Fire Chief Wamsley: Preserve 4.9 GHZ for Public Safety

By James Careless

According to the US Census Bureau, Rock Springs, Wyoming is a town of about 23,000 people. It covers about 19.6 square miles of high desert environment and is protected by the Rock Springs Fire Department (RSFD); a career department with 33 employees and three fire houses.

The RSFD uses FirstNet for its cellular communications, and the state-run WyoLink trunked radio system for its incident critical communications. The RSFD’s Dispatch Center also uses the 4.9 GHz band “as our microwave link to maintain the system for 911 and also to ensure that the mobile data terminals in our vehicles receive the information from our CAD (computer aided dispatch) system,” said RSFD Fire Chief Jim Wamsley. “I’ll have to say it’s seamless, quite frankly. We don’t seem to have any issues with 4.9 GHz.”

As a small jurisdiction that relies on the 4.9 GHz band, Fire Chief Wamsley is well aware of the FCC’s decision to delegate management of this band to the FirstNet Authority. It is a decision that has been endorsed by the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA), the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), and the Public Safety Spectrum Alliance (PSSA), among others. 

This is a change that Fire Chief Wamsley supports. “I think it’s critical that we enter into this reorganization so that we can preserve and protect the 4.9 GHz band for public safety,” he said. “4.9 GHz provides enough bandwidth to accommodate video and other technologies, and is actually better suited for this purpose than the VHF system that we communicate on right now. I can tell you for sure that we aren’t using the 4.9 GHz band to its fullest potential — and that we don’t have to look too far down the road to see indicators that this bandwidth will soon become essential to the way we carry out our mission.”

Of course, not everyone believes that the current system of using 4.9 GHz without a national public safety manager to coordinate and protect it from outside interests needs to be changed. But Fire Chief Wamsley isn’t one of these doubters. Leaving 4.9 GHz as it is now would result in a “patchwork approach to band management,” he said, “making it more difficult to establish continuity for incident management and coordination of resources.” 

Meanwhile, the reason a national 4.9 GHz band manager such as FirstNet is needed now when it wasn’t before is due to the growing demand for wireless broadband among all sectors of society. “There was a time when the world was very small and incident management took place over a limited geographic area, using frequencies that were specifically assigned to agencies without serious problems,” said Fire Chief Wamsley. “But times have changed: Now the world isn’t so small and incident management can take place over a much larger geographical area. If we throw 4.9 GHz to the wolves by not managing it nationally through a public safety authority, I am afraid that the bandwidth won’t be there when we need it.”

To prove his point, Fire Chief Wamsley cites a devastating derecho that ripped through Iowa, Kansas and northern Missouri several years ago. “That storm hit a huge geographical area,” he said. “In such situations, the ability for all of those folks to be on the same bandwidth is paramount to effective coordination when everyone’s calling for resources and trying to communicate damage assessments and their other needs.” This is why ensuring that the 4.9 GHz band is coordinated and protected nationally to ensure reliable multi-agency communications is so important today. 

“If we relegate this band’s management to a relic of the past — the patchwork quilt approach of everyone doing their own thing with no regard to anyone else — then what we’re saying is that it’s okay for us to go back to that ‘small environment’ that we used to operate in,” said Fire Chief Wamsley. “It’s okay for me to enclose myself within the enclave of the jurisdiction of the City of Rock Springs because I’ll never need anything outside. I’ll never need to communicate with Cheyenne, the capital of the state of Wyoming, to try and procure more resources. I will never need to communicate with the Civil Support Team for HAZMAT resources from Salt Lake City or Boise, Idaho. I’ll never have the need for a video link to conference with somebody who’s a specialist on a specific type of chemical that has been released from a rail car on the Union Pacific track that runs right through the center of Rock Springs. That’s why, when I look at this issue and think about moving back to basically an uncontrolled or a highest bidder type environment for the 4.9 GHz band, what I see is obstacles to effective incident management down the road. We need to protect this band for public safety, and a national band manager is the way to do it.”


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