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What fire departments can expect from FirstNet, AT&T deal

Dedicated access to the network and robust coverage in hard-to-reach areas are among the benefits fire departments may see


By Mike Worrell, FirstNet senior fire services advisor

As I have attended fire service events around the nation recently – including the Metro Fire Chiefs Conference in April – I have seen and heard plenty of excitement around FirstNet’s selection of AT&T as its partner to build the nationwide public safety broadband network.

The recent announcement of this public-private partnership is a big step forward for public safety. It paves the way for FirstNet to deliver the broadband network that the fire service and other first responders asked for and have needed for a long time.

One of the many pleasant surprises coming out of the new partnership is that AT&T will implement priority services on their existing network for public safety subscribers faster than anticipated. And the goal is to add pre-emption soon thereafter, by the end of the year.

Both services will be available in states that opt-in to the FirstNet state plan. The state plans will be delivered to each state and territory in June.  

What does this mean for public safety? For starters, this means that public safety subscribers to FirstNet will have full access to the network when they need it.

This is crucial for communications during emergencies and large events, when wireless networks can become congested with heavy public usage. As AT&T builds out the network, public safety subscribers in opt-in states will have access to the network, without any delays. Both priority and pre-emption will be inherent on the nationwide public safety broadband network.

The availability of priority and pre-emption early on in the network buildout is a huge win for the fire service, but it only scratches the surface of the advantages of this deployment strategy.

It also provides public safety with access to a much bigger LTE footprint. The AT&T 4G LTE network covers nearly 400 million people in North America.

Think about all of coverage enhancement systems that have been deployed to extend the reach of the network in hard-to-reach places, such as subways, airports, tunnels, stadiums, high-rise structures, hospitals, convention centers and the list goes on and on. This will be available to public safety.

Opt-in, opt-out options

By leveraging this infrastructure, public safety gets the dual benefit of quickly getting coverage in these hard-to-reach places, sooner and at a lower cost. Leveraging the existing coverage enhancement systems addresses many of the key areas of concerns for state and local users.

During FirstNet’s data collection initiative, for example, the states identified key structures where coverage was required for public safety responders. Access to AT&T’s coverage enhancements greatly reduces the number of structures that will need coverage upgrades.

This is a key consideration as states contemplate the opt-in/opt-out decision. If they elect to build their own RAN, not only will public safety have to wait for immediate access to priority and pre-emption services, but they will lose the ability to leverage the existing AT&T network and coverage enhancements.

When I was directly involved with fire department communications systems, the deployment cost of going into a building to install the equipment was very expensive, especially when combined with the cost of engineering, floor-to-floor coring and supporting infrastructure (enclosures, power, battery back-ups, etc.).

FirstNet looks forward to working with public safety, the states and key organizations and associations as these solutions are rolled out on the FirstNet network. This includes continuing our engagement with the International Building Code/International Fire Code and National Fire Protection Association to develop standards for in-building broadband data coverage.

About the author
Mike Worrell is the FirstNet senior fire services advisor. He was previously with the Phoenix Fire Department where he served for 29 years, most recently as the technical services division chief. Worrell was also a member of the Public Safety Advisory Committee to FirstNet, a member of the National Urban Search and Rescue Incident Support Team, and a qualified communications unit leader and communications technician instructor. Prior to joining the Phoenix Fire Department, he was an electronics technician in the U.S. Navy, Submarine Service.

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