Kevin O’Connor evaluates the opportunities and challenges ahead in 2019.

As we are only newly into 2019, it’s a good time to review some of the opportunities and challenges facing the fire service in the new year.

Embracing FirstNet

It has been nearly eight years since the fire service secured bandwidth 14 (D-Block) and the creation of FirstNet through aggressive lobbying and advocacy. At times, it has been a tumultuous and seemingly never-ending journey in our quest for a dedicated, interoperable public safety communications network. 

AT&T was the only major telecom company to bid. Many attempted to entice other companies to bid for the business in order to spark competition and innovation and drive down costs, but no other major carrier stepped forward, and AT&T was awarded the business. AT&T now has a 25-year contract to build out and manage the system for FirstNet, and they are doing so.

Beyond the request for proposal (RFP), each state was invited to undertake its own analysis to determine whether they wished to participate in FirstNet or develop their own public safety network. All 50 states and other eligible jurisdictions chose to participate in FirstNet. However, local jurisdictions are not mandated to use FirstNet. Cities and towns can choose to use other providers for their data and digital needs. Certainly, other vendors will be seeking to sell their wares, cherry-pick jurisdictions and win market share in the public safety space. But, remember that when the opportunity for them to compete for our overall business was at hand during both the RFP process and state by state, they demurred.

At this juncture, the competition is over, and it is time to move forward. FirstNet is the appropriate choice for public safety. It is the only non-commercial network dedicated to public safety. It is managed by a board that includes substantial representation from police, fire and governmental agencies. No other potential provider can make those claims.

The buildout of the public safety network is ahead of schedule, and more than 4,000 public safety agencies have chosen FirstNet as their provider. FirstNet is providing “Always On” priority preemption to ensure that first responders will always have immediate access to the network and will preempt non-public safety users. 

During the California wildfires, other telecom carriers “throttled,” essentially cutting off first responders from access to their network to enhance capacity for commercial clients. The potential impact of firefighters being without communications, even temporarily, is obvious and unacceptable.

There are many communications issues that still need to be addressed, from being able to provide mission-critical voice communications, further integration between traditional land mobile radios (LMR) and Long-Term Evolution (LTE) technologies, and ensuring that the country’s 14 major metropolitan regions may continue to utilize and operate on the T-Band spectrum. The fire service and its industry and governmental partners will continue to work cooperatively on these challenges in terms of research, technical and product development, financing, advocacy and long-term planning.

The bottom line: FirstNet is OUR network. It was built for public safety, and we all should utilize it. 

A new Congress

The fire service will be facing unprecedented challenges in the 116th Congress. The mid-term elections further illustrated the great political divide in this country. Democrats won control of the House, and Nancy Pelosi has returned as Speaker. A pitched battled between the emboldened Democrats and President Trump is being waged.   

I do not see our industry or our issues being specifically targeted. Firefighters enjoy broad bipartisan support, but we must be cautious about becoming an unintended casualty. 

With divided government, intense acrimony and an impending presidential election, politicos on both sides of the aisle will be posturing. Their primary concern will be self-survival or advancement. Decisions will be driven more by personal politics than appropriate policy. 

In that environment, everyone is vulnerable. We need to protect our core issues. Thankfully, the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant programs are authorized for several years. But we will need to fight for continued funding of these and other grant programs in the future. All major fire service groups will be working the Hill and meeting the newly elected senators and representatives.

You too can help! Call your respective senators and representatives, especially the class of 2019, and ask them to join the Congressional Fire Services Caucus and stand with America’s Bravest!