Editor's note: This story is updated as states and territories opt in to FirstNet.
After several years of laying the foundation for a dedicated nationwide public safety communications network, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) initiative is building even more momentum as states begin to opt in. As of Oct. 9, 23 states and two territories have signed on stating their intent to join the network.
But getting to this point had not been a simple process, and has required planning and a lengthy and continued outreach process in the all of the U.S.’ 56 states and territories.
The significance of the effort is not lost on FirstNet board member Teri Takai, who also serves as executive director of the Center for Digital Government.* From where Takai sits, the progress is exciting, but has not come easily.
In addition to years of planning and coordination, the FirstNet team has also made substantial outreach efforts to each state to ensure that leadership is equipped with the information necessary to make educated decisions on their participation.
“I think that we are off to just a great start. I think there is a lot of opportunity for states to be able to get some immediate benefit because of our partnership with AT&T," Takai said. "And obviously, some of the states are taking some time and thinking through it, and certainly there are some that may decide that they are planning to opt out, but we recognize that and are just really pleased with the progress so far.”
In Takai’s home state of Michigan, leaders pursued a competitive RFP to see if there was a better option for a statewide emergency communication network, but ultimately decided that the national network was a more prudent decision.
State plans were submitted to FirstNet between June 19 and Aug. 4, and officials say feedback on those plans will continue until at least mid-September.
Where opting in to the nationwide coalition does take some substantial consideration, planning and effort on the part of states, opting out could prove to be even more labor-intensive. As FirstNet spokesperson Ryan Oremland explained, opt-out states would need to prove that their individual solutions meet the overarching compatibility standards of the national network.
“If you are going to opt out, you are going to have to jump through a lot of hoops to make sure you are technically interoperable, financially viable — there is a whole litany of things and it’s a long process to opt out,” he said. “In designing this, Congress wanted the network to be interoperable, so there are a lot of checkpoints if you want to opt out.”
Looking past the process and the what lies ahead for undecided states, Takai said states and the agencies that operate within them will soon start to see the very real benefits of a consolidated and reliable communications network — or as Oremland puts it, giving first responders the “first public safety-focused innovation platform” and a “whole new marketplace.”
On Aug. 16, Verizon announced its plans to build and operate a private network dedicated to public safety communications, targeting the same customers AT&T gains under the FirstNet contract. Since Verizon made the announcement, however, states continued to join FirstNet. Though Verizon stated in its announcement that its public safety network solution doesn't require states to opt out of FirstNet, it's unclear at this time what benefits might exist for states or territories taking advantage of both networks, or whether doing so is feasible.
As for FirstNet, Takai noted that it's important to recognize that opting in is an essential first step, "but now we really have to concentrate on making sure that all of public safety, all the way down to the first responders and emergency management personnel that are really on the ground, also get a clear understanding of FirstNet and start to really have the capability in their hands."
The jurisdictions that have opted in to FirstNet thus far are: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Puerto Rico, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Alaska: On Aug. 30, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker announced his decision to accept the FirstNet and AT&T plan to deliver a wireless broadband network to the state’s public safety community, making the state the 16th to opt in. “Opting in to FirstNet is an important step to ensure that Alaska’s first responders can communicate when seconds can mean the difference between life and death,” Walker said in a press release. “Putting this technology in the hands of our public safety personnel brings us closer to building a safer Alaska.”
Arizona: On Aug. 14, Arizona became the 13th jurisdiction to opt in to FirstNet, transforming the way state's fire, police, EMS and other public safety personnel communicate and share information. "The state of Arizona is ready to work shoulder-to-shoulder with AT&T and FirstNet to finally deploy a true interoperable nationwide communications system for public safety." Col. Frank Milstead, director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, said in a press release. "We have much work ahead of us, but with AT&T's open communication and commitment to excellence, the future for all first responders will be safer as will the lives of our citizens."
Arkansas: Arkansas was one of the first states in the nation to opt in to FirstNet. In an announcement made July 13, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the undertaking would be a “major step forward” for public safety in the state. "First responders put their lives on the line each day to protect our communities," he said in a press release. "I am excited to partner with FirstNet and AT&T to provide innovative communication technologies and tools that will help first responders protect communities and lives. This is a major step forward for the Arkansas public safety community, and I am proud that Arkansas is among the first states in the nation to opt in to this critical infrastructure project."
Hawaii: On Aug. 25, Hawaii became the 15th state to opt in to the national FirstNet network. Gov. David Ige said in a press release that the dedicated network would dramatically change public safety for the better. “The FirstNet network will transform the way fire, police, EMS, emergency management and other public safety personnel communicate and share information, enabling them to better serve their communities during emergencies and day to day operations,” Ige said. State CIO Todd Nacapuy also voiced support for the project saying, “FirstNet leverages nationwide resources and a robust, interoperable system that is particularly important to a state like Hawaii, given the inherent challenges of our island geography. FirstNet also provides expanded statewide coverage and leading edge technologies for first responders and law enforcement to help save lives and protect residents,” he said in the same release.
