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What's next for broadband communication

With the D Block law passed and the FirstNet board appointed, here's what to look for in the coming years

How broadband technology will change the fire service can be a tough concept to grapple with. But there have been enough interoperability issues that the need for sweeping change has long been known.

And with the recent passage of D Block legislation and the appointment of the FirstNet board, that change is at hand.

Four of the fire service's leading experts in this field held a workshop at last month's FRI conference to talk about recent changes and changes they anticipate to how firefighters communicate.

What we'll get
The biggest change came in February. After years of lobbying, Congress and President Obama passed a law reallocating the D Block 700 MHz spectrum for first responders. The law allows responders to build a voice and data broadband network across the nation and comes with $7 billion in seed money.

And as recently as this week, the U.S. Commerce Department appointed the 11-member panel, known as FirstNet, that will oversee the network's construction; the board had not yet been appointed when the workshop took place.

"I received plenty of phone calls when this came out from small and large fire departments," said R. David Paulison, senior partner, Global Emergency Solutions, former FEMA administrator. "They said, 'I wish you'd just give me the $7 billion and let me buy a fire truck or turnout gear; I need to hire firefighters.'

"The narrowband is like using a garden hose to wash your car," Paulison said. "What the broadband will give us is like using a 2 1/2-inch hand line to wash your car. Broadband will give us the ability to access data like never before in the field and in the fire station."

Broadband, he said, will allow incident commanders to see all four sides of the fire and the top of the fire and make the necessary adjustments to stop the fire's progress. There will be the ability to monitor firefighters on scene, use more video, have real-time conference calls with subject-matter experts, have GIS mapping sent to the fire scene.

Paulison told a story of when he was a street medic they had a patient who's arm was stuck in a factory machine. The arm was nearly severed and Paulison wanted to remove the arm, free the patient and transport him to the hospital. But the doctors wouldn't allow the arm to be removed until a trauma surgeon inspected it.

The surgeon was flown in by helicopter and the arm was eventually severed, but the patient died.

"I firmly believe that if we had video capability to show the surgeon what I could see, that this patient wouldn't have died," Paulison said. "That patient could have been saved if we had broadband capability."

More fire trucks and bunker gear are needed, Paulison said. "But this, folks is the future of the fire service. It is time for us to get on board with technology that is already out there."

Like Paulison, Jeffrey Johnson, a retired fire chief of Tualatin Valley (Ore.) Fire and Rescue who was recently named to the FirstNet board, believes the change to the fire service will be profound.

"To say it will change everything is not an overstatement at all," Johnson said. "A lot of us are focused on the technical changes, but the human changes are the ones that are going to be the most difficult."

Johnson said the new network will provide the same feel of a commercial network, but with much more reliability than those networks. This will be a single, nationwide network that will make interoperability as much a nonissue as it is for commercial mobile phones that work in different parts of the country.

Work to be done
There will be some growing pains. Gregg Riddle, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International, said that the long-term evolution (LTE) network is built for data transmission and cannot carry voice as well as the current network.

"There are things they are working on and telling us in five, but probably closer to 10 years, we'll be able to get the voice component put on LTE," Riddle said.

This means that fire departments must keep their current voice radio systems maintained and viable until there are reliable LTE voice products available to the fire service, Riddle said.

Funding, Riddle said, is another stumbling block. Most believe that $7 billion is not enough to build the network and that $12 billion is more realistic. The challenge, he said, will be to spend the $7 billion in a way that shows Congress how well the network can function — and hope that lawmakers see fit to increase the funding to finish the project.

Local application
Stuart Overby, senior director of global spectrum strategy for Motorola Solutions, said it may take a couple of years after the FirstNet board is appointed before any of the network is deployed. And while the larger network decisions will be made by FirstNet, Oberby said that he hopes local entities will be involved to help set network priorities for their areas — in terms of what types of emergency incidents take precedent over others.

"My personal concern is that if there are not those mechanisms, this network may not be as successful as we all want it to be," Overby said. "One of the decisions to be made is how do you do that and maintain your interoperability."

Broadband will require more sites to provide the same level of coverage that current systems do, Overby said, and that means more time needed to build all of those sites to be able to shift voice systems to the broadband network.

"It is something that will be worked out at some point," Overby said. "But it is work that has to be done."

For example, the Japanese government wants to harden 1,000 of its 5,000 cell towers so they won't go down in the event of a natural disaster, Riddle said. However, the Untied States is so much larger that such a plan is not feasible.

Commercial networks
While 2014 seems a reasonable timeline for the network to be established, Johnson cautioned that this is speculation and that different types of networks required different build out timelines.

"The most important decision we are watching for is what kind of centric design is it going to lean toward: commercial wireless, blended or a more traditional land-mobile radio," Johnson said.

Riddle said that in the beginning there was a lot of discussion about using commercial networks because they are already installed.

"But the reality is they weren't public-safety grade and would not allow public safety to prioritize the access," Riddle said. "On our network, we prioritize public safety at the top and transportation systems in the middle and utilities and the public at the bottom. If we need it, we got it. If we don't need it, we've got use of it for different entities or that can blend in with us without causing pubic safety problems.

"It is not off base to say that we could use this as an entire municipal cloud. I hope that's where we can go because it gives us more horsepower."

However this plan takes shape in the coming years, the one thing that seems likely is that a sea change in how firefighters communicate is on the horizon.

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