Public Safety Advocate: Weather to Move to FirstNet

To all my readers who delight in finding errors in my articles (for which I am grateful), “weather” in the title is correct as this week’s Public Safety Advocate deals with storms, wildfires, volcanoes, and all forms of nature-made and man-made disruptions to our normal lives. This is also the week we all remember where we were on that tragic 9/11 day, which in some ways underscores the work public safety had begun in the search to find a way to provide better interoperability between and among agencies.

For the public, the 9/11 Commission, and the U.S. Congress, what happened in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and how many lives were lost that might have been saved began to bring home an awareness of the plight of public safety and the inability to communicate from department to department or even in some cases between fire and law in the same jurisdiction. This was followed by Katrina and other major incidents requiring multi-agency responses, all of which were hampered by the lack of inter- and intra-agency communications.

The 9/11 attacks took place in 2001, but FirstNet was not formalized by Congress and the President until February 2012. Today, seventeen years later, it is real. FirstNet is up and operational providing vital additional communications services to the public safety community in the way of data and video to and from the scene of an incident. It is also capable of non-mission-critical Push-To-Talk (PTT), which is and should be considered as an important piece of the interoperability puzzle. FirstNet has been designed as the nationwide broadband system for public safety. Most interesting to me is that a team of people and their vehicles can be dispatched across multiple states and remain in touch with their local dispatch center for the entire trip. When they arrive, they can become part of the incident communications efforts and still report to their own dispatch center thousands of miles away. This is certainly not the case with Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems in general although there are nationwide channels available for LMR use.

We have been pummeled with volcanoes, record-breaking rains, lighting, hurricanes, tornadoes, and more natural disasters. We have also had many man-made assaults on schools, churches, and other public places where people spend time. Most of these incidents require responses from multiple types of law enforcement, fire, and EMS personnel. Coordination at these incidents is critical to being able to contain them and find and treat victims in a timely fashion, and while doing all this, keeping the press and public contained so public safety personnel can do their jobs as effectively and safely as possible.

FirstNet adds an important level of interoperability to the world of public safety communications. It is available to all qualifying federal, state, tribal, and local agencies. When there is an incident that requires federal law enforcement to join in, these responders can, if properly equipped, become part of the primary investigation and not have to gather information later or by word of mouth. I have often thought that with all the storms currently brewing in the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should be on FirstNet, perhaps not as primary users but as the agency in charge of after-incident assessment and restoration.

FirstNet understands that the broadband network is not impervious to damage or outages from man-made or natural disasters so it provides for Cells on Wheels (COWs), tethered drones, back-pack LTE systems with handheld devices packaged for instant deployment, and more. In some cases, it is easy to add devices to a WiFi bubble that can be set up to surround an emergency vehicle. There may be some outages or lack of service during major incidents but FirstNet is determined to provide back-up and coverage assistance as quickly as possible. Providing equipment and services where needed can be challenging when there are multiple fires in the west, tornadoes and severe storms in the middle of the United States, and more rain and storms to the east. Directing the right equipment to the right scene is sometimes tricky and as conditions change, so do the public safety community’s requirements.

Having a common, nationwide network where each and every device on that network has access to all other devices on the network is far better than having to distribute additional handheld radios at a scene or finding other ways to communicate. Having local, regional, and statewide LMR systems as well as a nationwide broadband network is a powerful combination that is tough to beat. Keeping track of responders, providing reports and information to those at the incident or on the way to the incident, and managing the assets is a vitally important role.

Being able to send video to local Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs), state and federal agencies, and other units involved in an incident is becoming vital to ensuring all the correct resources are in place and there are communications to and from all of them. There are other benefits as well. Years ago, when we were trying to explain to Congress the importance of what would become FirstNet, one of the examples used was a bomb discovered in Times Square of a type that was not known to the NYC bomb squads. Because nationwide video is available, the video of this bomb can be almost instantly sent to other bomb squads in other parts of the country and/or to the feds or even the military. Hopefully, someone will have seen one of these bombs before and know how to render it harmless—lives saved.

Soon we will be able to take still pictures and videos sent to Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) by citizens, verify them, and then send them out to those responding to a situation. These images can show license plates, individuals, and other items that will help responders find suspects and take them into custody. The ability to access cameras inside a school or other facility for an inside look at what is happening in real time can and will prevent needless loss of citizens’ and first responders’ lives. Even in the early days, we knew adding video to the mix of communications would be like enabling a blind person to see as well as hear. Everyone arriving on the scene will have a better understanding of the incident and what is unfolding.

Every major incident has an initial period of uncertainly, perhaps some panic or confusion, but that soon gives way to a plan to proceed in a safe and logical manner. Having video, data, and voice interoperability will shorten the initial time it takes for things to have settled into a known state and is being overseen by an incident commander who knows where all his/her assets are, who is responding, and who is available for specific requirements. Additional video and data can augment the knowledge both at the incident and back at the command facility. In many cases, this will result in the shortening of the incident or how long it will take to bring it under control.

