Kevin O’Connor advises readers to understand FirstNet for its utility as well as its complexities and challenges.

The fire service has long advocated for a national interoperable communications network. After the catastrophic communications failures at Ground Zero, during Hurricane Katrina and other disasters, a political catharsis occurred.

Congress was shaken from its posture of complete inertia to plodding along at a lethargic pace to address the issue. In 2012, Congress finally granted public safety 20 MHz of contiguous spectrum in the 700 range spectrum and $7 billion to build out the infrastructure and network. To manage the project and spectrum real estate, Congress created a quasi-public enterprise, FirstNet.

Data details

To most firefighters, especially those original advocates of interoperability, the gold standard would have been a network that supports both mission-critical voice capabilities and high-speed data. Unfortunately, that’s not what we achieved. FirstNet does not support mission-critical voice and may not for many years. FirstNet’s mission is to provide the public safety community with a superior, interoperable DATA-only network.

In today’s world, data is becoming increasingly important. While nothing is more crucial than a reliable land-mobile radio when things take an ugly turn on the fireground, data and efficient use of broadband capabilities will improve our operational efficiencies and firefighter safety.

When fully operational, a data network can assist incident commanders by providing real-time information on building, construction and pre-fire plans; information on chemicals and other products involved in releases, spills, accidents or fire incidents; and other uses to enhance situational awareness. The technology will assist in priority dispatching and facilitating the exchange of information among multiple agencies and jurisdictions. EMS personnel will be able to use the connectivity to support the exchange of patient information, advanced diagnoses, treatment protocols, graphics and other tools to allow field providers, hospitals and physicians to better collaborate and coordinate care.

Perhaps one of the most promising advances is that the broadband capabilities can direct rescue teams in locating trapped firefighters and citizens on both vertical and horizontal axes. The location-enhancement technology can pinpoint the location of a downed firefighter within a few feet providing the floor and precise area for rescuers to search. This will save lives.

As firefighters, it is important that we keep the executives at FirstNet focused on our needs and understanding our rights in choosing a data network that best serves our operational needs and the interests of our respective states.

By the time this article is published, FirstNet will have selected a corporate partner to build the network. We MUST ensure that the network is built for the specific needs of public safety. The network must be hardened and reinforced so it will operate seamlessly during a crisis. The commercial networks failed miserably during Superstorm Sandy, the Boston Marathon and recently in Louisiana. Failure is not acceptable for public safety.

Sharing the network

This is an issue because it’s expensive to build a public safety grade network. As an industry, we cannot allow commercial carriers to simply include us as an “add-on” to their existing infrastructure. Here’s the problem: There are currently 350 million cell phone devices in the United States, and public safety only accounts for 2 percent of the market. Commercial carriers are there to make a profit for their shareholders, not serve a public good. We must be vigilant and demand that FirstNet’s vendor places public safety before profit.

To make the economics work, the statute creating FirstNet allows the broadband to be shared between public safety agencies and commercial enterprises. The theory is that FirstNet can auction access to the network to businesses that will provide revenue to build and maintain the system’s infrastructure. FirstNet has stated that non-public safety users will be “preempted” or kicked off the network during major incidents or disasters.

Conceptually, the idea of public-private spectrum sharing and preemption is fine. But the devil is in the details. Memorandums and protocols need to be drafted that stipulate clearly how and when preemption occurs and who gets to make the call. The fire service needs an elected official or public safety leader determining when preemption is instituted, not a federal bureaucrat working for FirstNet.

Lastly, it is important for all fire service leaders to understand that your state is not obligated to partner with FirstNet. Each state has the absolute right to build its own data network subject to the provisions outlined in the law and subsequent guidance material. The choice is yours.

In sum

A dedicated interoperable data network offers promise and opportunity for the fire service, but pitfalls and potential obstacles abound. Understand FirstNet for its utility as well as its complexities and challenges.