FirstNet Board Is Off to an 'Optimistic' Start

Kevin McGinnis is helping to drive the FirstNet board toward the creation of a nationwide public safety network.

by / April 19, 2013
Michael Penny

Kevin McGinnis has spent nearly 30 years in the emergency medical services (EMS) field and understands the critical role broadband will play in the future of first responders and emergency management in general. His expertise and enthusiasm for a national public safety broadband network led to his being named to the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) board tasked with developing the national network.

McGinnis is the CEO of North East Mobile Health Services, the largest paramedic service in Maine. The service takes more than 30,000 calls a year, providing emergency medical response, non-emergency transfer, paramedic intercept, wheelchair services and other services. McGinnis also serves as a member of the Public Safety Alliance and chair of the SAFECOM Executive Program, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security advisory committee on interoperability in public safety.

Question: Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel for a national public safety network?
Answer: I am absolutely optimistic. Remember the FirstNet board has been in operation for four months [as of Jan. 30]. We’ve been equally criticized for going too fast and going too slow, but I think we’re going just right.

Right now we are trying to figure out how to do business as a board of what will become one of the largest wireless networks in the country, which is an incredible undertaking.

And it’s a business with a unique board in that we have three federal members, two state and local members; we have a bunch of experts from the commercial wireless industry, and we have four public safety representatives.

Given that mix, you have tensions immediately that you don’t find on, for instance, a for-profit commercial wireless board. Our goal is not profits, it’s creating a network for not only people who are the actual consumers but the owners of the system because public safety fought for it, earned it and owns it.

What causes the tension?
You have folks from the commercial wireless entrepreneurial backgrounds whose idea to build a system like this is to take the idea, go behind closed doors with the best experts, develop a solution that will sell and then announce it to a world of consumers.

You have a group of public safety folks whose idea of building a system is one that has to include immaculate transparency because that’s the world we live in. The people who hire us — the public that trusts us — demand that everything we do be visible.

The only problem with that is for a project of this magnitude we would spend, if it were purely public safety, a long time creating the group of people who need to be involved, setting up the system, and endless meetings for setting up the ground rules of setting up that system before we could even talk about the first step in setting up the system.

I’m really optimistic because my public safety colleagues and I do not have the talent or resources ourselves to build something of this magnitude. Our colleagues on the board from a commercial wireless background do.

When the Public Safety Alliance was fighting for the D-block, we heard estimates of no sooner than five years, more likely 10 years and it could be 15 years before any of this gets built out. Well, some of these systems are already almost built out, and it’s going to happen a lot faster than that.

And when people see the systems in operation, other systems are going to be quicker to build because a lot of the mistakes will have been made and corrected.

What are the funding options?
The $7 billion that we’ve got, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has the ability to borrow money to get us going initially, and there are going to be subsequent auctions to give us the necessary funds for the build-out.

I view that build-out as creating the necessary infrastructure nationwide that will allow local systems to evolve around it and that, like the early builders that are out there already, they will complete their systems, make mistakes and correct them. Once they start developing applications and those applications begin to circulate within our public safety disciplines, it’s going to create waves of irresistible new ways of doing business.

So when an EMS guy like me sees a number of applications being done in another state, I’m going to go to my city, county or state and begin to bang on doors to get those applications implemented locally.

Will the locals control the system?
FirstNet’s job is to ensure we have an integrated nationwide network. When it comes down to the day-to-day or week-to-week turning the system up, turning some capabilities and applications up and down must be a local concern.

I think that FirstNet can provide guidance and standards for how that gets done but the actual decisions of when video is and is not going to be afforded, when complex data sending is and is not going to be afforded, and how voice is going to be integrated and utilized are all local decisions.

From an EMS perspective, what are the biggest problems we face in the next decade?
Effectively ramping up from mass casualty incidents to catastrophic incidents and managing health and medical resources appropriately. We have failed over and over in the last decade to adequately manage incidents where hospitals have to be emptied, nursing homes have to be emptied, and we really need to do a better job.

What are the solutions to that and where do we start?
Planning at the state, local and regional levels for putting the appropriate resources together to move large numbers of complicated evacuees — patients, wheelchair-bound people, hospital patients — and employing technology as a resource to coordinate all of that effectively.

This story was originally published by Emergency Management. Photo of Kevin McGinness by Michael Penny. 

Jim McKay Contributing Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management magazine. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout.

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