Public Safety Advocate: Disasters, Interoperability, FirstNet Updates, What’s Still Missing

FirstNet was created to facilitate cross-agency public-safety communications, no matter where agencies are called to serve. The rationale behind FirstNet is to enable a team from California, for example, when called to assist an agency in Virginia to travel across the United States to remain in contact with its home agency and also be in touch with the agency requesting assistance. Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and 9/11 demonstrated to those not aware of interoperability issues with Land Mobile Radio (LMR) what public-safety agencies have known for many years. Since LMR systems operate on slivers of spectrum from different portions of the radio spectrum, agencies within the same city or county, let alone across the United States, cannot always communicate with each other using LMR.

FirstNet is designed to provide a nationwide, broadband network covering the United States and its territories. The goal is to augment land mobile radio, not replace it, and enable every agency to communicate with every other agency in the United States. We have already seen how effective this network is during wildland fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other disasters. As agencies join FirstNet, they instantly gain the ability to communicate with other agencies within their own jurisdictions as well as others in their county, region, state, and nationwide. 

For the first time since FirstNet has been in operation, we are facing a nationwide emergency in the form of COVID-19 and it appears agencies will be responding from outside “hotspot” areas. No one knows when this virus will be contained and, in most areas, our first responders are having to be tested and some quarantined after treating and transporting infected patients. The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) has published a questionnaire to help track instances of public-safety infections and quarantines. It tracks these reports visually.

Other organizations are also trying to track the number of their first responders who have been affected or quarantined. In preparation for what is expected to come, many departments are requesting recent retirees to return to work, like hospitals are trying to entice retired doctors and nurses to return during the crisis.

With the possible volume of requests for agencies to send personnel and equipment to assist agencies working in hotspots or potential hotspots, there will be an even greater need for communications among and between first-responder agencies, especially EMS professionals and hospitals. Further, the National Guard is being called out in many areas and now that the federal government has declared a nationwide emergency, FEMA and other federal agencies will enter the picture.

This is what FirstNet is designed to handle. Over the past few years, we have seen that during more localized disasters, federal, state, and local agencies have been able to communicate over FirstNet either because they are FirstNet members or because FirstNet has made devices and service available to others who need to interact with outside agencies. Cross-agency communication facilitates interaction between agencies as well as coordination of personnel and equipment being deployed to assist with incidents. With this first declared national emergency since the implementation of FirstNet, I believe our first responders will be kept in the loop and safer, and agencies will work together to manage medical emergencies as they develop. 

Priority access and pre-emption is a significant feature of today’s public-safety communications. When communicating over commercial wireless networks, public-safety personnel may have to wait in queue along with private citizens in times of emergencies to be able to use the network (if they can access the network at all). Some commercial networks have implemented priority access and pre-emption to mitigate this problem, but FirstNet is a private network restricted to public-safety use and as such, every user with a FirstNet SIM has immediate access to the network. 

Looking Back in History

In the early 1970s when I was involved in building and selling BioCom paramedic radios, we fought for and received eight UHF channels for these radios to talk to emergency departments in hospitals. In the beginning, ER doctors and nurses had not yet come to trust the paramedics in the field so paramedics were required to contact the ER prior to even starting an IV. It took a number of years for doctors to accept that paramedics in the field are well trained and capable, but today they are equipped with a generous number of standing orders for starting IVs and performing many other procedures before having to communicate with the ER.

We discovered that with eight UHF channels in a given area and each hospital monitoring one channel with a specific PL tone, when paramedics responded out of their area, they did not know which hospital was listening to which channel with what PL. The community went back to the FCC and was granted two additional channels (Med-9 and Med-10) that became coordination channels for contacting hospitals and establishing communications. When a medic unit needs to contact an ER, it can do so quickly and easily over FirstNet if it is a member. Now, with the additional capabilities of FirstNet, medics not only send 3-lead EKGs, they can send full 12-lead and soon 15-lead EKGs. For the first time, they can also send ultrasounds to ERs so doctors can determine if, for example, a patient is bleeding internally and needs to be transported more quickly than another patient. 

Back to Today

Today things have changed and continue to change to take full advantage of FirstNet capabilities. Video, text, Push-To-Talk (PTT), and medical information is being sent over FirstNet to help medics and hospitals better prepare for when a patient is delivered to the ER. These same capabilities should also help medics assess a patient’s condition and take any necessary precautions for their own safety as well as to receive instructions such as if the hospital has specified a different entrance or triage tent for potential COVID-19 patients to keep infected patients away from others in the ER.

The quest for Interoperable communications has proven to be worth the effort put into making FirstNet a reality, and I suspect that during this new, nationwide crisis, FirstNet will prove to be an invaluable tool for all first responders, their supervisors, and hospital personnel who need to know what is heading their way. Hopefully, this pandemic will not become as serious as some think it will be, but if the “curve” is flattened, it will be in part because of coordinated communications, which means FirstNet.

FirstNet Update

According to AT&T, FirstNet Band 14 build-out is 80% complete and there are more than 10,000 public-safety agencies with 1.2 million subscribers on the system today. In this case, 80% means 80% of the build-out required in the FirstNet Authority contract awarded to AT&T for the FirstNet (Built with AT&T) network. From what I am hearing, this does not mean that once 100% of the required coverage is met, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) will simply stop building more Band 14 including in-building coverage. Again, I have never seen a company declare a network to be 100% finished. Some may move on to other technologies (e.g., 5G) and not spend any more to build out LTE, but I believe FirstNet will continue to build out LTE and add 5G to the AT&T network. You may remember, according to AT&T, FirstNet users will have full access to the AT&T 5G network as it is deployed. 

