Public Safety Advocate: FirstNet in 2018

We ended 2017 with AT&T, the RFP award winner for the FirstNet network, with true network pre-emption already in place across not only Band 14 but also across all AT&T LTE spectrum. December 28, the deadline for the states and 2 of the 5 territories to opt in to FirstNet saw all 50 states and both territories opt in (the other 3 territories have until March 2018). The year 2017 was a very good year for the public safety community, FirstNet, and AT&T. Now it is up to AT&T and FirstNet to convince public safety departments in these states, territories, federal agencies, and the tribal nations to join in as subscribers to the services already being offered.

As FirstNet, AT&T, and others including myself have said since the RFP was issued, the law only requires that a state opt in or out. That process is now complete, except for the 3 territories and it is up to FirstNet/AT&T to convince public safety agencies to join the network. My last Advocate of 2017 outlined the choices agencies have available:

  • Join the FirstNet/AT&T network as agreed to by the state.
  • Negotiate with AT&T for better pricing, better coverage, or perhaps an agreement to allow the local agency to provide additional funding, or fiber or radio access network deployment that AT&T will then manage and operate as part of the FirstNet/AT&T network. An advantage for AT&T is it will also be able to expand its own commercial customers’ footprint as well.
  • Negotiate with AT&T and set a goal of increased coverage AT&T will have to provide in order to win the business.
  • Stay with their existing commercial broadband supplier for the long term, or for the short term, or until AT&T satisfies item 3 above.
  • Not make use of any broadband service and continue to rely on only Land Mobile Radio (LMR) for their communications.

It is in the public safety community’s best interests to have as many departments on the FirstNet system as possible. The vision for FirstNet was always to provide a nationwide, fully interoperable communications network to augment existing land mobile radio systems and to provide for the addition of data and video services to and from first responders in the field. FirstNet wants as many agencies to join as possible to prove Congress was right in allocating the spectrum and funding resources to enable the creation of FirstNet. AT&T has two motivations. First, it is obligated under the terms of the contract to sign up a specific number of public safety users (this number was provided by AT&T as part of the RFP and conforms with FirstNet expectations). If the numbers are not met penalties must be paid to FirstNet and in the event of a failure to make significant progress in adding users, FirstNet has the right to take over the network marketing aspects—something neither AT&T nor FirstNet want to see happen.

The second reason AT&T needs this network to be successful is to be able to monetize the large investment it is making in the network build-out and operation. The real payback for AT&T comes when it can put Band 14 in service in major metro areas to be used as secondary or overflow spectrum for its commercial customers during periods when the public safety community is not making heavy use of the spectrum.

By the Numbers

For an idea of how many public safety personnel there are, let’s look at some numbers. The first numbers were developed by myself and another person when we were working for a company that was considering bidding on the RFP but later decided not to submit a response. The numbers were developed in 2015 and 2016 and have not been updated. What we determined for the states, not counting tribal nations or federal agencies, was the following:

  • Total personnel nationwide (law, fire, and EMS)
  • Total vehicles
  • Total available market

We believed these to be conservative numbers and we used them to see what network loading might look like.

This led up to the maximum personnel and vehicles on a shift for a busy day (Friday or Saturday). We wanted to see, worst case, how much of the network would be loaded by public safety use at busy times. For simplicity, we assumed all 500,814 vehicles would be in service. Once we finished, to be on the safe side we doubled the numbers we obtained. The numbers we came up with (others don’t necessarily agree with this methodology), showed the following numbers before doubling them:

Day (35%) Deployment

  • Personnel:      363, 259
  • Vehicles:          500,834
  • Totals:            1,728,185

Evening (40%) Deployment

  • Personnel:        415,534
  • Vehicles:          500,834
  • Totals:            1,823,735

Night (25%) Deployment

  • Personnel:         303,516
  • Vehicles:            500,834
  • Totals:            1,608,700

Again, in this exercise we were trying to determine the total network loading across the United States, realizing that most of the loading would occur in the Metro areas. Let’s look at the latest numbers from organizations that track these numbers:

Fire Service

According to the National Fire and Protective Association (NFPA), numbers for 2015, the last year posted, are as follows:

Total Firefighters: 1,160,450

  • All career 9%
  • mostly career 6%
  • mostly volunteer 18%
  • all volunteer 67%

Total Engines

  • Pumpers, 71,800
  • aerial apparatus, 7,300
  • other fire suppression 79,050

Total Fire Stations: 58,750

Emergency Medical Services

This number is a guess since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and other sites tend to lump emergency medical technicians and paramedics together, and to further confuse the issue, many fire departments have incorporated their paramedics into their fire department so many fire fighters can be counted as EMTs or paramedics. I will use the BLS estimate of 248,000 for 2016.

