FirstNet Makes Progress, Consults with Maryland

The meeting will be followed by discussions in other states as FirstNet determines what a nationwide first responder communications network should look like.

Today’s consumer technology products allow people to do more things faster and more conveniently than ever. That’s not the case for police, firefighters and paramedics who still use decades-old radio technology to coordinate the protection of life and property. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) promised to do something about the age and variety of emergency technology when it created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) in 2012. Since then, the nation has seen little come out of FirstNet. But now, for the first time, a nationwide first responder network is emerging.

FirstNet held its first state consultation this summer when it met with emergency management officials in Maryland. The meeting will be followed by discussions in other states as FirstNet determines what a nationwide first responder communications network should look like. Today, first responders operate on more than 10,000 separate land mobile radio networks. Bringing a common solution to everyone will require a thorough understanding of the challenges in every region.

Talking with FirstNet will give states a chance to take an inventory of what they have and what they need to make the most of the coming network, said Christopher Webster, an analyst at the University of Maryland Center for Health and Homeland Security. 

Mobile apps, for example, are something that a lot of states will likely want to integrate into FirstNet. “Apps are wonderful, but they rely on data,” Webster said. “One of the things Maryland needs to do in preparation of FirstNet is take an inventory of which data sources we want to pull and make available.”

Next-generation 911 is another technology Maryland is pursuing, and how the state proceeds will depend on the specifications of FirstNet, according to Webster. “We see those as inter-related efforts, because it’s all about moving that data and getting it where it needs to go,” he said.

In addition to the massive breadth of FirstNet, the project represents for each state a departure from how emergency management officials are used to doing business. “We’re not going to roll this out county by county or agency by agency, and because of that, it’s going to take us a little longer to get started because we’re going to have a unified national effort, and that means initial consultations nationwide from a single group that’s controlling this thing, FirstNet,” Webster said. “The other big philosophical departure is that we’re going to rely on proven commercial technologies, so this is going to be a 4G LTE network. And what makes that significant is that we should enjoy the significant economies of scale we get by using either nonmodified or lightly modified off-the-shelf devices.”

For many states, getting hundreds of disparate technologies aligned will largely be a matter of establishing some form of central governance while building relationships across jurisdictions. Maryland has made progress in the area of interoperability management. “We spent the last five years building a strong interoperability governance body,” Webster said. “So when we were talking about what we needed to do to prepare for FirstNet, we had a lot of the right people in the room already.” 

It’s a matter of retooling land mobile radio interoperability group into broader emergency communications interoperability groups, he added. “But the groups are there and the people already have strong relationships, and that has really helped us.”

Among those attending Maryland’s FirstNet meeting were Gov. Martin O’Malley, Maryland State Police Superintendent Col. Marcus Brown, State Rep. Adrienne Jones, Chief Technology Officer Greg Urban, and Maryland Interoperability Director Ray Lehr, who is familiar with Maryland’s emergency networks through his role as an interoperability director and 30 years as an assistant fire chief in Baltimore. 

Maryland expects to consult at least a dozen times with FirstNet, Lehr said. Both sides have a lot of ground to cover. Maryland has challenges around its technology, logistics and geography. “For example, if Montgomery County, Maryland, has 300 police officers that have mobile data terminals in their vehicles and they’re using a Sprint wireless card, FirstNet want to know what kind of service they’re getting, do they have total coverage throughout the county, what’s the cost, and does the wireless network go down when things get really busy and everybody’s dialing in, that kind of thing,” Lehr said. “The back and forth provides them with a broad concept of the kinds of things we need to understand now so that when they build the network, they’re building it to meet the needs that we described.”

The state has two major categories where FirstNet can be useful. The first is around disaster response. Maryland has had 11 declarations of disaster, which include seven storms, three hurricanes and one tornado. Keeping these numbers in mind will help FirstNet ensure the network is robust and redundant enough to handle those types of events and public safety will still have access to service, he said.

Emergencies like the Boston Marathon bombings will provide FirstNet users new opportunities in how they respond, Lehr said. While police were eventually able to find two suspects through the manual dissemination of closed circuit footage, the process took three days. A network like FirstNet that enables responders to forward video data to a device like a smartphone could reduce the turnaround on a search to a matter of hours or minutes. 

The other category involves large scheduled events, like the Preakness Stakes, an annual horse race held in Maryland. Having so many people in one location creates unique challenges for security and emergency responders, Lehr said. Police and paramedics are typically relegated to bicycles during events like these because they are so crowded. A network like FirstNet would greatly assist in locating public safety personnel through a central mapping system, he said.

Despite their importance, first responders are at a disadvantage when it comes to technology. Companies like Apple or Google have huge customer bases and can afford to spend large sums on exciting new technologies. A community like public safety doesn’t have that luxury, which is why FirstNet has been such a long time coming, Lehr said. “It’s less than a million nationwide who are likely to be users of this network,” he said. “So if it didn’t literally take an act of Congress to get the money to build this network and the spectrum to be able to operate and have the broadband capabilities, it never would have happened.”

FirstNet plans to release a draft RFP by March 2015.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.