Time to build the fire-service data network

Now that the first responder network has been approved, here's what to expect

In 1 on One, FireRescue1 editors sit down with those in the fire service who are tackling the tough issues. We'll ask the questions that get to the heart of the matter and give you the answers in their own words. We encourage you to add your insights, opinions or questions in the comments section.

By Rick Markley

On Feb 22, President Obama signed into law the payroll tax cut extension bill that included reallocating the 700 MHz D Block spectrum. The reallocation gives public safety agencies the long-awaited ability to build a broadband data and voice network; the law includes $7 billion to help pay for the build out. In exchange for the exclusive use of 700 MHz, public safety entities in the 13 largest markets will have to give back their T Band spectrum, between 470 MHz and 512 MHz, within the next 11 years.

So lawmakers have given emergency responders what they want and the question becomes: Now what? To find out, I talked to one of the fire service's top guys on the frontlines of this issue.

About Chief Jeff Johnson

Chief Johnson retired after a 32-year career in the fire service, 15 of that as chief of Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue near Portland. He is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and serves as CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association. For the past 10 years he has been the statewide interoperability coordinator chair for the State of Oregon.

How does the D Block change interoperability?
The most important thing about FirstNet (First Responder Network Authority) and the D Block is, and this is not an overreach by any measure, it is the most significant development in public safety in modern history. It will change everything except what happens from the gun out and the firehouse out. It will move emergency services in total into the modern century from a technological perspective.

We can't even contemplate some of the changes, but it is going to be vast and revolutionary. At some point, after the conversion of land-mobile radio to over-broadband radio, which is 15 years or so out, the word interoperability won't mean what it means today. Interoperability is a way we talk about patching together dissimilar systems.

None of us with an AT&T phone who calls someone on a Verizon phone refer to that as being interoperable. It is a single architecture and two networks are engineered to work together from the get-go.

What will the buildout involve?
Congress has allocated $7 billion for the construction of the network. Most people involved with deployment of large-scale networks know that ideally we would have more money. But the reality is, we have $7 billion, so we are going to have to figure out how to get the most out of that.

How long it will take is kind of unknown. We do know certain steps of that, but do not know precisely how long to build the network. A lot of that depends on what the First Net board does. If the FirstNet board chooses to pair with existing commercial wireless providers — cell-phone companies for example — then I expect the money would be spent much differently and the rollout time much shorter than if it were to opt to do a ground-up construction. I think we are going to see meaningful progress in the two- to three-year timeframe.

What will be the municipalities' burden?
I don't know that there will be any burden at the municipal level. There will be decisions to be made at the state level. The legislation calls for the FirstNet board to present the design proposal and how it will be deployed in each of the 50 states.

Once that is done, the governor of each state has 90 days to accept the FirstNet proposal, and FirstNet will go ahead with deployment. Or the state can choose to opt out; then they would be required to build their own network to the same technical standards. That is the biggest and most obvious benchmark associated with rolling out at the local level.

When does the switch need to be made?
When we talk about the switch, most of us at the local level think about our land-mobile radios and our legacy systems with our push-to-talk radios. There is no anticipated date at which that device will change over to radio-over-broadband.

First, there is no mandate that it does. And second, there is no predicted date. Most of the experts say that it will be 10 years or more before the land-mobile radio devices have undergone the required engineering, have been manufactured, have had all the appropriate testing done, and are available no the market to run on the data network.

FirstNet is first and foremost a data network. It will evolve to radio and voice over the broadband network. But, its purpose is mission-critical public-safety data. Really, that is the piece that does not exist at the local level today — data does, but not mission-critical public-safety data.

Will this have any effect on radio clarity or range?
Depending on what band you are currently in, there will be changes in signal propagation — it might be better, it might be worse. We know that there will be a lot of enhanced functionality that comes with the new network.

Just like you are experiencing changes today with your land-mobile radio technology as the FCC requires you to narrowband and as you convert from analog to digital, there are inherent changes in propagation and the technologies themselves that go with each.

One thing that the law did that was very wise was make it mandatory that commercial technologies be built into the new devices that will operate them. Basically, you take the kind of technology that exists in our smart phone, and rather than manufacturers having to make a small quantity just for public safety, that same technology will be leveraged for public safety that will be ruggedized and all of the things we expect.

It saves a lot of cost on manufacturing. What is likely to happen well into the future is that the cost of our current devices will come down. Conversely, like our cell phones, we are probably going to be more likely to replace them more often to stay up with the network.