Law Enforcement

The definition of law enforcement I am using is sworn personnel, full or part-time, who have arrest powers. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers site there are a total of about 900,000 federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement personnel in the United States. However, in 2016, the last year for which shows data, it reports there were 421,450 full-time law enforcement personnel in the United States. The FBI’s published numbers are from 2011 and Department of Justice numbers are also at least 3 years old. For our estimates, we will use a number halfway between the full-time number of 421,000 and the National Law Enforcement Officers number of 900,00 or approximately 660,000 personnel and approximately 18,000 public safety agencies according to

The numbers are not large for public safety when compared to commercial wireless. Wireless cellular/broadband subscribers are pegged at more than 350 million as of the third quarter of 2017 and both Verizon and AT&T have more than 100 million each, again according to Looking at the total available market of public safety users (a WAG number) it is somewhere north of 11 million counting all personnel and vehicles.

How Will Departments Deploy FirstNet?

Today most public safety broadband services over commercial networks are confined to vehicles. Some departments issue department smartphones while others require personnel to provide their own. However, at the moment, the bulk of public safety applications communicate with devices mounted in vehicles. The object with the FirstNet/AT&T network is to expand this installed base to include all first responders and to pick up administrative personnel along the way.

The process will not be the same for every department or in every area of the United States. The first determination that will have to be made by each individual agency is if coverage from FirstNet/AT&T is sufficient for its outdoor communications needs. That will also provide some indoor coverage and as with commercial coverage today, some indoor communications can be accomplished using WiFi, some using Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS), and some will remain the purview of the higher-powered land mobile radio handheld radios.

Once coverage is agreed on, then comes pricing. AT&T has published pricing and in some states pricing is slightly different. However, pricing may be an issue even though it has been designed to be comparable or lower than what agencies are paying today. In some cases, it might depend on how a city or county currently procures its devices and service. If the city/county has a single citywide/countywide contract with another network supplier, taking the public safety devices out of the overall device count might cause the single contract rate to go up. In these cases, AT&T most likely will have to compete not only for public safety devices but for all of the devices in use. Some devices already in service may not be capable of being used on the FirstNet/AT&T network so replacement of these devices will have to become part of the negotiations as well.

What’s Next?

Once the agreements on the contracts are in place, the next issue is how many devices your department will want to employ. Will you want every first responder to be equipped with a FirstNet device from the start or will you begin by deploying FirstNet devices and applications from the top down? If we look back as corporations started deploying broadband devices, we find they started modestly adding more devices over time until today is it almost a given that when you are a new hire you are given your desk, your entry badge, and either a smartphone or a monthly allowance to pay for some of the cost of your own cellular device. In some cases, it took years for companies to equip all of their employees with service and devices.

What FirstNet/AT&T is offering is much more than simply another wireless broadband pipe. This “pipe” happens to come with a much higher level of security, a special set of help desk and other options available to users, full pre-emption, and good coverage now that will only improve into the future. However, because there is a dedicated public safety pipe may not be sufficient reason to join FirstNet. In reality, this is about two major things moving forward. First is the ability to interoperate no matter where you happen to be in the United States, and the applications that are and will become available over time. If you think about your smartphone today, it is not as much about the network as it is what the network enables you to do. It will be the same on the FirstNet/AT&T network.

Deployment Options: Top-Down Approach

It is typical today for agencies to make use of existing commercial networks. In this case, the upper echelon may be issued smartphones, perhaps with Kodiak, ES Chat, BeOn, or some other PTT over LTE service. These devices are interfaced to the existing LMR systems so these executives only have to carry a smartphone and can still listen and communicate with their LMR network during an incident or simply communicate in PTT mode with other execs in their area. Most likely, this department will also have notebooks or tablets installed in their vehicles.

The next decision about who is issued a device will depend on the type of department. I believe that in the law enforcement world individual field officers will be high on the list to receive devices or be able to make use of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) smartphones. It makes sense to equip law enforcement personnel from day one. When they have a device that is part of FirstNet/AT&T, pictures and other data can be pushed to their devices and so those in the field will be able to see what a suspect or wanted vehicle looks like, as well as being able to receive additional information about a response where they can be provided with more details than they normally receive over a voice dispatch system.

Those who serve as incident commanders will want access to a tablet of some type in order to be able to better manage resources responding to the incident and many other details that are, today, difficult to track in real time. Officers will experience the most value in these new devices when they find they are able to stay in the field and complete the reports required after every incident and every shift. This capability in and of itself will drive law enforcement adoption.

