FirstNet PTT Adopted for Start-up Public Safety Department

By Lindsay Stromgren

Starting up a new public safety department from scratch is no easy task for any community, especially a small suburban one. The Town of Amherst Massachusetts faced such a challenge in July 2022 when its town council, in response to growing national debate over the role of police in non-criminal matters, ordered the town manager to create a fully operational alternative policing agency within a year. The new department was called Community Responders for Equity, Safety & Service (CRESS), and was envisioned as a ten-person department that would be dispatched by the town’s 911 call center who currently dispatch police and Fire/EMS. 

Among the many logistical and financial hurdles to overcome was the issue of communications for the new department. The existing police (UHF analog) and Fire (VHF analog) radio systems were deemed as not having the capacity, nor working logistically, to support the new agency. The town’s fire and IT departments collaborated on finding a solution and decided to try FirstNet PTT. This was the town’s first use of FirstNet, so coverage was a concern. After examining a few PTT devices that are compatible with FirstNet PTT, the Sonim XP5 Plus was selected to field test since it most closely mimics a traditional LMR portable having top mounted knobs for channel and volume, as well as ability to have a remote speaker microphone. Two devices with FirstNet SIMs were quickly delivered by AT&T and field testing began. The tried-and-true method of “can you hear me now” was used to test coverage from one end of town to the other, including known “dead spots” for the police and fire LMR systems. Repeated testing yielded 100% coverage across town, including existing police/fire LMR dead spots. 

Based on the favorable testing, FirstNet PTT was chosen as the solution for the new CRESS department. In July 2023, the department went live with ten members, using the Sonim XP5 Plus smart phones and FirstNet PTT. Since the CRESS responders are dispatched by the 911 dispatchers, the town also purchased the FirstNet dispatch console application. This can be run on any PC or laptop and gives the dispatchers a familiar platform for transmitting/receiving over FirstNet PTT with the responders. Besides being much more user friendly for the dispatchers than giving them a handheld device, it also offers features such as unit ID and live location mapping of the responders.

The performance of FirstNet PTT during testing for CRESS was so impressive that the fire department decided to test it further. Specifically, to do further testing in areas of town with poor LMR coverage, and in particular, inside some key high occupancy venues (football stadium and concert arena) that have little to no LMR coverage and no BDAs or similar equipment installed. Again, the testing proved to have 100% coverage, even deep inside the public arena. With this successful testing, the department moved forward with purchasing the FirstNet/LMR gateway to give FirstNet access into the existing fire and police LMR systems. This bridging of the two systems gave the fire and police departments not only dedicated channels for communication and interoperability, but also access to the LMR systems from anywhere in town, including the venues that previously had no coverage. 

Today, the CRESS department operates exclusively using the FirstNet PTT devices and the dispatcher FirstNet console. The fire and police departments use FirstNet PTT to enhance their LMR coverage, and for dedicated channels for interoperability and special events. The Sonim XP5 Plus devices are programed so that the CRESS responders only have their channel, while the Fire and Police supervisors and the dispatchers have access to all channels. Utilizing the FirstNet administrative web-based interface, the devices can be reprogrammed over the air at any time. This is useful for creating talk groups for special planned or emergency events. For special situations such as activating an Emergency Operations Center (EOC), the web-based FirstNet dispatch console is a perfect solution for setting up a remote dispatch console with access not only to the FirstNet talk groups, but also the Fire and Police LMR systems.

One advantage of FirstNet PTT is that a community can test it out quickly and inexpensively. The modest financial outlay can be covered by most department’s operating budgets, versus having to plan and get approval for a major capital outlay such as for traditional radios. One only needs to order two PTT devices and set up a FirstNet account to conduct testing. Once testing proves adequate coverage, additional devices can be purchased along with add-ons as needed, such as the dispatch console and/or LMR gateway. A FirstNet PTT solution is flexible and scalable and can be up and running in a month or so for any community, whether a small rural one or a larger suburban setting. 

Lindsay Stromgren is a forty-two-year veteran of the Amherst Massachusetts Fire Department and is currently the Assistant Chief for Operations & Training. He also serves with the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services Special Operations Team and is a member of the regional homeland security interoperability council.


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