However, for FirstNet to be truly effective on a nationwide basis it must be in use by all public safety agencies in the nation. We cannot afford to have areas where FirstNet is not being used, causing the command and control functions of multiple jurisdiction incidents to fall apart. There are sometimes valid reasons that some departments have not yet joined FirstNet. There are coverage issues among other things, but FirstNet (Built by AT&T) is building out as fast as it can and working with agencies to earn their trust and prove it is up to the task of providing this network. Sometimes these perceived coverage issues are just that, “perceived,” since the department has not taken the time to compare today’s FirstNet coverage with that of their existing broadband supplier, and some coverage issues are real and causing concern within the public safety community. I can tell you all day long that many of these are recognized and being addressed, but until you see for yourself, you won’t believe me or anyone else. You will wait and watch and in some cases that is not bad. I strongly recommend to many agencies that even if they plan to stay with their existing network operator for now, they contract with FirstNet for a few devices so they can monitor and stay on top of coverage improvements as they are made and have at least basic interoperability capabilities.

The ideal scenario is that all first responders make use of FirstNet. The vision of a nationwide, common broadband network using data and video and even push-to-talk for multiple-jurisdiction incidents should be realized sooner rather than later. Think about the alternative. An outside jurisdiction is called on to assist and the responders show up only to find that their LMR system is not compatible and neither is their broadband network.

Putting this in different terms, you are chief of a fire department in a mid-sized city, you have a major fire, and you need assistance from the fire departments surrounding you. They are called and respond and guess what, there are no common communications. Not over LMR and not over FirstNet. You are back to square one. You are trying to orchestrate a major event without resources that can communicate with each other. That is what FirstNet set out to fix. However, the only way it can be truly fixed is if every department takes part in FirstNet. Yes, some will have to wait until needed coverage is filled in but planning now to be part of the FirstNet solution makes the most sense to me.

Winding Down

Two FirstNet Authority personnel changes top this week’s list. First is the appointment of Edward Horowitz as the new board chairman. According to his bio, Mr. Horowitz has had a very successful career focused mainly on finance and management, both traits needed to lead the FirstNet board as decisions are made over the next few years about where to spend additional funds on network enhancements and similar issues. Many people believe since the FirstNet contract has been awarded and work is well underway on the network, FirstNet the Authority serves no purpose. This is not true, a lot of work and oversight is still needed.

On the loss side, FirstNet CEO Mike Poth has indicated he will be leaving FirstNet at the end of September for the private sector. Mike came to FirstNet after many changes had been made to the organization. When TJ Kennedy, President of the FirstNet Authority left, Mike was at the helm by himself. I am hoping Mike Poth’s, and TJ Kennedy’s replacements come from inside the organization. There are many very good people already with FirstNet who have dedicated their lives to the success of the organization and it makes the most sense to me to move people who already have the background and passion for FirstNet into roles with more responsibility.

I am writing this on 9/11 and like every one of us, I woke up remembering exactly where I was and what I was doing that day. Four of us were in San Diego and the day before we had presented another successful Wireless Data University session as we used to do the day prior to CTIA.

One of my partners called me and told me to turn on the TV. I watched in horror as the morning unfolded. I went to the Hertz counter at the hotel and rented the last car available and then we went to the CTIA event. On the way to the convention center, we witnessed all the military ships in the harbor being quickly moved out of the confines of the harbor and out to the open sea.

Tom Wheeler was President and CEO of CTIA at the time and he stood on the stage with a TV set next to him and tried to start the conference. It became obvious after a short time that he could not focus us on the conference or the messages and as I recall, he cancelled the event shortly after he took the stage. We then all had to find our way home. We had the car so drove up to San Jose near where three of us lived. One of my partners lived in Denver and continued his trip taking multiple buses to reach home. Some attendees were just plain stranded in Los Angeles for the next few days.

As mentioned above, 9/11 and the commission report were a catalyst in educating people outside the public safety community about the radio communications issues between and among agencies on different land mobile radio channels not being compatible with others on the scene. By 2001, public safety was well on its way to being organized in the search for a nationwide solution for its communications interoperability. It is unfortunate it took the events of 9/11 to drive home to both elected officials and the general public an awareness of the shortcomings of public safety communications.

Hurricane Katrina and several other major storms solidified the need for a solution. The public safety community was already motivated to see changes made and the hint of a nationwide broadband system was in the air. Public safety convinced Congress and the Executive Branch to approve of what is now known as FirstNet and to form FirstNet the Authority in February 2012.

FirstNet is real, functional, and doing what it is designed to do. It is providing interoperability, especially for multi-jurisdictional incidents. Over time FirstNet will become increasingly effective as more agencies join and start making use of the system. As a result, public safety incident coordination will also become increasingly effective.

The Last Word

This week Apple announced new iPhones all of which include the FirstNet band 14 spectrum. This took a lot of hard work and discussions between FirstNet (Built by AT&T) and Apple but it is a very important announcement since FirstNet’s device choices will now include fully capable iPhones as well as fully capable Android devices.

Andrew M. Seybold
©2018, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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