A year ago, when I asked state CIOs what FirstNet — the federal government’s plan to build a nationwide public safety communications network — meant to them, the answer was all too often, “I don’t know.”

But now, public CIOs appear to be engaging, and it’s crucial that they do. Our story on page 26 points out why FirstNet needs their involvement.

Hawaii CIO Sonny Bhagowalia, who at press time was named chief adviser for technology and cybersecurity for Gov. Neil Abercrombie, is a great example. He’s been the point man for FirstNet planning activities in his state, and that makes sense. Bhagowalia — who has a background in electrical engineering and telecommunications — already serves as co-chair of the committee overseeing Hawaii’s wireless interoperability network. All of this gives him great insight into how state assets will fit into the emerging national public safety network.

But even for public CIOs who aren’t closely involved with public safety communications, there’s good reason to join the planning process. For instance, CIOs can help bring the right stakeholders to the table, including those representing local public safety, technology, tribal communities, utilities and other critical infrastructure.

And Nebraska CIO Brenda Decker, who leads FirstNet efforts in her state, adds that state CIOs can perform a valuable education function. “Broadband LTE [long-term evolution] networks are somewhat new territory for public safety organizations,” she said, “but they are more in our wheelhouse as we have experience with statewide broadband networks.”

There are a few other reasons for public CIOs to pay attention too.

FirstNet will create a badly needed broadband infrastructure to support public safety. But it’s the information flowing through the network that will determine its value — and CIOs are the gatekeepers for much of that data.

Jeff Johnson, a retired fire chief who is now a member of the FirstNet Board of Directors, acknowledged as much during NASCIO’s 2013 Annual Conference in October, telling state CIOs: “This will be a wireless pipe that you manage locally. You’ll decide what databases to permission to the network and what restrictions there will be. We’ll follow your rules for access.”

Another critical factor is determining who actually gets to use the network. Although FirstNet is reserved for public safety users, states appear to have wide latitude on defining the term.

“It won’t necessarily just be people who wear badges that use this network,” Johnson said. “FirstNet won’t tell you what public safety is. You’ll decide if that includes utilities, transportation, health and human services, etc.”

These decisions will play a crucial role in determining the network’s ultimate worth — and public CIOs can’t afford to sit on the sidelines.

Steve Towns, Editor Steve Towns  |  Editor

Steve Towns is editor of Government Technology, and executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government Technology,Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market.