Idaho: On Sept. 19, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter announced his decision to opt in to FirstNet. "Idaho is pleased to be joining with other states in participating in FirstNet's deployment of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network," Otter said in a press release, adding that timely, reliable and accurate information is critically important to ensuring that the state's first responders can most effectively protect citizens. Pocatello Fire Chief David Gates echoed that sentiment. "Advanced communications are critical to first responder safety and help make us more efficient and effective when we respond to calls for assistance from our communities in their times of need," he said in the press release. "FirstNet will deliver that advanced communications capability every day. Natural disasters — like the fires we're fighting right now — know no boundaries. With FirstNet, we can be nimble and adaptable thanks to interoperable communications tools that will give us improved information, coordination and collaboration in emergencies."
Iowa: On July 18, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced her state would be participating in the FirstNet initiative. The move toward a consolidated first responder network will mean state agencies and emergency personnel will no longer have to rely on the more than 10,000 individual communications networks currently being used. “The FirstNet network will not only strengthen and modernize public safety communications in our state," Reynolds said in a press release, "but also bring much needed investment to our communications infrastructure."
Kansas: On Aug. 15, Gov. Sam Brownback announced his decision to opt in to FirstNet, making Kansas the 14th state or territory to do so. "This initiative positions Kansas to provide state-of-the-art emergency communication services to the benefit of our residents, businesses and visitors,” Brownback said in a press release. “Our first responders need to quickly and securely coordinate efforts during an emergency, and FirstNet will help ensure that they have the tools they need to safeguard our state. This effort will also bring welcome broadband service enhancements to many rural parts of our state, including tribal lands and those areas most recently affected by wildfires this spring.”
Kentucky: Gov. Matt Bevin’s decision to join the FirstNet network was announced July 13.
Louisiana: On Sept. 27, Louisiana became the 24th state to opt-in to the FirstNet first responders network. Gov. John Bel Edwards said the project would be essential not only for emergency response situations, but also for the many large events hosted throughout the state. "The entire state of Louisiana will benefit from this decision,” Edwards said in a press release. “From natural disasters like flooding and hurricanes, to other planned events like Mardi Gras, hosting Super Bowls or other large sporting events, Louisiana has many unique times when communications systems can become strained.”
Maine: Gov. Paul LePage opted his state in to FirstNet Aug. 4, making Maine the 11th state to join the network. “Maine is proud to take this important step for first responders in our state,” LePage said in a press release. “The decision to join this network means that FirstNet and its partner, AT&T, will deliver a highly secure, federally funded, next-generation solution for our public safety community.”
Michigan: Lt. Gov. Brian Calley signed a letter of intent to opt in to FirstNet on Aug. 3, making Michigan the 10th state to join the collective. Calley said the new network will improve services to rural and underserved areas of the state. “This initiative puts Michigan at the forefront once again for public safety and public service,” Calley said in a release. “The ability for public safety agencies to communicate is critical in an emergency. The enhanced capabilities offered by FirstNet and AT&T will help ensure that those risking their lives for our safety have the tools they need."
Minnesota: Minnesota became the 25th state to opt-in to the FirstNet first responders network Oct. 4. In a press release, Gov. Mark Dayton called the move a necessary step to providing the tools first responders need and better serving the citizens of the state. “First responders across our state risk their lives every day to protect and serve the people of Minnesota,” Dayton said. “Modernizing our communications infrastructure will allow our courageous first responders to coordinate and respond more quickly, effectively and safely, creating better outcomes for them and the communities they serve.”
Montana: On Aug. 8, Gov. Steve Bullock announced that Montana would become the 12th state to opt in to the FirstNet partnership after receiving unanimous support from the Statewide Interoperability Governing Board. The governor said as wildfires continue within the state, the need for quick and effective response is more evident than ever before. “As wildfires across the state impact our communities and our hometowns, it’s critical that we support the efforts of the men and women protecting Montana with all resources available,” Bullock said in a press release.
Nebraska: On Sept. 1, Nebraska became the 18th state and 20th jurisdiction to join FirstNet, according to a press release.
Nevada: On Aug. 17, Nevada became the 15th jurisdiction to join FirstNet, which will transform the way the state’s public safety personnel communicate and share information. “Public safety is of the highest concern,” Gov. Brian Sandoval said in a news release. “Increasing the safety of our residents, visitors and first responders through FirstNet was the right choice. From volunteer emergency responders in rural communities to those on the front lines in populous areas, our public safety community deserves access to the cutting-edge technologies they need to get the job done.”
