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A plea to first responders: Join FirstNet to expand your communications options

How to make sound decisions about emergency communications systems in an ever-changing field


The slow burn of technological advancement within public safety has hit what might best be described as the powder keg of progress.


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Decision-making. We all have our methods, but how can you be sure you’re not making decisions that leave a better choice on the table? When budget dollars are tight and expectations are high, it helps to get critical procurement decisions right the first time, and the best way to accomplish that is to truly understand your choices.

Optimizing technology in order to meet the expectations of your citizens and administrators is no longer optional. The slow burn of technological advancement within public safety has hit what might best be described as the powder keg of progress. With it comes stiff competition for your precious budget dollars and an inherent expectation your team is already leveraging every technological advantage most 12-year-olds use every day. When it comes to under-utilizing readily available technology to best serve, “I didn’t know about it” will not be a defense.

Crucial connectivity

In our line of work, connectivity becomes the lynchpin to everything we do. Mobile access to critical infrastructure data, maps, evolving incident conditions, information from the Internet of Things (IOT), and video feeds from body worn cameras or drones are just a few examples of how connectivity can help optimize resource integration and coordination.

For decades, the only communication tool available to first responders was land mobile radio (LMR). This technology has served us well, yet think about a time when you pushed that LMR key expecting to be heard, and you weren’t. You may have had a cell phone, but no framework or protocol in place to leverage that wireless technology during a critical incident. This is likely because you’d never considered your phone a piece of critical communications equipment. The time has come for a paradigm shift, however, and the good news is you don’t have to give up LMR to capitalize on broadband communications.

FirstNet, our nationwide public safety broadband network, is central to the evolution of broadband’s role in emergency response. For as long as we’ve had cell phones, all the carriers were 100% driven by revenue. Towers went where they would generate the most valuable user traffic, leaving public safety to work within the framework most conducive to the corporate profit model.

Why join the network?

Since the inception of FirstNet, however, there has been a tectonic shift in network buildout priorities for all carriers central to public safety’s interest. This begs the question: If all the networks are improving across the board, why consider becoming part of the FirstNet community? Although it may feel like your comparing apples to apples, the fact is there are critical elements of FirstNet that cannot be replicated by commercial carriers.

First there’s the underpinning of the entire FirstNet apparatus. It literally took an act of Congress to stand up FirstNet. Passionate and dedicated public safety leaders from many associations (IAFC, APCO, IACP, NEMA) not only built a substantial coalition of public safety representation, but also formed meaningful partnerships with key Congressional and Executive branch leadership within the federal government. The result was the unprecedented codification of the D-Block spectrum being forever designated for first responder use.

Employing continuous public safety input in all aspects of the network’s development and evolution, the first responders’ voice is now being heard like never before. The result? The First Responder Network Authority (FNA) and FirstNet Built with AT&T (FNATT) working together to bring public safety’s broadband vision to life, with a 25-year contract and federal law to guide them.

There are three key FirstNet features that decision-makers should be aware of when evaluating the FirstNet program:

  1. FirstNet represents the most significant private-public partnership the federal government has endeavored outside the scope of the Department of Defense.
  2. FirstNet provides reliable network access, which includes true priority, ruthless preemption, and uncompromising coverage and capacity.
  3. Secure and reliable ecosystem development, including heavily vetted, purpose-built hardware and software elements, were designed to meet the end-users’ needs.

Why should you care about the magnitude or structure of the FirstNet private-public partnership? Primarily because your interests have been written into every aspect of the decision-making, evolution and revenue reinvestment of that partnership. No other commercial carrier was willing to work within the strict oversight and contractual benchmarks established by the FNA, as demonstrated by AT&T being the sole commercial carrier that put in a bid during the RFP process. It is also important to note that the actual spectrum (D-Block, more commonly referred to as Band 14) is licensed to the FNA. AT&T agreed to stand up a separate core (aka network) on behalf of FirstNet. AT&T does not own the spectrum; it belongs to public safety. FirstNet, consequently, is driven by you, not corporate shareholders.

What makes this network exceptional? When comparing FirstNet to other commercial networks, the first obvious difference is the separate core. Where others virtually partition existing commercial spectrum, FirstNet does not. It’s separate. This affords superior security and network monitoring. The FirstNet core is also built with a six-point georedundant design, which protects the integrity and stability of the entire network.

