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Public-Safety Communications

​AFTER THE terrorist attacks of 2001, one of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations was for the establishment of a nationwide, interoperable public-safety broadband network. The pace of progress has been glacial but there are recent developments that could lead to real results.

Such a network would allow different groups of first responders to communicate with each other and to share data between themselves and the public. In addition to first responders, this network would also assist Next Generation 911 dispatchers who would need to be able to access and pass on data.

In 2012, a law established the First Responders Network Authority, or FirstNet, as an independent entity under the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). FirstNet is tasked with spearheading the design and building of the national public-safety network. Recently, the NTIA sent out the first requests for information to solicit information from wireless device equipment manufacturers and other stakeholders in an attempt to get the ball rolling on this massive undertaking.

Gary McCarraher, chief of the Franklin, Massachusetts, Fire Department and chairman of the communications committee at the International Association of Fire Chiefs, explains why such a network is critical: Everything that first responders do, they do in the field. That means the hard-wired communications network can’t serve them when they need to receive and disseminate information. “We need a…field network to provide us that capacity,” he says.

An interoperable field network would make for more efficient communication among various first responders and public-safety groups, from EMS to fire departments and police departments. It would also facilitate easier and more reliable access to data such as license-plate recognition, video streams, GPS, and other communications.

The possibilities are endless; the network would let dispatchers send EMS workers patient information; it would give responders to a hazardous-materials incident ready access to information on nearby pipelines; and it would provide easier access to building floor plans, for example. Though public-safety responders can do many of these things now, they are relying on the same networks that consumers are, which means they might lose access when it is most needed.

A public-safety network would need to be hardened to make it resilient in a way that private-carrier networks aren’t, because it will be even more important for the first responders to have access to data in disaster situations.

Currently, McCarraher says his department uses equipment on an independent carrier. “They don’t provide the robustness, they don’t provide the hardened sites. And we’re [customers] just like any other service customer…but the difference is that if you drop data texting your dinner plans to somebody, there’s no consequence. If we’re relying on that as mission critical data, there’s consequence to that. So it’s really important for us to have that robust and secure network.”

FirstNet will be able to leverage some of the private network infrastructure, however. There are meetings underway about how to use networks that companies like Verizon and AT&T have already implemented. In some cases and in some locations, however, FirstNet will need to break new ground. FirstNet will have to fund towers “in places where it’s not economic for the major carriers to do it,” says David Kahn, CEO of Covia Labs, a technology company whose software facilitates interoperable communications.

Though no one has built a public-safety broadband network on this scale before, there have been incubator sites around the country that have used government grants to build their own public-safety networks. Harris County in Texas was the first to put its own public-safety broadband network to operational use in the United States. But nothing approaches the scale of what FirstNet is undertaking.

McCarraher says that First-Net will make a real difference for the fire department. “It’s the difference between a horse-drawn fire truck and a motorized fire apparatus. They both squirt water, but at the end of the day, [FirstNet] will provide us the capacity to do our jobs much more quickly, efficiently, and cheaply. This is an information age; we need to be able to transmit data very quickly so that we can affect and impact the lives of our citizens.”