Public Safety Advocate: IACP, Network Interoperability, FirstNet Board

Publication of next week’s Advocate will be delayed a few days while I attend the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) annual conference/convention in Chicago beginning Saturday.

Next year I also plan to attend the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the National Sheriff’s Association (NSA) conferences. Even though I am an affiliate member of both, I have not yet attended an IAFC conference, and only attended one NSA conference on the occasion when I and Ret. Chief Harlin McEwen were co-honored with the NSA Presidents Award for our efforts on behalf of FirstNet. 

The IACP is a show I really enjoy and I am looking forward to this year’s in particular. It is being held in Chicago from Saturday, October 25, through Tuesday, October 29. Several meetings that are held in conjunction with the main conference are underway today. The show floor is open Sunday and Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. but on Tuesday it closes at 2 p.m. I consider the Sunday meeting of the IACP Communications and Technical Committee to be the highlight of the conference. This session is always great because it is made up of multiple presentations from multiple vendors, federal government agencies, and others covering a variety of topics. It is one of the best places to learn about new directions, technologies, and solutions. Some may recall that this committee was headed by Ret. Chief Harlin McEwen for thirty-seven years before he handed it over to others a few years ago. He is still missed.

The exhibits are high on my list of must-sees and this year there are 682 booths. The difference between the IACP and typical communications-centric shows I normally attend (IWCE/APCO) is that this conference and its exhibits represent every facet of law enforcement. We will see everything from helicopters, Incident-Command vehicles, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones, of which I expect to see many), new devices, and solutions for every aspect of law enforcement and communications. Of course, FirstNet (Built with AT&T) will be there since it is a major sponsor and has been for many years. I enjoy the FirstNet booth especially because it usually showcases partners with interesting products and solutions, and it takes multiple visits to see them all. 

My list of want-to-see booths include FirstNet, L3 Harris, Microsoft, Motorola Solutions, Verizon, BK Technologies, and BlackBerry (I finally retired my last BB with sadness, having been an ardent BB user since 1998). Then there are Brother (mobile print solutions), Cradlepoint, Dell, Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, FLIR systems, Kyocera, Mutualink, Panasonic, and Sprint. (Sonim, JVCKenwood, and Zetron appear to be among the missing.)

There are many vendors and products I want to see, some sessions I want to attend, and, as I try to do at every conference, I want to walk the perimeter of the exhibit space to see smaller companies, start-ups, and companies with products that have not yet been “discovered.” I always seem to find some interesting products and ideas along this walk. I will also be looking for UAVs, especially those with communications capabilities to extend coverage for FirstNet and/or LMR. I am sure I will see products and services among the exhibits that are new to me and I will gather interesting information.

IACP says sessions will include more than two-hundred different educational workshops. Most of these are about areas of law enforcement I do not cover, but some are certainly worth attending from a communications point of view. One session I want to attend covers the use of smartphones and tablets by patrol officers, which is one area where I think we need to spend more time educating field personnel about FirstNet capabilities. Bill Schrier, a FirstNet Senior Public-Safety Advisor, will moderate. Bill was among those of us who started early on to make FirstNet a reality. Another must-attend session is, “The Drone as a First Responder, more and more drones are becoming an essential part of public safety responses.” Another great session appears to be, “Chicago Police Department Area Technology Center,” and there are more.

Many sessions have to do with concerns within the law enforcement community today, including school shootings, active shooters, trauma response, and other issues of the day. There are many, many sessions to choose from and as with any conference, many people will miss a session they wanted to sit in on because they will be in another session. 

The session about patrol personnel using smartphones and tablets in the field raises issues that are keeping FirstNet from meeting 100-percent of the goals that have been set forth. Yes, the network is nationwide and it will be completed before the five-year contract requirement. Yes, Push-to-Talk (PTT) is available on FirstNet and it is possible to link Land Mobile Radio Systems (LMR) to FirstNet for better interoperability. However, Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) is not the nationwide service it needs to be if it is to serve as the pipe that will feed data, video, and vetted images from those reporting an incident to those responding. This is how the system should work: broadband into the Emergency Communications Center (ECC), then broadband (FirstNet) out to responding units and LMR for local incidents, with more public-safety grade push-to-talk than FirstNet can provide today.

Applications are another missing piece. I am not saying there are no public-safety applications available today, but there is no consistent use of common applications that enable quick and easy sharing of data, video, and even images in some cases. Further, there is no commonality among and between Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) systems. When I was in Santa Barbara County, I was asked to review the then-five Public-Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) in this county of only 200,000 people. The goal was to enable each PSAP to look at other PSAPs’ CAD data and use it for multiple-agency responses. 

At the time, there was no way to share CAD files between agencies so I set out to find a way to accomplish this. I ended up talking with a company in the South that knew how and could write the code to make it happen. However, the project would cost more than $300,000 simply to make these five systems talk to each other. If one PSAP changed CAD vendors, an additional $50,000 would be needed to include the new CAD system. The result would have been a translation middleware installed on each system that probably would have slowed information that needs to be viewed in real time. Considering the cost and possible effect on data speeds, the decision was to not undertake the project.

The issue of common applications running over FirstNet for every department to use may never be resolved since many have already found their “favorite” set of applications and would not be willing to retrain all the people who interact with the applications and the data they create. Still, I hope we can move toward this goal. 

