FirstNet: A game changer for public safety and law enforcement
- By Robert W. Patterson
- Jul 23, 2019
For 30 years, I served our country at a federal agency that enforces the controlled substances laws and regulations. That agency, like many others, is made up of dedicated, hardworking individuals who strive to make our communities and this nation better.
Without question, leaders of public safety and law enforcement agencies aim to equip their personnel with the tools that will make them successful -- in their day-to-day work and at times when natural or manmade disasters threaten public safety. Communications technologies and devices are essential to this goal.
For too long, emergency communications have been hamstrung -- from radio interoperability challenges that limit coordination among agencies and first responders to competition with consumers on commercial LTE mobile networks for bandwidth responders need.
But now we have FirstNet -- the nationwide broadband communications platform being built specifically for and dedicated to first responders and the public safety community. FirstNet allows federal, state, local and tribal first responders to reliably access and use communications capabilities to more efficiently and effectively achieve their missions.
More than a disaster recovery network
FirstNet has already proven itself for disaster response. When Hurricane Michael struck the Florida panhandle in October 2018, it destroyed communications infrastructure at Tyndall Air Force Base. Fiber was cut; landline and commercial wireless telecommunications capabilities were unavailable. FirstNet-connected devices and dedicated communications equipment were immediately sent to support Tyndall’s response to the storm. Responders using FirstNet re-established temporary communications at the base within hours.
But the importance and capability of FirstNet go beyond disaster response; the network is also a game changer for the daily work of keeping the public safe and enforcing the law.
Federal law enforcement agencies work hand-in-hand with state and local partners, often in formalized task forces; other times, agencies collaborate to support one-time events. For example, when federal agents monitoring criminal activities need to act quickly, they often connect with state and local agencies to coordinate efforts.
This has never been easy because federal, state and local public safety agencies rely on a collection of disparate land mobile radio networks and devices -- thousands of them. Separate LMR networks and siloed modes of communication were partially responsible for the inability of first responders to connect and communicate effectively during the 2001 terrorist attacks.
FirstNet offers one nationwide communications platform dedicated to supporting communications unity where disparate networks once reigned. FirstNet gives public safety agencies a unified, highly secure network so they can more easily communicate, coordinate and share information in near-real time.
It is purpose-built and packed with innovations. It enables interoperability across LMRs, and LTE users can track and share their locations, send and receive highly secure messages -- including voice, PDFs, pictures and video for heightened situational awareness. FirstNet is also innovating in its planned delivery of standards-based mission-critical push-to-talk solutions. Using standards-based MCPTT solutions on FirstNet will allow high levels of assurance in LTE voice communications. Users can create talk groups on the fly, allowing them to connect, coordinate action and work together to help enforce the law and mitigate issues that threaten public safety. Plus, priority services allow agents to cut through potential network congestion when time is precious and communications are vital.
FirstNet features a physically separate network core dedicated to public safety and law enforcement use. This separate infrastructure was built from the ground up to serve the unique needs of the public safety community. Communications traversing the FirstNet core are fully encrypted, and the platform offers additional tools to extend that encryption from end to end.
FirstNet makes public safety’s mission the priority
For too long, public safety and law enforcement have had to rely on decades-old technology and commercial networks where they compete with non-public safety users for bandwidth. FirstNet changes that. Designed with input from the public safety community to meet its unique needs, FirstNet prioritizes the public safety mission.
The public/private partnership that’s delivering the FirstNet platform has made considerable progress since its inception. Today, there are more than 600,000 device connections on FirstNet, spanning more than 7,250 public safety entities across the country. Current users include federal agencies, state National Guard units, sheriff’s offices, state patrol agencies, tribal public safety agencies, firefighters and responders, school districts, public works departments, and more.
FirstNet is a game changer for the daily work of public safety during rescue and recovery operations. Its effectiveness improves each time a new agency or public safety professional signs up.
Robert W. Patterson is senior executive director of global law enforcement at AT&T Public Sector Solutions. Previously, he was acting administrator at the Drug Enforcement Administration.