The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is learning to walk.
For the past few years, industry pundits have questioned the organization’s ability to meet its goal of building a nationwide, interoperable first-responder network; to keep pace with a fast-evolving wireless industry; to coordinate with hundreds of conservative public safety agencies around the U.S.; to navigate the bureaucratic mud; or even to maintain a stable executive leadership structure. All bets are off — FirstNet may become the next big government tech failure, or the network may follow in the carefully placed footsteps of JerseyNet, the state of New Jersey’s FirstNet early builder implementation.
Funded by a $39.6 million grant through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP), JerseyNet is one of several early builder projects to hash out what FirstNet networks can do and where their shortcomings lie. Other early builders include Adams County, Colo.; the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System Authority; New Mexico; and Harris County, Texas. These early systems are the first glimpse of what FirstNet will become.
JerseyNet is being tested in Atlantic City, Camden and the Interstate-21 corridor. Most recently, the network was tested live during three events at Atlantic City Beach: for a Maroon 5 concert on Aug. 16, a Rascal Flatts concert on Aug. 20 and for the Atlantic City Airshow on Sept. 2. By the city’s accounting, the network performed perfectly as public safety officials watched over a combined crowd of more than 100,000.
So far, JerseyNet is composed of seven “deployable units,” as the Atlantic City Police Department (ACPD) calls them. In Atlantic City, four “cells on wheels” (COWs) and one “system on wheels” (SOW), equipment provided by Oceus Networks that bridges public safety officials onto the 700 MHz LTE public safety band where otherwise they might not have connectivity for the transmission of voice, data and radio. Neighboring New Jersey cities of Pleasantville and Absecon also have one COW each. Eventually, 37 COWs and SOWs will be launched to blanket the state.
The system software, which is provided by Mutualink, allows the ACPD and the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness (OHSP) unprecedented connectivity and functionality, said James Sarkos, an ACPD lieutenant and BTOP project manager, who said that before JerseyNet, things did not go smoothly at big events like these.
“We spend a lot of time and effort putting deployable pole cameras out in the field, and these pole cameras will work flawlessly before the event — and then the crowd shows up and they stop working,” Sarkos said. “The public network just can’t support that number of people in such a small area; it overloads the system and everything crashes. … When we used BTOP, we had our routers installed in our camera trailers and cameras stayed up before the event, they stayed up during the event, and they stayed up after the event. That was the first time in years that that has happened.”
Reliability is one of the features that prompted FirstNet’s creation. It shouldn’t have taken a catastrophe for the government to realize that public safety officials absolutely need to talk to one another during emergencies, but it was from a 9/11 Commission Report recommendation that FirstNet was conceived. Interoperability, the ability to communicate across technologies, was also cited as a critical feature of FirstNet, and JerseyNet is making good there too. Atlantic City’s casinos use Mutualink technology too, Sarkos said, which allows cross-organization communication. Police can talk to casino security guards if they need to.
“They send us their camera feeds from the boardwalk and, in addition to the camera feeds, we now have an open line of communication through Mutualink through BTOP where we can talk back and forth, and now we can integrate our radio channels along with their radio channels,” Sarkos explained.
The ability of two organizations using different technologies to work together is one of the driving factors behind the creation of a first responder network. JerseyNet is making interoperability a priority, but there’s no promise that other cities or states will do the same. In fact, there’s nothing in the draft RFP released earlier this year requiring FirstNet networks to adopt interoperability at all, said Colin McWay, president of Mutualink.
“What’s fascinating to me is when you look at what’s happening with the expectations of the public around FirstNet, each and every one of those senators when they’re on the panel on C-Span talking to the FirstNet leadership, each one of them talked about the need for interoperable communications,” McWay said. “This is the fundamental core expectation around FirstNet.”
In the meantime, JerseyNet is helping to keep the public safer than ever when it comes to large events. And the BTOP funding provided to New Jersey was great timing for the state, said William Mazur, ACPD deputy chief and incident commander for Atlantic City Beach concerts.
“We’re shifting from an exclusive gaming-oriented business environment to non-gaming attractions," he said. "That doesn’t mean that we’re closing our casinos and closing up shop. It just means that to be a competitive tourism attraction, we needed to offer more non-gaming events such as concerts and outdoor events."
When crowds become so dense that there’s 70,000 people in a six-block radius, it becomes critical that police are able to view their cameras and reach a precise location, Mazur explained – either in response to an emergency or by intervening to prevent a bad situation from getting worse.
“Unfortunately it’s very difficult for us because of lack of funding to stay ahead of the curve in terms of technology,” he said, “but this is one time where we can actually say we’re ahead of the curve, and for that, we’re really proud to be part of this.”
Editor's Note: This article was updated on Sept. 9, 2015 to properly reflect the vendors responsible for JerseyNet's software and hardware components.
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.