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​​ Illustration by Michael Austin​​

Crossed Wires

​When a man stole a car at gunpoint, sped off on a reckless 45-minute ride across the Los Angeles area, and then took unsuspecting restaurant patrons hostage in September 2015, the police response was intense. The car chase spanned several cities, involving first responders from multiple jurisdictions as well as the California Highway Patrol and SWAT members.

There was just one problem: once the officers had surrounded the restaurant where the man had barricaded himself, they had no way to communicate with each other, even though they were all in the same parking lot.

"The restaurant was surrounded by multiple law enforcement entities and none of them could immediately communicate with each other since their [land mobile radio] systems operated on different radio frequency bands," notes a government report on first responder communications. "This interoperability challenge was dangerous because the officers could not share information such as a description of the suspect."

First responder communication challenges have continued to make headlines since then, especially during natural disasters that affect critical infrastructure. One notable example is when California firefighters experienced a throttled broadband connection while trying to coordinate resources across the state to combat the worst wildfire in history this summer. The discovery that wireless provider Verizon throttled the Santa Clara County Fire Department's Internet speeds during the crisis created a backlash from first responders, citizens, and city officials alike. Verizon has since apologized and pledged to remove data caps from public safety customers' accounts nationwide at no additional cost, and the fire department filed a brief supporting litigation for net neutrality.

The federal government has been aware of public safety communication woes, and a solution was adopted back in 2012: the creation of FirstNet, a nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network on a special spectrum only available to first responders. The 2012 act set aside $7 billion for the buildout of FirstNet with the expectation that it would become self-funding as more responders adopted it.

Over the past six years, some progress has been made. AT&T was awarded the multibillion dollar, 25-year contract to build out the reserved spectrum, which may prove to be mutually beneficial. As part of the contract, AT&T can also access the FirstNet spectrum for commercial services depending on availability and is mandated to bring the network to rural areas, where AT&T does not historically reach. The carrier plans to invest $40 billion of its own money in the operation, which is ongoing in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. In July, AT&T announced that FirstNet is live at 2,500 wireless sites around the country, and another 10,000 are in the works.

Despite the progress, the program still has a long way to go to be built out and possibly even longer to be adopted by first responders, according to reports from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). The government watchdog agency has reported on first responder communication challenges and FirstNet for years, and lead author Mark Goldstein says it is yet to be seen whether FirstNet will solve those challenges.

"FirstNet certainly has the ability long-term to improve both data and voice communications for first responders," says Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues at GAO. "We've seen better coordination among various public safety committees, but there still needs to be a lot more done. We think FirstNet is definitely making progress, but this is not a short-term or simple thing to do. We've been—I won't say skeptical—but we have certainly been uncertain that it's going to work. There are so many challenges and they have a lot to do to make it work, and that's going to take a number of years. The jury is still out at this point in time."

Currently, most first responders use a combination of land mobile radio (LMR) for standard voice communication to coordinate response efforts via radio and commercial wireless services for more advanced data transmissions of location information, images, and video. For coordination with other departments during widespread events, first responders may have to switch over to different frequencies or platforms.

When the commercial wireless services become overloaded, as occurred during the California wildfires, communication within a department can be hampered. And even if these systems are operating normally and facilitating communication for one jurisdiction, they may not be for multiple departments—such as during the carjacking in Los Angeles. FirstNet is eventually supposed to replace both commercial wireless services and LMR, but Goldstein notes that only the data portion is being built out and issues with voice communications through FirstNet are unresolved.

The bigger question, though, is whether FirstNet will be adopted by the first responder community even when it is fully operational. An April 2018 GAO report Goldstein authored studied regional emergency communications capabilities and found that seven out of 10 regional emergency communication coordination working groups said interoperability challenges affect mission operations and put first responders and the public at risk. While this report did not focus on FirstNet's progress, it highlighted problems that may foreshadow challenges in the adoption of the private network—challenges with training and exercises, combined with technology incompatibility that already affect existing communications mechanisms. For example, dedicated channels were available for first responders at the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, but they were underutilized and difficult to access.

First responders may be hesitant or unwilling to use existing operational channels due to lack of training or experience, the GAO report notes. During Hurricane Harvey in Houston last year, for example, many first responders were not comfortable switching over to the interoperability channels because they did not typically use them. The emergency communication working groups interviewed in the report say that ongoing training, while effective, is difficult to conduct properly—the turnover of personnel and technology alike make it difficult for responders to keep up with the latest communications methods. Additionally, the GAO found that major emergency response exercises often do not include a large communications component, limiting the preparedness or confidence of responders to use special methods in large-scale emergencies. 

"I think ultimately the challenge is going to be adoption," Goldstein tells Security Management. "I think the technology will certainly get there, but I think one of the concerns that has been raised is that FirstNet can't be fully viable if they don't get sufficient adoption. The question is whether enough first responders are going to be willing to migrate to FirstNet. That's where the question remains—whether putting all this money into FirstNet is going to result in a robust viable system with enough users to support and sustain it."

Goldstein says he does not know the cost of FirstNet to first responders but expects it will be comparable with current commercial wireless services. GAO's most recent report on FirstNet notes that AT&T will have to take into consideration the costs associated with both making the network secure and reliable while keeping it competitively priced. 

"The success of the network depends on whether FirstNet and AT&T generate enough revenue to operate it over the long term and whether public safety users adopt it, no matter how reliable and secure it is," the FirstNet GAO report notes.

Although AT&T announced over the summer that FirstNet is online at some 2,500 sites, Goldstein says it's still too early to know whether first responders are adopting it or if it is working as intended. GAO has been asked to conduct more research on FirstNet's ongoing process, which Goldstein says will begin in a couple months.

"This is something that is going to take years and billions of dollars and will have to meet certain milestones, both in a technical capability in terms of buildout into rural areas, and in terms of usage population—a variety of first responder communities," Goldstein says. "I think they need to be given the time to be able to succeed, because we're still really at the beginning of their being able to meet those criteria. You could have those 2,500 folks using the network, but if they're all in urban areas, that's easy to do. If you have nobody in the rural areas, that's a real problem. I think time will tell whether they will meet the technological and funding challenges of making it competitive, being able to roll it out to rural areas, and getting enough people on the network to make it viable long-term."