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Revisiting FirstNet, the Public Safety Network Born from 9/11

As they responded to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, public safety professionals struggled to communicate with each other due to tech issues. Twenty years later, FirstNet exists to ensure this doesn't happen again.

Firefighters work near the area known as Ground Zero after the collapse of the Twin Towers Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City.
When most U.S. citizens think about what happened 20 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001, they remember where they were. They recall their regular activities coming to a halt. They reflect on the horror and tragedy of it all — that exact moment when America’s sense of near-invincibility was shattered.

For police, firefighters and other individuals involved in emergency response, the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon brought into focus something that had been the truth for quite some time — that public safety communications was stuck in a rut. After the planes crashed on that frightening day, different groups of first responders had incredible difficulties communicating with each other on traffic-ridden networks.

“All the cellular networks were congested,” said Jeffrey Bratcher, chief network and technology officer of the FirstNet Authority. “Whether you were a citizen or first responder, no one could communicate on those.”

As told by Jeff Johnson, CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association, 9/11 highlighted the shortcomings of public safety communications in an emotional and visceral way. Even before the terrorists carried out their plot, many in the first responder space had grown frustrated with the country’s lack of strategic thinking about public safety communications.

“The fact is that if you go back to 2001, we really hadn’t made much progress since the end of World War II … We had access to the same commercial broadband that every teenager in America did,” Johnson stated. “That’s nothing you can rely on. That’s commercial grade.”

The market didn’t help matters. Johnson said many companies banked on public safety doing “exactly the same stuff” from a technology standpoint. In short, the available products were stale.

“There was no long-term strategy around public safety communications,” Johnson said. “Our industry had become comfortable with letting the manufacturers tell us what our future is.”

But during the aftermath of 9/11, the federal government began thinking more about the problem. Among its many recommendations, the 9/11 Commission advised the country to develop a network specifically for public safety, a network on which responders could communicate with confidence and without interference due to high volumes of commercial traffic.

As with many great notions in the United States, people had to fight for the idea, the network, to make it a reality. So goes the story of the origins of FirstNet, the nation’s official public safety communications network.


Seeing a recommendation from a bipartisan group like the 9/11 Commission is one thing. Getting Congress to act is another.

Johnson suggested that Congress always wanted to help the public safety community fix its communications issue. But the idea had to feel foolproof. Federal lawmakers aren’t interested in failed attempts, bad strategies or things that can’t logically work. They must be convinced, even wooed, by stakeholders.

The first major push for a single interoperable network for public safety came from the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST). Johnson said PSST pioneered the concept of leveraging spectrum and building a business relationship with an existing wireless carrier that could fulfill the vision of a dedicated information highway for public safety communications.

This push, though significant, failed for many reasons. And from that failure came a number of realizations that would guide another group, the Public Safety Alliance, through a successful four-year conversation with Washington, D.C., — a Capitol Hill negotiation that would lead to the bill that created FirstNet.

Johnson, a leader of the alliance, recalls the resistance that public safety experienced while talking to Congress. This resistance was unlike anything public safety had dealt with. There was a subtlety to it. A mysterious quality. Something quite different than a fire, a terrorist attack or a massive wreck.

“There were companies that were at a minimum protecting their interests,” Johnson explained. “Since companies typically have a lot of lobbyists in D.C., and they have networks … we couldn’t see what was causing our headwinds, but we were undoubtedly facing something.”

Strength in numbers and determination ended up being keys to victory, Johnson said. Although the alliance amounted to a handful of people, the effort received incredible support. Every public safety association, regardless of discipline, threw their weight behind the alliance. It was the first time Johnson had seen anything like it. And he hasn’t seen anything like it since.

Obviously, the alliance had to answer a lot of practical questions posed by Congress. Is your plan workable? How do we protect the taxpayers? What is the return for the American public? How does this solve the overall problem? How does the project fit in a public-private context that makes sense to the federal government?

As important as the answers to those questions were, Johnson also feels the down-to-earth determination and spirit of the public safety community inspired Congress to act.

“We never had lobbyists in the traditional context,” Johnson said. “What we had was firefighters, paramedics, police officers and emergency managers who understood the problem and who were willing to come to Washington and spend weeks explaining it on the Hill. That resonated with Congress. I can’t tell you how many members of Congress said, ‘It’s refreshing to have real people in my office.’”

