Are we there yet? That’s what the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation asked at the March 11 hearing.
Good Question. In the world of public safety, people come to expect quick results. If your house is on fire, you are a victim of a crime, or if you are gripped with pain due to a heart attack, you expect public safety to be there within minutes. Shouldn’t those brave first responders expect the same immediacy when they need help?
When Public Safety Can’t Communicate
The 9/11 Commission Report, published in 2002, highlighted the devastating consequences of failed communications at the World Trade Center. A police helicopter transmitted a warning of imminent collapse, but 345 firefighters who died that day did not hear the message because the two departments didn’t have interoperable communication. The nation, and more importantly, Congress awoke to a fact public safety has long been aware: If public safety can’t communicate, people die. It’s just that simple.
What is far more complex is why first responders can’t communicate. For decades, the Federal Communication Commission assigned different frequencies to adjacent jurisdictions to prevent interference. But differing frequencies prevent interoperability when first responders are called across borders to assist. After 9/11, Congress and the newly formed Department of Homeland Security addressed gaps between bands with grant money for equipment to patch legacy systems together, and to upgrade to newer systems built to interoperability standards (Project 25). That was helpful, but didn’t solve the root problem—voice and data need to be in the same network to achieve total interoperability. That’s what FirstNet will accomplish.
Years Behind Public Capability
Until then, public safety communications capabilities are still years behind those enjoyed by the public. Anyone with a smart phone can stream videos, research the best restaurant in a neighborhood, and locate friends and necessities (like pizza) at the touch of a button. Yet public safety does not have the technological resources to:
- Receive texts, photos, or video sent by people in danger (shootings, accidents, fires) using the phones that everyone has. The public can send video to friends or the media, but the first responders who can actually impact the outcome don’t have the means to receive it.
- Provide paramedics in remote areas with connectivity to emergency room doctors to get authorization to administer lifesaving drugs. Watching Jack Bauer in the TV series “24” use his cell phone in remote areas to get the right data just in time to save the world makes us think that it’s already possible, but it’s not happening everywhere.
- Track and locate firefighters inside a burning building. Yet we can track and locate our kids while they are driving our cars.
- Scan a subject’s face with a smart phone and match it to a criminal or terrorist wanted list. Yet Apple’s iPhoto application can identify your Uncle Abe among the thousands of photos on your computer.
- Know the location of a building’s standpipe, exits, elevators and overall floor plan when arriving at a building with an emergency. Yet retailers send push notifications to our smart phones when we arrive at their stores, letting us know what’s on sale.
Why can’t public safety do these things in today’s connected world? For a couple of reasons. First, they can and do operate on the same commercial networks that you use to watch cats do amazing things. But they compete for that bandwidth with you and your cat-loving neighbors. So when a crisis hits and everyone wants to phone home or share dramatic video, the network clogs and public safety is tied up in queue just like everyone else. Second, some parts of the country are not served by commercial networks because cellular service is not commercially viable, but public safety must operate everywhere, including rescues in remote canyons.
Creating a Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network
More than 10 years after 9/11, Congress passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 to create a nationwide public safety broadband network. FirstNet opened its doors three years ago and has been working hard to fulfill the mission. So far, FirstNet has prepared a strategic roadmap, begun initial consultations with the states and territories, witnessed an auction for spectrum that has yielded the full $7 billion to fund build-out, and just released sections of a draft RFP. If you haven’t looked at this very thoughtful Proposed Acquisition Approach, check it out, by clicking here.
This clearly shows the level of detailed thought that has gone into the planning for this highly complex and challenging program. Of particular interest to the public safety user community is the “Operational Architecture Functional Descriptions.” FirstNet has laid out their initial take on who should own various operational functions: such as Performance Management, QoS Administration, Provisioning Policies, and over 600 others that will be as critical to the success of the NPSBN as the technology. Potential users need to review and comment on these operational functions now to make sure FirstNet receives your valuable guidance. That is why I’m excited to host a workshop of public safety, State, Federal, and local officials to dive into this set of Operational elements and develop a consensus on how to best support this mission critical network. Follow the link below t if you’d like to participate in the June 10 event.
We’re not there yet, but we’re on the right road and headed in the right direction.
Click here to visit The Performance Institute’s website to learn more about PI’s FirstNet Policy Forums.
Ray Lehr | PI Fellow, Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network