First responder networks like FirstNet will be a communications boon, but will local agencies embrace the new technology?
On Sept. 11, 2001, in the nation’s worst public safety communications breakdown, firefighters in New York City’s World Trade Center were unable to receive warnings to evacuate the North Tower, which collapsed, killing hundreds of first responders. During hurricanes Katrina and Rita, commercial wireless networks went offline as flooding ensued, making it impossible for federal troops and emergency officials to communicate with each other, and bringing chaos to rescue efforts.
In the wake of the country’s worst terrorist attack and unprecedented natural disasters, one of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Report was to stand up nationwide, interoperable communications for all first responders. The result was the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), created by Congress as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 and partially funded with $7 billion.
FirstNet selected AT&T in 2017 to build and manage its broadband network and offered “success-based payments” of $6.5 billion over five years. AT&T said it would spend roughly $40 billion during the 25-year contract to construct, run and maintain the network. Fifty-six states and territories, and Washington, D.C., joined FirstNet by late 2017, with a few meeting the opt-out deadline with just days to spare.
This March, FirstNet launched its core network in a controlled introduction to a limited customer base. Rival Verizon also said its competing core network, entirely self-funded, would be “generally available” to all members. Often left unsaid is the fact that, regardless of state-level participation, individual local first responder agencies retain the option to join either network or none. By late July, more than 1,500 public safety agencies had joined FirstNet, enabling more than 110,000 connections — with the adoption rate doubling from April to June. Verizon has declined to release exact subscriber numbers.
The communication landscape for first responders and law enforcement is still being redefined by the arrival of these broadband networks, with significant questions around what they could ultimately look like, when the large-scale transition will occur and how agencies should accomplish it. Critical communication has unquestionably been improved by these national systems, according to first responder association officials who have firmly endorsed FirstNet.
However, with roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in existence nationwide, it’s clear the vast majority have not yet joined either FirstNet or Verizon. A key reason is that while police, sheriffs and firefighters in the same jurisdictions today may all still use different, noncompatible communications systems, emergency personnel are traditionally cautious about relinquishing devices that have been proven to work.
A dedicated network will allow first responders to pre-empt commercial communications traffic, allowing for faster, more efficient response. (Photo: Flickr/FirstNet)
FirstNet’s two linchpin attributes are priority and pre-emption. Priority guarantees first responders’ traffic will take precedence over any commercial traffic on Band Class 14, the spectrum that’s exclusive to FirstNet members during incidents but available to commercial subscribers at all other times. Pre-emption achieves priority, literally displacing commercial traffic in a crisis. A growing number of FirstNet-certified devices undergo a unique certification process of around 3,500 tests aimed at verifying higher security and reliability before being approved to accept network SIM cards, according to Scott Agnew, AT&T assistant vice president of product marketing for the public sector.
While the network currently has just a “handful” of Band 14-enabled devices, that number is expected to rise. To date, Band 14 has been added to more than 2,500 sites nationwide and is live in 40 states. AT&T plans to add Band 14 to more than 10,000 additional locations, and it’s seen as key to closing gaps in rural coverage. “Because this is public safety, it is treated at a much higher level from a security and reliability standpoint,” said Agnew.
Verizon’s network also offers priority, pre-emption and heightened security to its members, according to Nicholas Nilan, the company’s director of product development for the public sector. But rather than keeping first responders in a “certain spectrum class,” Verizon offers them access to the entirety of its network. A 2015 study led by the RAND Corp. affirmed the “emergence of a future broadband network” that would let law enforcement “seamlessly and securely communicate over whatever local point of access is the best fit.” Nilan underscored that point, emphasizing Verizon’s mission to meet a tremendous need for interoperability.
“The question remains, and the goal remains, to provide interoperability across multiple levels between networks, between commercial carriers, and that requires commercial carriers coming to the table to discuss interoperability and make sure that we all align on it,” he said.
Eddie Reyes, chairman of the Communications and Technology Committee at the International Association of Chiefs of Police and an executive fellow at the Police Foundation, explained that law enforcement communication systems remain fragmented nationwide and described police, firefighters and paramedics as cynical and “not likely to let go of technology they trust when a new thing comes along.”
FirstNet, said Reyes, “really hasn’t been driven around the block enough times yet, it hasn’t proven itself,” prompting officials to take a “toes-in-the-water approach as opposed to a head-dive approach.” That’s the case in Prince William County, Va., where Reyes is director of the Office of Public Safety Communications. The county has compared FirstNet-enabled devices “side-by-side” for about 30 days with those on its current carrier. For now, the county is piloting the network on fewer than 10 cellphones and in-vehicle computers.
