Kevin O’Connor reminds that a data-only network is not what the fire service or the 9/11 Commission envisioned.

The big news on the communications front is that FirstNet has selected AT&T to build the data-only interoperable communications network. The operative words here are DATA ONLY.

Make no mistake, FirstNet is an improvement over the status quo. An effective data network with cutting-edge capabilities is important. But let’s be honest with ourselves and those whom we represent. This is a partial victory. Too many fire service leaders are engaged in celebration and high-fiving each other.

Context is key

It’s been more than 15 years since the 9/11 Commission recommended building a national interoperable communications network exclusively for public safety. Since the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 on Washington’s 14th Street Bridge in 1982, the fire service has lobbied extensively on interoperable communications. I have been part of that process and, frankly, we came up short.

No firefighter in harm’s way would place data transmission above mission-critical voice capabilities. To suggest anything else is disingenuous. When you are in a tight spot and need help, you want to be able to key the mic and communicate to other crews or the outside. Having that capability was the genesis of our efforts. As of today, the goal remains unfulfilled. 

When Flight 90 went down 35 years ago, crews from D.C. could not communicate with their colleagues from Virginia. On 9/11, the FDNY could not communicate effectively with the NYPD. We mourn those losses to this day. No one began this lobbying effort to secure a data-only network run by a major commercial communications carrier. That statement is not a criticism of AT&T or anyone else. It is meant to offer some context to those taking a victory lap. 

We fought to secure a dedicated band of spectrum for the exclusive use of public safety and funding to build out the network. We also lobbied to ensure that public safety leaders actually had operating control of a network which, at the time, was referred to as the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST), providing BOTH voice and data. 

In the end, we got the spectrum, which is a significant win. But, we only got $7 billion in funding to construct a reinforced public safety network. When Verizon built its nationwide commercial network without the redundancy, security and reinforcement needed for public safety, it costs more than $40 billion. So the funding is woefully inadequate. 

Instead of having a trust run by public safety leaders, we have an entity, FirstNet. The majority of FirstNet’s board is comprised of former telecom executives and other non-public safety executives, with a minority representation of fire and police. And instead of having an exclusive network for public safety, we have a “shared” network in which the carrier may use excess spectrum for commercial purposes.

Here are some questions that the fire service needs to ask about FirstNet:

  • What happens when a disaster strikes? Are commercial users preempted and bumped off the network, or is there some form of priority queue in which first responders get preference, but not absolute and immediate access?
  • Who makes the determination when commercial users are bumped and how long will the network remain public safety priority? Is it an elected official declaring a disaster or is it a corporate decision by FirstNet?
  • Will the new system provide location accuracy technology to find victims on both the vertical and horizontal axis?
  • Will the network provide sufficient coverage to rural areas?
  • How much are jurisdictions charged by FirstNet per user? With tight budgets, knowing the proposed cost is a major issue.

These and other questions demand answers. It is also important to understand that the law affords each state the absolute right to opt out of FirstNet and create a network that best suits their needs. Some states have already begun the request for proposal process. So there are choices. 

Don’t forget

Data only is not what the fire service or the 9/11 Commission envisioned.

In spite of the hype, FirstNet is more like kissing your sister than dating the prom queen.