Opinion: First Responders’ Experience, Creativity Critical to Building Relevant, Widely Used FirstNet

The need to connect first responders via a truly interoperable public safety broadband network is clearer than ever.

by Don Hairston, senior vice president and general manager, Advanced Systems, Textron Systems / December 27, 2012

Hurricane Sandy again demonstrated the true heroics of first responders and the countless situations they encounter in dire times, such as rescuing people from rising floodwaters and burning homes and securing fuel supplies for critical services like hospital generators and water treatment facilities. As the tidal surges inundated Lower Manhattan, we remind ourselves that what had previously been once-in-a-lifetime weather emergencies now seem to happen every 18 months. The need to connect first responders via a truly interoperable public safety broadband network (PSBN) is clearer than ever. 

Despite the fact that the Obama administration fully supports the need for an interoperable infrastructure for our first responders and Congress responded by authorizing the creation of the PSBN last spring, the success of the network is dependent upon wide adoption and financial support by first responders across the country. Indeed, nothing in the law mandates they participate. With tightening local budgets, this user community is voicing increasing concern and skepticism about the costs and benefits of such a network. The head of one law enforcement association noted bluntly that law enforcement “cannot be viewed as a captive source of funds to be maximized as the PSBN builds out.” 

Their concerns are justified. Many local law enforcement entities created their own emergency broadband communications systems while waiting for Congress to act on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. A new tech-savvy generation of first responders has even created software tailored to its specific community’s needs.  

To secure buy-in from the estimated 2 million first responders in the United States, the PSBN must provide better services at a more affordable cost to these customers than their current legacy systems. Budget-strapped first responder agencies are in no position to pay more for their communication services, nor should that be asked of them. To make the PSBN worthy of initial investment and continued commitment by the first responder community, the congressionally mandated First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) must engage potential users at the outset to incorporate their ideas and best practices into the PSBN’s features. Their voices and experience can directly shape everything from the data services provided to the devices that deliver them. 

Creating the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) within FirstNet is an important first step in this direction. One committee, however, cannot effectively capture the diversity of talent and needs within a public safety community of 2 million members without some creative and accessible means by which members can contribute.  

Textron Systems has implemented two approaches to harness this input. These two approaches will enable future PSBN users to directly communicate their needs to the PSAC. Our goal is to sample 10 percent or more of the public safety community. The first approach employs a strategy of interactive crowdsourcing through the use of a wiki — a website that invites users to add, modify or delete content.  Stakeholders of the first responder community, including police, fire, EMS, incident commanders, interagency collaborators, telecommunications providers and others, work on the wiki at www.ConnectingFirstResponders.com cooperatively to outline typical scenarios representing the activities and challenges that first responders face in the field. Telecommunications providers may provide experiential knowledge about the implementation of communications networks applicable to the various scenarios.

The second approach, a virtual game, puts first responders in scenarios ranging from normal daily operations to natural disasters and terrorist attacks, while they interact with one another to perform the duties of a first responder in that real life situation. This would include fighting crime, rescuing injured civilians, protecting property and any other role a public safety user chooses to input. 

In the game, they will request access to various types of information, coordinate with players in many roles across the community and in the process, “virtually” use the PSBN. The data, activities, responses, problems and creativity of the players will be tracked to create a thorough inventory of potential uses of the PSBN and ultimately can help develop a network that is responsive to a multitude of realistic scenarios and reflective of the real time needs of first responders.

Ensuring the PSBN meets the needs of our diverse nation and the first responders who protect us will require a significant effort to capture as much of their input as possible. Crowdsourcing and leaning on the public safety community’s creative problem solving will enable users to contribute and leave their mark on the network — making the PSBN stronger, giving the public safety community ownership and ensuring across-the-board buy-in for a quality network.

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