FirstNet and What It Means for PSAPs

When Congress passed legislation to create the FirstNet (the First Responder Network Authority) just over two years ago, the idea of building a nationwide broadband network for first responders seemed a massive undertaking. Now that 2013 is in the rear view mirror, some would say it’s still a lofty goal, even though progress has been made.

FirstNet is an independent group within the NTIA whose mission is to implement a nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network. The need for interoperable public safety communications came to the forefront with large scale incidents, such as 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing, and more recently the Aurora movie theatre shooting and Sandy Hook. Complex incidents require a coordinated response, typically not just from one jurisdiction, city or county agency, but from many. Problems arise when first responders can’t communicate because of non-interoperable systems. After decades of trying to solve this problem locally, it became abundantly clear that regions simply did not have the funding to support a complete swap out of communications infrastructure.  So the focus shifted to public/private partnerships and looking at the inventory of carrier infrastructure that exists today to make it more reliable and interoperable.


The promise of FirstNet is a secure and prioritized pipeline for public safety communications, meaning that the network is ready and available when needed for field units to communicate. An additional benefit is the ability to share real-time data. Here we’re not just talking about traditional voice communications – but video, text, photos, sensor data. One example might be dashcam video for an early read on a scene. For example, the first fire engine at a fire typically reports the ‘size up’, which is a verbal description of the scene. But someday it might be possible to push out dashcam video of the scene to other first responders en route, or to a mobile incident command center, or back to the PSAP or emergency operations center. Having these visual cues will not only save resources, it will help everyone coordinate better.


While public safety broadband is billed primarily as an information sharing superhighway for first responders, its impact will be felt in the PSAP as well. PSAPs are the hub of emergency communications, and with public safety broadband, they will become even more so. Today, we’re seeing more PSAPs with access to city surveillance and DOT cameras, but only for viewing. They’re not able to move or process video. FirstNet is going to enable public safety agencies to move and share video in real time – and not just video, but other relevant data as well.


What can PSAPs do to prepare?

The states have already done a good job of starting to plan. Before FirstNet, Next Gen 9-1-1 paved the way for PSAPs to start looking at their role in public safety communications from a regional, state, even federal level. PSAPs should approach planning for public safety broadband in much the same way as they approached planning for NG9-1-1. Think of it operationally. Identify the use cases that make sense for their communities and jurisdictions; then test those use cases with their partner agencies (fire, EMS, law enforcement) and first responders, to see if they make sense – operationally, procedurally and in accordance with their Rules of Engagement (laws). For example, when they get access to video and other data, what will they do with it? When should they push video to the field and to whom? Who will have access to view, move or process video? What will they need to do to upgrade their existing infrastructure to accommodate video and other metadata? Determining what they’ll do with video and data, and taking an inventory of the infrastructure in place today, are proactive steps PSAPs can take today while the planning and requirements processes are still underway.


They can also start looking at the National Broadband Plan and the list of eligibility requirements. The grant process is an important vehicle for agencies as technology evolves. I’ll cover the grant process in greater detail in my next blog.

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