communications tower (Alexander Yakimov/Shutterstock.com)

Iowa taps into FirstNet for 911 backup

The Iowa Communications Network (ICN) has partnered with Iowa’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department (HSEMD) to use FirstNet as the backup connection for the state’s public safety answering points (PSAPs).

ICN has deployed FirstNet LTE connections to 24 of the state’s 113 PSAPs so far, with about 10 more slated for installations. