(TNS) — Signal Mountain, Tenn., boasts one of the lowest crime rates in the state, but prior to this year parts of the mountain were still not readily accessible for police radio and telephone communications.

That all changed with the town's recent introduction of an upgraded telecommunications system from AT&T known as FirstNet, which covers the entire 70-square-mile city with an integrated platform for all emergency services.

Signal Mountain is the first town in Tennessee to implement the upgraded, dedicated network, which the federal government awarded to AT&T last year to develop under a 25-year contract for the entire country.

Police Chief Mike Williams said Thursday he and other officers immediately saw the advantages of the new network and the digital displays and computer equipment installed in the city's 12 patrol cars.

In May, when a local resident had a heart attack and called 911, a police officer saw the call on the FirstNet system and arrived on the scene for assistance nearly as soon as the 911 call operators were able to even dispatch Emergency Medical Services to respond.

"He was there very quickly and was able to help out and maybe save that person's life," Williams said. "Often times, our officers are able to respond to calls even before 911 is able to dispatch a response because they see the call coming in."

The dedicated mobile service, which has been allocated a preferred bandwidth of the broadcast spectrum, ensures that police, fire and other emergency agencies have the highest priority for wireless communications. In the event of a disaster such as a tornado or a major fire such as what Gatlinburg, Tenn., suffered nearly two years ago, FirstNet ensures that first responders have priority with communications and the system allows police cars and other mobile vehicles to set up WiFi and other emergency communications nearly anywhere in the country.

The town of Signal Mountain spent about $44,000 buying new equipment last year and is now spending $34 a month for mobile services for each patrol car and mobile phone. Williams said it is a nominal cost to ensure every officer and car can immediately run down license and criminal background information for each person on the spot. The network also allows officers to easily communicate with dispatchers and other cars and fill out police reports on computers.

"We previously did all of that by hand, and the mobile service was difficult in parts of the mountain," said Troy Kennedy, a Signal Mountain police officer who handles the department's technology and helped secure a grant for the upgraded FirstNet connections.

Kennedy said the department saw how valuable the system was just last week when the town lost internet service after bad storms.

"Our cars were still up and running off of our wireless," he said. "Even if everyone's cell phones go down around us we still have priority as far as emergency capabilities."

Signal Mountain officers also are able to track other officers and first responders within their jurisdiction and beyond through GPS technology in each car.

Ehrin Ehlert, the director of field operations for the First Responder Network Authority established in the U.S. Department of Commerce to aid emergency communications, said FirstNet has already attracted more than 100,000 users nationwide and continues to grow in use and popularity.

"The 9/11 attacks were a big impetus for us to create a single, nationwide network for public safety agencies to communicate with and among one another," Ehlert said. "Reliable communications are vital to public safety's life-saving mission."

FirstNet officials said the system ensures that first responders can connect to the critical information they need over a reliable, highly secure broadband network, even when storms threaten conventional communication platforms or large events like the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester threaten to overwhelm conventional broadband connections.

AT&T expects to spend about $40 billion over the life of its FirstNet contract to build, deploy and maintain the network. Alan Hill, regional director of external affairs for AT&T, said as 5G network capabilities develop in the coming years, AT&T will work together to provide the exponential increases in the speed with which video and data travel across the FirstNet network.

©2018 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.