Leaders at FirstNet, the nation’s emerging high-speed first responder communications network, are declaring a win in their biggest public demonstration to date.
The weather wasn’t kind to the 122nd running of the Boston Marathon on April 16. Harsh winds and cold rains lashed the runners and some half a million spectators. Through it all, though, local fire, police and incident response teams were able to talk, text and share photos in ways not previously possible.
“It was a great demonstration of the technology that we have been planning and working towards for public safety for years,” said Michael Varney, Regional Lead for the First Responder Network Authority. “It is real, it does exist, it does work. This validates all the very hard work that lots and lots of people in public safety have undertaken over the years.”
A large-scale demonstration of FirstNet has been a long time coming. Congress and the first responder community began discussing the need for high-speed, interoperable communications in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It took years to put the plans in place, and 56 states and territories opted in to the network as of last December.
In March the effort hit a landmark moment when FirstNet accepted the dedicated FirstNet Core, the hardware infrastructure that will power broadband communications across the network. The Core is key FirstNet functionality: Unlike commercial networks, it’s designed to not get overloaded during large-scale events.
With cities around metro Boston working at various paces to connect to the core, the marathon offered network planners a chance to demonstrate how a full-fledged FirstNet implementation might operate.
For the event, the First Responder Network Authority and its partner AT&T distributed 80 ruggedized FirstNet devices (pictured at left) to fire, police and incident response teams from Boston and Brookline. Participants used the devices for both push-to-talk and land mobile radio integration applications.
The first responder community gave the system high marks.
“It’s an easy application to learn and utilize. [Police and fire] have been giving me a lot of good feedback and they are pretty excited about it,” said Officer Scott Wilder, director of technology for the Brookline, Mass., Police Department.
He compared the 2018 event to the marathon five years earlier, when a bombing brought both the race and emergency communications to a standstill. As high call volume jammed the local cellular networks, emergency crews struggled with poor connectivity and had trouble sharing the still images and videos that ultimately helped identify the perpetrators.
“That was tough, we had a lot of things going on … we lost our wireless, we had no cellular for a while,” Wilder said. “If that happened today … we’d be able to communicate. Communications would not be interrupted.”
Throughout the event, police and fire officials put the system through its paces.
“Boston Police used it primarily to track specific activities: where the race leaders were, where the key assets were along the race route so that they could deploy them if something were to happen,” Varney said. “Boston Fire similarly deployed devices to all the units along the race route, including special operations and incident response, so that they could quickly deploy in case of any call for service.”
With Brookline emergency teams doing the same, testers were able to demonstrate a key component of the FirstNet offering: interoperability between responders. “They were sharing information, sharing photos and texts between departments. It was part of a test — they didn’t have an event come up where they had to use it — but they proved that they could do it and they tested that successfully,” Varney said.
The lousy weather conditions were actually a boon to first responders, who got to test-drive the FirstNet equipment in suboptimal conditions. The wind and the rain did not impede their efforts, Varney said.
FirstNet remains a work in progress, as state and local authorities sort through the details of implementation with the First Responder Network Authority and AT&T. As cities bring the network online, the successful demonstration at the Boston Marathon offers a large-scale, real-life indication that the long-awaited network may in fact be ready for prime time.
A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.