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CAL FIRE revamps communications after 16 dropped emergency calls during Erskine Fire


Kern County, CA

In 2016, what became known as the Erskine fire started in Kern County, California, and burned through more than 100 structures, is now considered one of the most destructive wildfires in state history. This was when the team at Cal Water realized they needed improved technology to communicate amid a crisis.

Topics Covered

Civic Technology
Law Enforcement and Emergency Response


General Fund/Existing Public Funds

Project Status

Operational since 2022

Gov Champion

California Water Service Group (Cal Water)

Problem Addressed

During the Erskine Fire, CAL FIRE experienced spotty telephone signal, leaving them with one phone to communicate with the Emergency Operations Center.

California Water Service Group (Cal Water) provides the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) with water supply and pressure, emergency on-the-ground coordination, hydrant maintenance and regular main replacement. It supports more than 50 fire departments and 120 stations in California.

Altogether, Cal Water and its associated companies provide regulated and unregulated water services to approximately 2 million people in more than 100 communities. Communication needs to be coordinated across 25 districts in California, as well as districts in Washington, Hawaii and New Mexico.

Firefighters and emergency service workers depend on having a reliable water supply to save lives and property during events like the Erskine fire. But in this case, the blaze had burned down a site that hosted the team's radio system. Satellite phones had been deployed, but they weren't working effectively. This was a huge issue, considering that Cal Water and Cal Fire were trying to coordinate dozens of team members to get on top of the wildfire.

"There were 21 attempts on the satellite phone. Sixteen calls got dropped and five got through. It was a hectic way to get the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) going," recalled Gerald Simon, who served as Cal Water's chief safety and emergency preparedness officer and continues to consult with the organization. "For about three hours or so, all we had was a satellite phone that was spotty."

Many of its team members working on the front lines, meanwhile, were relying on flip phones to stay in touch with their EOC. For Simon, who served as a fire chief for more than 15 years in major metropolitan areas, the risks were becoming too great.

No firefighting technology, however, is more important than reliable communication. Experimenting with various devices and technologies wasn't the answer. Cal Fire needed to take a step back and evaluate its communications needs more holistically.

Solutions Used

Cal Water turned to the Verizon frontline team, who designed a network solution for communicating with firefighters everywhere from remote canyons to rugged terrain and poor roads.

Amy Aapala, Cal Water's project director, described the rollout as "slow and steady," where the team worked closely with Verizon. The goal was to put together a package designed for "lone workers" who need to maintain constant contact with each other and with partners such as Cal Fire.

The package included a 4G LTE network that connects mobile phones and radios for secure communications, with Push to Talk Plus to communicate quickly and securely.The flip phones, meanwhile, were replaced with Sonim XP8 mobile phones with an MIL-STD-810G rating for hazardous environment use. That means they can operate in difficult conditions including dust, shock, rain and temperature extremes.

As part of Verizon's multimedia collection and collaboration strategy, it provided more than 200 smartphones to the Cal Water team opening up the opportunity for geographic information systems (GIS) maps and live pictures from hot zones.

The firefighting technology project also included a partnership with Verizon Motorola, which produced a custom network amplifier for Cal Water.



With more reliable connectivity, the 'dead zone' was decreased from 24 to 4 miles, allowing the team to respond with urgency and speed


Seamless, safe access to communications and connectivity removing the possibility of a first responder leaving the scene to obtain signal


A multimedia approach to data collection and collaboration, opening up more effective ways to assess what's happening in wildfires - including GIS maps and live pictures from hot zones


Ease of use that minimizes adoption, ensuring that plenty of redundancy and options were built into the tech solutions deployed


Reduced stress and improved morale. "When you have this kind of solution, you have confidence that you can actually communicate effectively to keep people out of harm's way," Simon said.

Who Should Consider

Public utilities looking to improve network reliability and streamline communication with first responders in the field.

Last Updated

Mar 23rd, 2022

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