New Jersey: Like Wyoming and Arkansas, New Jersey is credited with being one of the first states to opt in to the FirstNet network. Gov. Chris Christie made the announcement July 25. “New Jersey is proud to take this important step for first responders in our state," he said in a press release. "The decision to join this network means FirstNet and AT&T will deliver a highly secure, next-generation solution for our public safety community, building, maintaining and operating it at no cost and no risk to our state.”
New Mexico: Gov. Susana Martinez announced her state’s intent to join FirstNet on Aug. 1, making the state the ninth to opt in. “We have to keep doing more to keep our communities safe,” she said in a press release. “I worked closely with law enforcement as a prosecutor for 25 years. I’ve seen firsthand the need for a streamlined and modernized communication network for our men and women in uniform. This system will help them save more lives.”
Maryland: On Sept. 18, Maryland became the 21st state or territory to opt-in to the nationwide FirstNet network. In a press release, Gov. Larry Hogan said the emergency responders network would not only improve the economy and job creation in the most rural portion of the state, but that it would also be instrumental in enhancing communications as well. “Keeping Marylanders safe is our top priority, and our first responders need to be equipped with every tool possible to protect our citizens,” Hogan said. “By adopting this plan, our first responders will now have the ability to efficiently and effectively work together not just within the state, but across the region and at the national level.”
Puerto Rico: On Aug. 31, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló opted in to FirstNet, giving Puerto Rico’s first responders subscribers immediate access to quality of service and priority to voice and data across the existing nationwide AT&T LTE network. “With this new tool, we reinforce the exchange of information between the security agencies and the response during an emergency," Rosselló said in a press release. "We are convinced that improving the communication between the components of public safety will be for the betterment of the people of Puerto Rico."
Tennessee: Also on Aug. 31, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam accepted the FirstNet plan to deliver a wireless broadband network to the state’s public safety community, according to a press release.
Texas: On Sept. 19, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced his decision to partner with FirstNet andâ¯AT&T. "The safety and security of Texas communities is my number one priority, and I want to provide our first responders with the best technology possible," he said in a press release.â¯"As we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey,â¯our first responders are often the last and only hope for safety in rapidly-changing and life-threatening situations, but this partnership with FirstNet and AT&T, allows Texas’s fire, police, EMS and other public safety personnel to be better equipped when responding in these emergencies." Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar also noted that Hurricane Harvey is still fresh on officials' minds as the area continues to recover. "The support we received from AT&T and FirstNet during our response was incredible, and with this partnership, it will only get better,” he said in the press release. “Whether responding to storms like Harvey or wildfires in West Texas, our state’s first responders go above and beyond the call of duty every day to help Texans and save lives. The innovative FirstNet system will provide them a network worthy of their service."
Virginia: Virginia was the first state in the country to announce its intention to opt in to FirstNet. Gov. Terry McAuliffe made the announcement July 10. “I am proud that Virginia is the first state in the nation to opt in to this program that will help our first responders communicate during times of emergency,” the governor said in a release. “While this is only the beginning of the process, I look forward to the continued coordinated efforts among Virginia, FirstNet, and AT&T to provide public safety officials with innovative new technologies that will help them keep Virginians safe.”
West Virginia: West Virginia was the seventh state to announce its intention to opt in to the FirstNet network. Gov. Jim Justice made the announcement July 18, and said the undertaking would expand coverage for first responders and the state’s communities. "Our people will be safer because of this incredible initiative and it gives our state a launch pad for new jobs," he said in a press release. "I applaud AT&T for their commitment to a service area footprint that enhances coverage in West Virginia. Competitive pricing and the opportunities this will bring for future investment are limitless. The FirstNet network is a step toward putting West Virginia's first responders on the leading edge."
Wyoming: On July 11, Gov. Matthew Mead signed onto the FirstNet/AT&T plan saying the action was in the “best interest” of the state to participate. "The state of Wyoming has participated in FirstNet consultation and outreach activities throughout the planning of the network and reviewed the details of the FirstNet State Plan," Mead said in a press release. Wyoming was one of the first states in the country to opt in to the network.
U.S. Virgin Islands: On Aug. 1, the U.S. Virgin Islands became the first U.S. territory to opt in to the FirstNet network. “The United States Virgin Islands participated in FirstNet consultation and outreach activities throughout the planning of the network and reviewed the details of the FirstNet State Plan,” Gov. Kenneth Mapp said in a press release. “I have determined that it is in the best interest of the United States Virgin Islands and the Country to participate in the FirstNet deployment of the National Public Safety Broadband Network.”
*The Center for Digital Government is part of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company.