While some agencies and personnel have not yet switched to FirstNet, FirstNet is gaining new agencies and users on a weekly basis, more than many would have guessed only a few years ago. Some agencies prefer to continue with their existing broadband provider or, in a few cases, see no reason to add broadband services to augment their existing LMR. The turning point for many remaining agencies will be when Congress passes the Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) funding bill (reported to be about $12 billion). Once the flow of text, images, and video in addition to voice starts arriving at Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs) and data is vetted, it will be sent down the broadband pipe to those responding to incidents and commanders who need to follow incidents in their jurisdiction. 

While I am pro-FirstNet, I am disappointed that while the physical FirstNet network is being built out in record time, the balance of what is needed for true 100% interoperability is lacking in a number of ways. Most significant is the lack of push-to-talk interoperability over FirstNet with at least four approved PTT vendors and yet another coming. Some of these vendors have figured out how to interoperate with the other PTT vendors’ offerings but not all of them want interoperability, preferring to keep PTT fragmented so they can push their brand to the detriment of the first-responder community. The next element in the PTT equation is LMR/LTE integration, which should be a priority. While progress has been made, there is still a long way to go. I, for one, totally disagree with those who are technology-driven rather than driven by what is best for public safety and think the 3GPP standards body will solve both of these issues “so let’s just wait it out.” That is not what the public-safety community needs right now. These issues must be resolved sooner rather than later.

Two other issues revolve around common applications. The first that may be solved during the NG911 roll-out is for ECCs to be able to share Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) files, including dispatch information, map files, and other data. Today, there are too many file types from different CAD vendors. This is similar to the early days of P25 radio systems when there was a standard but no interoperability because each P25 vendor met the standard and then added features and functions over the top to make sure once installed, its equipment would not support a different vendor’s equipment. It has taken twenty-five years to reach “almost” total interoperability. 

The need to share CAD files is vital. Unless one ECC can pick up the overload from another ECC or even take over all incoming calls and dispatches for an ECC that is out of operation, there will be delays in response times. If one CAD system’s files must be “translated” to another format, it will take more time and lead to more delays. 

The next issue for interoperability is the number and variety of approved applications and this issue will be more difficult to resolve. When applications began being approved and then hosted on FirstNet applications servers, there were many. More have been approved and many agencies brought legacy applications with them. As a result, there is a lack of common applications across agencies. This has not been much of a problem, but once NG911 is implemented at more ECCs, the need for common files for video, databases, floor plans, and more types of data will be of concern. Many agencies like the applications they are using and don’t want to retrain users for new and different ways to share data. I have no suggestion as to how to handle this, but I know there are people who are more attuned to application and data files than I working toward compatible data.

One last comment, it is great to see FirstNet (Built with AT&T) running ads on TV. The ads are good and a little more FirstNet name exposure would be better. They will certainly help with network recognition from many first responders who have not heard of FirstNet or do not know what it is and recognition from John Q. and Mary Q. Citizen! Keep the ads coming, well done!

Fixed and Wireless Broadband

More and more businesses are closing and/or asking employees to work from home and more schools, colleges, and universities are closing and turning to online sessions. These new demands for service will test our Internet and wireless services. In an effort to ease the burden, many fixed and wireless broadband vendors are pledging not to charge for overages for voice or data and not to terminate users who cannot pay their bills. Further, the FCC has given approval for T-Mobile to use more 600-MHz spectrum for its wireless network and for US Cellular to use more AWS spectrum to help with the anticipated demand.

FirstNet is the only wireless network with full ruthless priority and pre-emption and public-safety Band 14, which provides an additional 20 MHz of LTE spectrum for public-safety agencies and users. FirstNet priority and pre-emption, along with 20 MHz of additional public-safety spectrum, should ensure that the public-safety community will continue to be able to access broadband services. Since LMR systems are closed voice networks and do not make use of broadband, public safety has two sets of networks available and will be able to continue to do their jobs without concern for network slowdowns. 

Winding Down

My time at BioCom was a fun time. We were the first company to build paramedic radios in the United States and BioPhones transmitted three-lead EKG and voice. Some of the later models were capable of transmitting EKG and voice simultaneously. One doctor in Florida got so good at listening to the EKG (not looking at a display) that on the golf course one day he stopped playing and listened to an EKG on his LMR radio and correctly prescribed the appropriate treatment for the patient. Before Motorola and Pioneer Medical decided to enter the market, we put BioPhones in seventy-eight cities, many of which started paramedic programs because of the TV show “Emergency.” I remember going through airports with my “orange box” and being swamped by kids who wanted to see it. Fun times!

Much has transpired in the field of public-safety communications since those days. FirstNet has had a huge influence on the tools first responders have at the ready for whatever happens. However, it is vitally important for those who hold the purse strings for public-safety communications to fully understand that FirstNet augments but does not replace land mobile radio systems. Many of us continue to receive calls or emails from fire and law-enforcement chiefs asking how they can convince their elected officials that FirstNet is not yet ready to replace their LMR system though FirstNet augments LMR by providing additional capabilities. Both FirstNet organizations will tell you the same thing: FirstNet augments LMR today, it does not replace it. Someday FirstNet might be considered to be the only communications system needed, but if I look into my crystal ball, I see that won’t happen for many years to come. Moreover, it won’t happen until and unless chief officers decide they can trust FirstNet with the lives of men and woman in the field responding to incidents every day.

Until next week…

Andrew M Seybold
©2020, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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