By James Careless
What’s to come for first responders in 2024? What communications challenges and major events will they face, and how could new FirstNet products/services make their lives easier?
These are some of the questions AllThingsFirstNet.com asked IAFC President and Fairfax County (VA) Fire Chief John Butler, Orange County (CA) Fire Chief Brian Fennessy, and Dr. Cedric Alexander. former police chief in DeKalb County (GA) and Rochester (NY), who also served on President Obama’s Task Force on 21st century policing. Here’s what they told us:
AllThingsFirstNet.com: What do you foresee as the biggest communications challenges facing first responders in 2024?
Fire Chief Butler: Two big challenges in 2024 will be ongoing budget restraints and the rising costs of communications equipment. There’s also a significant generational gap between personnel as it relates to technology. Younger first responders grew up with advanced technology and generally have little issues when presented with new equipment. However, older generations have trouble with constant technological change.
Fire Chief Fennessy: Some agencies will have the ability to communicate with other agencies on large emergencies and disasters and some will not.
Dr. Alexander: I think what we must be constantly aware of is that we live in a time where things are constantly changing. First responder technology is moving at a very rapid rate of speed.
I think one of the most important things, as it relates to law enforcement, is that we keep abreast of the technology that is out there and how we can best use it in the very sophisticated world that we live in today. The most important thing is not so much that it’s a challenge, but that staying aware of the latest technology helps us to carry out the job of public safety every day.
Fire Chief Butler: In addition, LMR signal strength will continue to be problematic in 2024. As more buildings are built, higher and with more dense construction materials, LMR systems will continue to have increasing trouble penetrating these buildings, making in-building communication more difficult.
Now new features in Motorola’s APX Next XE LMR system support SmartConnect, which allows radios to connect to LTE/WiFi when LMR is weak. Regional partners should share/approve this connectivity, even though it will increase work, which will allow all responders to have the best possible connectivity. Many regional partners do not want to allow mutual aid partners on their WiFi side due to the level of maintenance required.
AFTN: What factors such as natural disasters and social unrest do you expect to make life challenging for first responders in 2024?
Fire Chief Fennessy: In Southern California and throughout the West, the biggest threat to live, property and infrastructure remains wildfire. In addition, the threat of large devastating earthquakes exists.
Fire Chief Butler: Domestic political discord could spark civil unrest. So could international conflict-related unrest, with a war in central Europe simultaneously as a war in the Middle East.
As those tensions overseas continue to grow, national security is once again at the forefront of policymaker decisions.
Terrorist attackers are now looking at cybercrimes and the use of artificial intelligence in lieu of incendiary devices. The potential to see an attack on critical infrastructure and communications equipment is a possibility. The United States relies heavily on connected devices, specifically cellular broadband. First responders have transitioned from paper to digital footprints. Any disruption to this critical infrastructure would cripple first responders.
Dr. Alexander: We don’t know what 2024 would bring. We don’t know what the next few months of this year is going to bring us. But I think one thing that is critically important, having been a public safety director and a commissioner of public safety, is that we have to constantly be thinking about the what-ifs.
They include being prepared in case of a natural disaster, some inclement weather conditions that overwhelms the community and social arrest unrest that could be sparked in the middle of the night or day without any warning. For anyone that is in a leadership position, and those who are developers of technology — and especially communications technology — we always have to be as best we can thinking about from a different variety of scenarios of what ifs.
Now there’s some things that we can explore before they happen, but there’s always going to be others that are going to be unimaginable to us. We won’t know what they are until they occur. But here’s some questions we can answer now: Are we aware of the technology that is out there to help us be able to talk, to share information and respond to each other in our communities as needed? And do we have the ability to keep our people trained and alerted in the latest technology that is out there? Do we have proper policy and protocols and procedures that allow us to use this technology in this day and time that we’re in? See, it’s one thing to have the technology in front of you, but it’s another thing when it comes to the utilization of it in a real-life situation.
As well, are we prepared? Have we practiced? Have we done everything that we could in the event that an emergency does occur? Are we able to respond quickly and soundly? That comes through rehearsal, through being able to use the most recent technology that is out there, and being able to communicate with each other, and being able to share information with the public to help us help them. This is going to be hugely important as we continue to move into this 21st century.
AFTN: What kinds of communications products and services could FirstNet and AT&T provide for 2024 that would help the situation?
Fire Chief Butler: FirstNet could increase the number of available portable Cellular on Wheels (COW) devices and reduce the reaction time to deploy them.
With the increase in reliance on data, 5G connectivity is a necessity. Like the phase-out of 3G, AT&T should focus on building out their 5G network and ensuring first responders have exclusive access to it, like Band 14.
Personnel level tracking via portable radio is an emerging technology. The need for accurate Z-axis plotting is a necessity. FirstNet and AT&T should take advantage of their partnerships and encourage improved development of tracking Z-axis in cell phones, wearables, and portable radios. Also, the expansion of the AT&T Push-to-Talk app would allow us to provide an additional device to monitor LMR channels to field units at a significantly reduced cost.
Reliable, more robust cellular networks would be the biggest help. Specific products like cell boosters or MiFi/hotspots with improved coverage will help as well.
Dr. Alexander: We need to continue to expand our broadband communications plus the selection of FirstNet devices, and to have those devices and supporting equipment made readily available to communities across this country.
The public also needs to become aware of what FirstNet does and how this technology plays a huge part in keeping their communities safe, through first responders being able to communicate with each other across a variety of different agencies. We at FirstNet need to continue to share with people what it is that we do with the technology that has been engineered by AT&T. We must continue to show the importance of it. And every time we have demonstrated successes, we should make sure that we share those with others across our business community and across our communities.
Fire Chief Fennessy: At this point, I believe that the turnover due to retirements at the fire chief, police chief, city manager, county executive, et cetera, is slowing the adoption of FirstNet; in addition, the perception that AT&T must be the only cellular network one must possess. With the advent of dual sim cards, agency personnel can keep their cell provider that may not be AT&T due to coverage challenges and at the same time, have AT&T FirstNet on their phones should there be a large emergency or disaster.
I believe a communication campaign is more important than more products right now. Of course, building additional towers to improve coverage needs to continue.