“To me, the real test is going to be when things get really hectic and really busy — and a commercial wireless network provider typically gets busy because we’re on that highway with everyone else,” said Reyes. “We don’t have pre-emption and priority on our wireless carrier whereas, of course, with FirstNet, it’s going to be tested if we’re going to have a higher level of resiliency, once a major emergency happens.”
Communication difficulties among first responders during 9/11 was a key event leading to the creation of FirstNet. (Photo: Flickr/FirstNet)
But officials in Wake County, North Carolina’s second most-populous county at more than 1 million residents, are gearing up to migrate from Verizon to FirstNet during the next 12 to 18 months, citing an increasing reliance on mobile broadband data connectivity, and FirstNet’s ability to provide it on a dedicated spectrum. In an email, Wake County’s Information Technology Director John Higgins and Jon Olson, the county’s EMS deputy director and chief of support services, described connectivity as “mission-critical,” pointing out that by late 2019, the county intends for every first responder unit to be able to exchange data with the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center and agency public safety apps.
“As demand on wireless networks increases based on expanded use of current technology and the implementation of emerging technologies for public safety, so grows the need for a first responder-only ‘information highway’ that a dedicated broadband network will provide,” said Higgins and Olson.
Tom Jenkins, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and fire chief for Rogers, Ark., agreed that FirstNet has “spectrum real estate” in Band 14, and characterized its provider AT&T as “genuine with caring” about members. While he believes all first responder disciplines are important, Jenkins pointed out that firefighters, with their varied assignments, have a need for improved access to online information that is “tough to rival.”
Rogers, a city of nearly 70,000 in northwestern Arkansas, has upgraded all accounts from AT&T to FirstNet in what it considers a cost-effective move. Not all fire personnel are on the core yet, but those who are got their first real demonstration of the network’s potential during a Fourth of July fireworks show. With residents actively sending and receiving photographs, texts and video, the fire chief said his staff saw a clear difference in latency between its smartphones, which were FirstNet-enabled, and its iPads, which were not. While voice communications are generally considered most important to Rogers and Wake County, both local agencies view being able to send and receive large amounts of data as increasingly vital.
“It’s an exciting time to be able to solve what is probably the most critical element of using data in a public safety environment, and that’s reliability and redundancy, and for them to have that priority,” said Jenkins. He pointed out that interoperability could be an Achilles’ heel going forward. To ensure connectivity during peak times of usage, AT&T and Verizon also offer portable wireless towers known as COLTs and COWs (Cells on Light Trucks and Cells on Wheels, respectively) to boost bandwidth at large events like the July Fourth celebration on the National Mall. Recently, FirstNet launched its first such dedicated resource, the Satellite Cell on Light Truck (SatCOLT), which was utilized to keep public safety officers connected at a July Fourth celebration in Chino, Calif.
Officials at the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) in Washington, D.C., a research think tank on policing, said their group hosted a March 2010 meeting for stakeholders, including the Federal Communications Commission, that “made the case for this dedicated spectrum,” meaning Band 14. PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler called FirstNet “the culmination of what many in law enforcement had been asking for.” He and PERF’s chief operations and strategy officers agreed FirstNet will likely help overcome the communications difficulties of 9/11, but said challenges around adoption policies, equipment rollouts, and usage remain as agencies move to join FirstNet.
“What happens when a department adopts it? How do you communicate? How are officers given equipment? How do they use the voice and texting and driving to a call? There are just practical issues. A lot of policing is a word-of-mouth kind of enterprise in which people will look to hear what’s working and what isn’t,” Wexler said. PERF will host a meeting for early adopters in September to hear their impressions of FirstNet and will compile case studies based on their experiences.
The 2015 RAND study, done in conjunction with PERF, RTI International and the University of Denver, also emphasized the need to be able to “make sense out of all the new data.” The top 10 needs the study identified for law enforcement broadband communications included guidance on acquiring, managing and using “mixtures” of technologies; processes and procedures to help public safety answering point (PSAP) employees “prioritize incoming data”; and concepts, policies and procedures for mutual aid networks in a “post land-mobile-radio/FirstNet/broadband era.”
It’s important for local governments to be aware of their transition process onto a dedicated broadband network, the costs for a “full life cycle,” and to avoid buying technology “because it sounds cool,” said John Hollywood, the study’s project leader. “Go into that with a sense of what you plan to do with the FirstNet devices in terms of improving response, improving ongoing both day-to-day responses and large-scale communications. We tell people, ‘Go in with use cases, go in with a plan.’”