Technology Help for Those on the Front Line

“This isn’t science fiction. This is the reality on our doorstep today with FirstNet.”

By Al H Gillespie, Fire Chief, Retired


The future of how we respond to emergencies is about to change dramatically for first responders.

Responding to a fire and how we have chosen our tactics and strategies have evolved over time. While the solution, in most cases, is still to get close enough to the seat of the fire to put “wet stuff on the red stuff” our models of how and why we respond the way we do will continue to change as we better understand the science of the problem.

The Old Salts of the departments, when I was a young boot and during my father’s time in the Fire Department, had seen many fires under many different circumstances and so had learned to survive and battle these fires by reading the fire conditions. Because of great advancements in codes and building construction and a greater public awareness of safety practices the number of fires that occur has dropped.

This is a good thing, but the types of fire and the hazards associated with them have changed dramatically putting the firefighters and the public at increased risk. Because of this drop in the number of fires, the average firefighter and officers haven’t had the opportunity to see and learn from the types and number of responses like the Old Salts before them. The average company officer may have seen only a few fires beyond a residential room and contents fire before they are thrust into making command decisions, which could be life or death, in large and complex fire situations.

To counter this, they train hard and work much harder at preparing themselves physically to face the hazards. No matter what they do, experience is invaluable to them.

Enter FirstNet.

Those of us involved in bringing a Public Safety Broadband Network (PSBN) to life are trying to make available to first responders a revolutionary communications system to help save the lives of the public and the responders themselves. While we had some vision of what the benefits would be, beyond just making sure we could contact each other in emergency situations, they continue to exponentially change before our eyes.

Imagine companies responding to a fire dispatch where, as the companies roll out the door, the dispatcher, the company officers, and the incident commander begin receiving information about the fire. Devices inside the building and a drone released at the time of dispatch arrives above the scene and begins to send information and video of the conditions at the scene. Fire conditions, rate of heat rise, smoke and fire spread, location and conditions of the occupants, structural integrity and a plethora of additional information will be immediately available to the responders throughout the incident. Regardless of the commanders’ experience in the situation they will have information available to reduce the hazards to the responders and the public.

Anyone who has commanded an emergency scene, like the one above, will tell you the problem is one gets too much information and not enough of the right information to make good strategic and tactical decisions all the time (and they can never afford to be wrong!). So as the information comes in, the computers that bring in the data will have algorithms that evolve to help the commanders discern the “acute” from the “important” and “the good to know” information that is available to them.

This isn’t science fiction. This is the reality on our doorstep today with FirstNet. The bandwidth and technology is available and will start to be available to first responders once the rollout of the PSBN starts. FirstNet and their partner, AT&T, have made the state and territory initial plans available to each of these entities through their collective State Plan Portal (SPP). With that the clock has started to make all this and more a reality. The public safety responders in each state and territory have 45 days from June 19th to review their state plan. If you don’t know how or can’t access the plan, talk to your Single Point of Contact (SPOC) for your state or territory, and if that doesn’t work reach out to your Governor to help you get that access. It’s important! After the initial plans are reviewed AT&T and FirstNet will have 45 days to amend the plans and resubmit them. Once this occurs the Governor of each state and territory will have 90 days to decide whether to opt-in to the plan and to begin to have the benefits of the PSBN, including the financing, technology and upgrades for the next 25 years, which will begin immediately. The second choice is to opt-out which means that the state or territory must come up with a plan for building, funding, maintaining and upgrading their own system which must, by law, be compatible with the PSBN. The third choice available to the Governor is to do nothing and let the time lapse which is a defacto opt-in choice. These timelines can be moved forward and the benefits of the plans will begin immediately with the signature of the Governor to opt-in.

We have arrived at the future of technology. Public safety responders have the opportunity to improve protection to themselves and members of the public. What seems like the end of the first phase of this massive project, is actually just the beginning of what will be an amazing evolution for public safety.


Al H Gillespie, Fire Chief, (Ret)

Chief Gillespie served the fire service for almost 40 years including 15 years as the Fire Chief of three large city fire departments. He also served as the Interim Executive Chief of East County Fire and Rescue. Chief Gillespie served as the President of the International Association of Chiefs (IAFC) 2011-12 and, as all past IAFC Presidents, serves on the President’s Council. During his tenure as President he was instrumental in helping the fire service and all public safety, through Congress, acquire the D-Block bandwidth. Chief Gillespie serves as the Principal of Executive Fire Consultants working with a major multi-national communications company on firefighter health and safety issues.


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