What will the data capabilities mean for smaller fire departments?
Mission-critical data will mean different things depending on the size and complexity of your organization. Some of the things it can do is give you real-time drawings of existing buildings you are responding to. It may give you an up-to-date inventory on hazardous materials or risks.

There will be advantages built into the automatic vehicle location. Today, many incident commanders can see traffic cameras. They could use that and control it so they could see the complexity of a motor vehicle accident before they get there.

There could be profound advantages for rural EMS providers. The doctor can get streaming patient data and a real-time view of what is going on with that patient from heart arrhythmias to oxygen levels in their bloodstream.

These are things that can make a difference in patient care and extend the reach of an emergency room doctor to the furthest-most reaches of America. Those are the kind of things that will make a quantifiable difference.

What will be the result of giving back the T Band?
It will mean that 13 areas in the United States operating on 824 licenses within nine years will need to plan to move from T Band to other spectrum; within 11 years, will need to actually move.

While that might be inconvenient the 13 areas, and they are the largest metropolitan areas, the good news is that they are most likely to be moving to 700, which is contiguous to the FirstNet broadband spectrum. And it is where the FCC has set aside spectrum for first responders.

That really reduces the problems that we've had with voice narrowband interoperability. The financial impact has been muted by the federal government agreeing to pay for the wholesale move of all of the people off T Band.

That is enormous. When it is all said and done, it is going to be very, very positive.

How secure will the new network be?
Cyber security and security of the network is a preeminent concern during the design process. While no one has contemplated that yet because the first board is not seated, I do know from people in the industry that that will be a major area of focus.

Could this rule have been made better for first responders?
If we all had a magic wand, we'd have liked to see the $7 billion be a bigger number. And the T Band jurisdictions would have like to have been left alone. Overall, I don't have any buyer's remorse with the legislation.

It had been debated for such a long time, that every nook and cranny had been explored. We really came out of this bipartisan effort with something that will work. Now, afford us the opportunity later to identify problems, because that is inevitable.

Today they are not visible. I'm hoping we look back in the future and say what we are saying today, and that is that there are very few issues.

My read as a first responder is that the architects of this did very good job of contemplating a profoundly complex issue. It really was an anomaly (the bipartisan nature of it). The reality is that the politics of the times complicated what otherwise would have been a relatively easy issue to move.

What happens to responders in areas without broadband coverage?
It was a very important issue to the legislators, both Republican and Democrat. The FirstNet board will actually be held to account for improved broadband coverage in rural America. It is a big deal.

Now, whether it is ambulance service or a cellular phone company, the more sparse the population the harder it is to make a return on your investment. The rural parts of America will always struggle to get the same level of service.

However, depending on what the FirstNet board chooses to do, they could make big strides here. If they pair with wireless providers whose primary business focus has been rural America, you could have a model with some percentage of deviation that if you have smart-phone service today, you would have FirstNet service in the future.

Then the money could be invested to create even greater rural coverage. Those are choices the FirstNet board will make. 

What are some of the trouble areas you see in the implementation?
The biggest risk right now is that the FirstNet board has to be the right First Net board. It has got to be people that work together well, see a common future, embrace partnerships and find a way to leverage the money. They must be folks who never lose sight of the most important thing we are trying to do here is to get mission-critical high-speed data to first responders.

If that board is the right board, they will avoid a lot of potential problems. I am optimistic given the diligence I am seeing from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration right now and the Obama administration; they are being careful to make sure that they get people who are going to work well as a team.

How will the board be appointed?
The Secretary of Commerce will appoint the board. There are 15 members; three members are permanent: Janet Napolitano, the DHS secretary; Eric Holder, the attorney general; and the director for the Office of Management and Budget. The other 12 are split up according to the statute between first responders, state and local government representatives, manufacturers and private sector wireless providers.

Any closing thoughts?
A lot of change will occur in the coming two to five years, change in the form of the dialogue we have about public safety communications, the technology that will be coming our way. There will be a period of uncertainty for those of us with retiring land-mobile radio systems are tying to get a definitive horizon on the when the new technology will be available, because we are all trying to make prudent investment decisions.

One of the FirstNet board's responsibilities will be to try to create as much clarity as possible. There are so many public-safety systems out there and when people get ready to replace their systems they will be asking what are the options and what are the costs of those options. 

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