Fire and EMS

First there will be a distinction between paid and volunteer agencies. Departments that are 100-percent volunteer make up 67 percent of all departments in the United States and these will most likely be BYOD users and light users of the applications and databases. However, they could be heavy users of interoperability over FirstNet/AT&T since when they are involved in mutual aid they have the same LMR interoperability issues as everyone else.

Paid departments will make heavier use of the network. I believe devices will be provided to administrative personnel, chief officers, inspectors, arson investigators, and others who need access to databases and must fill out reports and forms on a daily basis. In-vehicles notebooks or tablets will be converted over to FirstNet/AT&T and there will be more tablets available since incident commanders will be able to have a better visual idea of what apparatus is on the scene, what is incoming, where hydrants are, where electrical or other hazards are, and when they will need law enforcement to block access to the area. Those not in the field who normally monitor voice communications at least during major incidents will not only be able to hear voice traffic, they will see live video and be able to replicate the incident commander’s tablet on their own tablet.

When it comes to individual fire fighters, the question is whether each person will be issued a device once there is a need for it or, like many agencies I work with, will they have mobile battery chargers mounted in the vehicle cab for 4 or more devices that will be carried by those assigned to the engine or truck and then returned to the chargers after the incident. I believe we may see deployment start as devices stored in a vehicle but as there are new applications, body sensors, and other devices that will help track the individual fire fighter, deployments will end up being one device per person. It is not clear to me how long this transition from vehicle-based to individual-based will take but again, it will not be the network that spurs such deployment, it will be the applications and uses for the devices in the field.


This is an interesting group that operates today under standing orders and are trusted by the medical profession for the most part. It was not always this way but over time both EMTs and paramedics have earned that respect. So much of the data they used to send to an ER with a request for drug and IV is not needed anymore or it is communicated differently. FirstNet/AT&T will enable many new ways for EMS and medical personnel to interact. For example, today it is not possible to tell if an accident victim is bleeding internally. In the future, ultrasound devices in the field will enable both the EMS and medical staffs to better determine the condition of the patient and if he or she can be transported by ground or will need to be air lifted. Video from the scene will enable medical staffs to work in concert with the EMS personnel in the field to triage multiple-victim incidents and much, much more. The devices I believe make the most sense for EMS providers are handheld smartphones and tablets with a larger screen to show more details.


All 50 states and 2 of the territories have opted in. Now it is up to the agencies to decide if or when to join FirstNet/AT&T. I am hoping it is more when than if but as stated above, the drivers will be more than the network, network security, and ability to interoperate between and among other first responders regardless of where you are. In the end, FirstNet/AT&T will provide a broadband pipe with pre-emption, a secure pipe, and a pipe that will provide much faster data speeds and capacity than if FirstNet only used Band 14 as was originally thought.

It is more about what is available now and what is coming in the way of applications. It is about the Internet of Things (IoT) or sensors to help track and keep first responders safer, a single sign-on, and assignment of access rights across all of the databases and applications. Further, it is about the fact that local agencies will be able to change who has priority and authorize personnel on the network, and to ensure any device that is lost or stolen will be disabled quickly. It is about FirstNet/AT&T becoming (at present) a non-mission-critical channel for Push-To-Talk (PTT) integration between agencies when their LMR systems are connected to FirstNet/AT&T during incidents. Just as important, it is about training and more training.

Over the course of many years, a number of us have compared notes on the training we have provided to dispatch center and fire and police personnel. In many cases after training is complete what they have learned is not practiced and used so when they need it they have forgotten how to make it work. This is true with things such as cross-patching radio channels in a dispatch center, teaching those in the field when to remain on the main incident channel, and when and how to move over to simplex for unit-to-unit communications. Training by itself is not enough. Making sure what is taught is used or at least tested on a regular basis is as important as anything else.

FirstNet/AT&T will drive the adoption of other devices and technologies as well. Drones or UAVs will become an important tool for the public safety community. There will be sensors that monitor body functions and send live video back to a command or dispatch center when a Taser or weapon is drawn, and law enforcement will be able to see on their video screens the activity at a location where a fellow officer has requested help, and much, much more.

However, unlike cellular wireless where each generation has replaced the previous one, FirstNet/AT&T will not replace LMR systems for a very long time, if ever. For that reason, public safety needs to understand which tools are available and which tool is best suited for which situation.

Next year, as I write my first Advocate of 2019, I expect there to be many departments up and running on FirstNet/AT&T. I expect the network and Band 14 to have been built out as promised by both FirstNet and AT&T. I expect to see new devices, some LTE-only, some LTE and LMR, and I fully expect some applications none of us have thought of yet that become what spreadsheet applications were to PCs: The compelling reason to use the devices.

Happy New Year to all!

Andrew M. Seybold
©2018 Andrew Seybold, Inc.


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