I saw first hand; I felt the heat, I heard the cries for help and I saw the need for communications and interoperability. So the fact that I’m standing here today, thinking back on that day and every day in between, it will guide us as we make decision moving forward together to make sure this network is strong, ready and exceeding, not meeting but exceeding, your expectations,” Wassel said.
Wassel also said it was incredible for him to be standing amongst so many first responders. His second lunchbox as a kid was an Emergency TV show lunchbox with John Gage and Roy DeSoto on it.
“The younger folks, you’ll have to google it,” Wassel joked.
To finish the event, Parson stepped up to the microphone. Unruh introduced him as he had Wassel.
As he introduced the governor, he mistakenly identified him as the “57th governor of the United States,” getting some laughs from the audience. He quickly backtracked and said maybe he was predicting Parson’s future plans.
“Well Craig, that sets me up for my announcement. My next campaign, I’m running home,” Parson joked.
Parson thanked Wassel for making his first trip as CEO of the FirstNet Authority to Missouri. He also jokingly criticized Unruh’s remarks about the warm temperatures.
“When you’re standing around firefighters here at a fire training center, you do not talk about the heat of the day. These guys know what real heat is all about,” Parson said.
Parson said he spent 22 years wearing a badge and recognized the importance of first responders. One of the things they’ve always lacked, he said, was communication.
That lack of communication goes back to the Oklahoma City bombing and to 9/11, he said. Between droughts, flooding, civil unrest, tornadoes and COVID-19, communications are critical, Parson said.
“If we can communicate with one another, I guarantee we’re all better off and we will save lives by having the ability to have that communication with us,” Parson said.
Parson said it was particularly special that AT&T had invested so much in the cause. He said not a lot of companies are willing to invest billions of dollars into public service.
“And really it’s just to help everyday people,” Parson said. “To me, at the end of the day, we’re public servants. Every one of you men and women out there wearing uniforms, doing what you do every day, it’s pretty simple. We’re public servants. We’re supposed to go out there and help the public every day on things that they can’t do and don’t want to do.”