In 2012, FirstNet was established when President Barack Obama signed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act. The law put in place a FirstNet Board, where experts would craft a network strategy that recognized the complexities of both public safety and the wireless industry.

After the board put in years of work, going through multiple chairs in the process, AT&T would win the contract to construct and manage the FirstNet network in 2017.

Johnson said throughout the history of the public safety network initiative, he and other stakeholders met with every wireless carrier and asked them a simple question: “Will you allow public safety to have priority access on your network?” In every case, the carrier said, “No.” That’s when public safety realized a public-private partnership was the best way forward.

As far as why AT&T ended up as the contract winner, Johnson provided a simple viewpoint: “Only AT&T said, ‘We are willing to sign a contract to put our balance sheet on the line and to have this independent board hold us accountable for performance.’ That’s a massive statement.”


In the majority of cases, U.S. citizens think of the Twin Towers falling down when they recall 9/11. And while New York City, including the local public safety brigade that responded to the crumbling buildings, was impacted the most, people often forget terrorists attacked the Pentagon on that fateful day.

James Schwartz was deputy fire chief of Arlington County, Va., when he coordinated communications after the Pentagon attack. In comparison to what first responders went through in NYC, Schwartz and his colleagues had an easier time exchanging information during the crisis. There were two main reasons for this. First, the public safety organizations involved followed a radio protocol where everyone would switch to the channels of the hosting agency, and luckily hundreds of radios were available. Second, Schwartz and other leaders stood shoulder to shoulder under a unified incident management system, which made communications more effective.

The Pentagon story might have unfolded differently if they had been forced to rely on phones. The cell networks were so overloaded that Schwartz and his colleagues had no priority whatsoever when it came to delivering mission-critical information via phones.

That reality is why Schwartz appreciates the existence of FirstNet.

"You don't have to be far away to be completely cut off [when a cell network is overloaded] ... FirstNet gives us alternatives to things like the public safety radio network that we've been relying on for decades and will continue to use because it's our go-to system on a daily basis," Schwartz said. "But in the loss of something like that, we've got something else to turn to ... I've said for a long, long time: Disasters are really another dimension of how we interact socially. Because the people that we have to interact with, the people that we need to communicate with, the people that we need to share informant with, [they] operate in different professional spheres, so our ability to extend our communications out to them is just made significantly better with systems like FirstNet."

While AT&T is still adding onto FirstNet for maximum national coverage, Bratcher said the terrestrial footprint coverage is "way up there." He also suggested that, in theory, FirstNet can meet anyone's needs in its current state because of portable devices that can expand communications capabilities in remote areas.

"My tongue in cheek answer is 100 percent [coverage] because we can take a SatCOLT or some of these smaller deployables anywhere," Bratcher remarked.

Renee Gordon, director of the Department of Emergency and Customer Communications for Alexandria, Va., was off-duty during 9/11. At the time, she was a police officer in Prince George's County, Md. She shared her perception of how public safety operated from a communications standpoint before 9/11.

"Each jurisdiction then, they were very territorial," she said. "It was not as shared as it is now. Prince George's County police only talked to Prince George's County police via the radio, and so did other jurisdictions. We kind of took care of ourselves. But 9/11 proved that we needed to do something different."

Gordon's agency in Alexandria adopted FirstNet when it was first offered. Today, she and her team represent the vanguard for remote 911 call taking. She believes FirstNet is a major reason why the remote program has worked, particularly after all of the internal and external tests she has ordered to confirm the system is robust.

"I don’t think we wouldn’t been successful without FirstNet just because of the dropped calls [on other networks]," Gordon said. "I’m very pleased with the service, and I recommend FirstNet to anyone that's trying to do remote call taking for 911."

Notwithstanding that commercial interests can still inspire debates about interoperability, Johnson has observed a substantial shift in how companies approach the public safety community compared to the status quo before FirstNet.

"If you watch the Super Bowl, you’ll find every carrier in the United States space focusing now on attracting public safety to their network," Johnson pointed out. "So at a minimum, we changed how wireless networks perceive public safety as a customer ... We changed that, and we didn't intend to. It was a byproduct."
Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.