Energy behind the effort to bring a reliable and unified network to U.S. first responders is picking up, and 11 states and one territory are already on board.
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. To date, a dozen states 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.”
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: Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
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."
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."
Kentucky: Gov. Matt Bevin’s decision to join the FirstNet network was announced July 13.
Maine: Gov. Paul LePage opted his state into 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."
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.
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.”
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.