I also hope Next-Generation 9-1-1 will signal a time when interaction of CAD systems will become so important that the need for common applications will finally be addressed. One of the objectives of NG911 is to enable any ECC to take over the duties of any other ECC that may be out of commission due to an emergency. This can most easily be accomplished if all CAD systems are able to “talk” to the other CAD systems. For, years applications developers, like some radio vendors, have designed their systems in such a way that add-ons and add-ins must be implemented by that vendor and not by a competitor. This makes no sense in today’s world.

Understandably, vendors have always tried to gain an advantage, but more and more they are coming to realize that making things work together is the best way to go. I say this as the FCC reviews comments on the filing from BRETSA that is asking the FCC to change FirstNet from a nationwide network to a network of networks. This concept was soundly rejected by the public-safety community based on today’s lack of inoperability in the LMR world. As I said in a previous Advocate, I think discussion of such a major change to FirstNet, with which I disagree, should not be undertaken until after FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has completed the RFP requirements for the first five-year build-out.

P25, the digital standard for public-safety communications was the same. There was a basic standard and radio vendors added their own bells and whistles to make sure no other P25 vendor could bid on the system and could not, at a later date, add equipment to the network. Today, P25 has changed. There are still those who try to embellish P25 in a way that makes it more difficult for others to compete, but there has been a concentrated effort to ensure P25 is a “standard,” meaning any radio developed to the P25 standard will work in any network built to the P25 standard.

Further, as others have stated in their filings, I do not believe the FCC has jurisdiction over this issue. The best response I am aware of was filed by Ret. Chief Harlin McEwen and it is available on the FCC website for Docket DA-19-902. An interesting wrinkle is that in the meantime, Boulder CO, the area from which the initial request for interoperability was made, has signed a contract for ESChat to provide push-to-talk services over FirstNet because ESChat is an “over-the-top” application. This means any public-safety user on any LTE network can install ESChat and, if granted access, can then talk to any public-safety personnel using PTT on the FirstNet network. Bingo! Interoperability for PTT at last. This will evolve into push-to-send in the future, so in reality, ESChat has solved the very problem the FCC has been asked to fix.

Winding Down

The FirstNet Authority Board is back to its full membership with the appointment of two new members. The law that established FirstNet required formation of The FirstNet Authority which is to be made up of federal department secretaries or their designees, one member each from the EMS community, fire, and law enforcement, with the balance of the members being people who have business and/or communications network experience. Board members serve for a three-year term.

Members who are not from the federal government must be appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, currently Wilbur Ross. The two new appointees are Karima Homes and Matt Slinkard. Ms. Homes’ appointment is most notable because she is the first board member to come out of the 9-1-1 community. She presently supervises the Washington, DC system. That is not to make light of the other appointee who is from the Fire Service. Mr. Slinkard is the Executive Assistant Chief of Police for Houston, Texas. He has experience with major incidents including hurricanes, major flooding, and much more, which I believe makes him an ideal choice for the board. 

I want to mention that even though I no longer live in California I am appalled that both PG&E and SoCal Edison are engaging in rolling or blanket power outages when there is a severe fire danger in a defined area. Then, once the fire danger lessens, they keep the power off until they can inspect their equipment and lines. This is a reaction to the finding that many of the major fires in California have been caused by downed power lines. I believe both companies have been careless for many years and have not upgraded their lines and other equipment. Now they are forcing their customers pay a steep price for their negligence. 

This week PG&E announced that these power outages may continue for a decade. Apparently, this is its way of forcing the state to permit it to increase its rates and have citizens foot the bill for upgrades it should have been making all along. 

Power companies are not the only service organizations letting their assets fall into disrepair across the United States. Water and sewer pipes are showing their age, gas lines are failing, streets are full of potholes, and on it goes. The time to start paying attention to basics and making repairs and upgrades as they are needed instead of waiting for failures has long passed.

The burden is not only on citizens and businesses, the public-safety community also pays the price. For example, during power outages when a city or area is in the dark, it is far more dangerous for law enforcement personnel to patrol and respond to calls, if calls can even be made, and for fire and EMS to respond. Neither citizens nor the public-safety community should have to do with without electricity or experience other failures that could and should be avoided.

As I drive around Phoenix, Maricopa County, and other areas of Arizona, I continue to check the coverage maps for FirstNet and Verizon that are automatically recorded by my Sierra Wireless MG-90. I am finding new areas where public-safety band 14 is up and running, and I am told others are discovering new band-14 areas with each passing week. I am convinced that FirstNet (Built with AT&T) will beat each and every requirement of the five-year build-out phase of the contract. When public-safety personnel complain about lack of coverage, I remind them that the FirstNet contract is for build-out of a band 14-only system. AT&T has far surpassed this by offering up all its LTE spectrum in addition to building out band 14. Further, AT&T is now committed to including its 5G deployment for use by departments that have joined FirstNet and are already benefiting from FirstNet coverage. 

Until Next week…
Andrew M. Seybold
©2019, Andrew Seybold, Inc.


1 Comment on "Public Safety Advocate: IACP, Network Interoperability, FirstNet Board"

  1. Andy,
    I hope you will check out the Zebra Tech. booth and see the printers, plus tablet and handhelds we have outfitted with FirstNet certified radios, to offer first responders a more rugged, and US based, alternative to the competition.

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