Unthrottled connectivity with always-on priority and preemption is also a unique feature to FirstNet. Other networks may advertise priority and preemption, but the fact is, they offer dial-in, code-driven access that has been available for years through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS) and Wireless Priority System (WPS). A code is required for each call made, unlike FirstNet, which is “always on.” Particularly important to note, according to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which manages the WPS program, “an emergency call using WPS will be given priority in the call queue for the next available channel.” In other words, you can still find yourself waiting to get through.

CISA also makes it clear that WPS does not provide preemption: “WPS calls do not preempt calls in progress or deny the general public’s use of the cellular network.” The WPS priority is also only applicable to calls, not data usage through text or video streaming, for example. The truth is, unless you read the fine print, you won’t know these facts until you’re in the middle of a metaphorical (and possibly literal) firestorm and you can’t communicate.

FirstNet, on the other hand, has what we call “ruthless preemption.” When your FirstNet SIM signals a tower, you get on the network. If the system is taxed, other non-FirstNet users are either shifted to another channel or bumped off the system completely. The only exception is a 9-1-1 call.

When communications are challenged due to terrain or the network being compromised by natural or manmade disasters, the Response Operations Group (ROG) is available 24/7 to help remedy the situation. FirstNet manages over 80 mobile assets, including FirstNet One, a one-of-a-kind broadband-enabled aerostat. Unlike commercial carriers, deployable assets are free to FirstNet users. Compact Rapid Deployables (CRD) can be purchased, allowing immediate and exclusive access to Band 14 even during the most challenging circumstances.

Another key network-access feature exclusive to FirstNet is the use of High-Powered User Equipment (HPUE). Leveraging cutting-edge technology, FirstNet’s MegaRange will allow users the extra power bump necessary to enhance building penetration in the urban environment or extend reach to the outer limits of the network in more rural areas. More specific information on MegaRange can be found in Andy Seybold’s Public Safety Advocate article HPUE - What It Does, How It Works, What Is Available.

The FirstNet Ecosystem is central to the end-user experience. With a reliable and wide-reaching network in place, innovation has been able to confidently lean into solving many of the challenges first responders face. Interoperable communications and situational awareness are issues FirstNet has been tackling head-on. The result: Z-Axis location capabilities and LMR interoperability for Push-to-Talk.

Traditional GPS-based location services effectively provided the X and Y-axis location capabilities, which is great if we never left ground-level. Z-Axis, however, provides a new standard of indoor spatial awareness by quantifying the vertical axis. Imagine knowing where all your personnel are, especially when they may not be able to tell you themselves. The Z-Axis capability is only available as part of the FirstNet Enhanced Location Services (ELS).

Cracking the code – 20 years later

After 9/11, interoperability was the “Holy Grail” for public safety. Twenty years later, it has taken FirstNet Push-to-Talk to finally crack the code and truly bring it to life. Using a Radio Over IP (RoIP) gateway, two-way radios users can communicate seamlessly with FirstNet Push-to-Talk smartphones, not to mention the cost differential between a hand-held radio and smartphone.

Public safety professionals have to make well-informed and fiscally responsible choices. Over a decade of hard work has culminated in a network and ecosystem that should make your communications decisions easier and more defensible than ever. There is boundless information available on how FirstNet is carrying public safety into the future. Tap into resources such as All Things FirstNet, which provides continually updated content and the Public Safety Broadband Technology Association, which works as an end-user advocate for all first responders seeking to best leverage broadband to their advantage.

Division Chief Martha Ellis has been a public servant since 1993 and now serves as the executive director for the Public Safety Broadband Technology Association. She started her career as a hotshot firefighter/EMT with the National Forest Service, then moved into her 22-year career as a structural firefighter with the Salt Lake City Fire Department. Her career experience includes operations, training, ARFF and fire prevention, as well as serving as the Salt Lake City fire marshal for over 5 years. She concluded her career as the division chief over the Logistics, Emergency Management, and the Fire Intelligence Liaison programs for Salt Lake City. Chief Ellis has an associate’s degree in fire science, a master’s degree in homeland security from the Naval Postgraduate School, a master’s degree in legal studies from the University of Utah Law School, and a graduate certificate in conflict resolution and mediation. She is a graduate of the Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Senior Executives in State and Local Government Leadership Program.