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Verizon Council Talks Interoperability, 5G in First Town Hall

Seven of the council’s 14 members participated on Tuesday in its first public event, a wide-ranging discussion about how public safety agencies are adapting to new challenges and technologies.

A virtual town hall on Tuesday served as an introduction of sorts to the Verizon First Responder Advisory Council, formed in 2019 to guide the development of future products but mostly out of the public eye until now. Seven of the council’s 14 members participated in the event, which posited questions on the topic of “public safety in 2020” to veteran or retired members of various agencies across the country. After parsing through issues of the moment, such as community trust, defunding, recruitment and social media, their conversation offered a glimpse of public safety’s technological future — particularly interoperability and 5G.


Prompting a discussion about interoperability, event host and Verizon Chief Security Officer Michael Mason, also a former Marine and executive assistant director at the FBI's criminal branch, said it’s always been an issue in the first responder community and has yet to be cracked. Ed Plaugher, retired chief of the Arlington County, Va., Fire Department, pointed to decades of “serious, serious issues” with communicating critical information with key partners in an emergency, which reached a turning point on Sept. 11, 2001. He said communications systems were overwhelmed to a point where responders couldn’t even exchange simple radio messages, necessitating people literally running back and forth to relay information. He said Internet technology, land mobile radios and government funding have helped address that, but problems with connecting to certain partners remain, especially as more agencies embrace the concept of mutual aid from other communities.

Karen Tandy, retired leader of the Drug Enforcement Agency and member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, made the point that technology upgrades and mutual agreements will only get more challenging in an atmosphere of defunding and budget cuts.

“Technology and equipment have substantially improved. You also have a whole cascading set of networks that are regional, local, all based on agreements … There’s a mix of how we become interoperable, but you’re still going to have places where there’s not enough money, those agreements aren’t in place, and the equipment hasn’t been upgraded yet,” she said. “You also have task forces where federal law enforcement are handing out radios to state and locals, to ensure that interoperability. So it is a mix, but it’s working, and cellular is a piece of that. We need cellular, and thank goodness now we have priority (and) preemption for law enforcement, with a lot of spectrum reallocation.”

Recalling a chaotic response to a mass shooting at a movie theater in 2012, retired Miami Beach, Fla., Police Chief Daniel Oates, formerly a chief in Aurora, Colo., said simple radio communication doesn’t cut it.

“If 250 people respond from 15 different agencies, you may technically have interoperability, but with only one radio channel, you don’t have communication,” he said. “So in an ideal world, the modern thinking in policing is several layers of interoperability, several channels — maybe one for basic police operations, one for command, one for tactical operations and certainly one for speaking to other government agencies.”

The discussion harkens back to an ongoing battle over whether FirstNet, the national public safety communications system which was built by Verizon competitor AT&T, truly aims for interoperability. Verizon and some emergency response agencies have argued that FirstNet has essentially become a competitor in the marketplace, while AT&T says FirstNet is achieving the long-standing goal of a national, interoperable communications network as best as possible.


The Verizon council was nothing but optimistic about 5G, with Vice Chairman William Bratton, a retired leader of both the New York City and Los Angeles police departments, saying he could do an entire town hall on that subject alone. He said he’d “never been more excited” about what something would do for public safety, because the bandwidth of 5G will improve the speed and range of communication and expand what can be done with data and on-scene video. He compared the jump in capacity to being stuck in traffic and finally taking an exit ramp onto an open freeway.

“In the not-too-distant future, that police officer in his car, that firefighter in his fire truck, gets the call. On the way to the call, they’re going to be able to watch what’s happening at the scene, through cameras in the streetlights,” he said. “They’re going to be able to get from their crime centers and their fire headquarters, what’s the history of the location they’re going to? For the firefighters, here’s the blueprints, here’s where the standpipes are.”

To that, retired Camden County, N.J., Police Chief Scott Thomson added that as 5G becomes more common, tools in the field will make leaps and bounds as well.

“What we found was the greatest force multiplier for us, in taking what was once the most dangerous city and reaching 50-year lows in crime, was for us to be able to get and process as much information as possible. We rely very heavily on technology, and I get excited when I look and see what we were able to do within the current environment, and that much more we’d be able to do in a 5G environment,” he said. “Being able to measure the respiration rate of an officer, being able to know whether or not they are ill … Not only will (5G) help to make communities safer, but it’s also going to help individual officers.”

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.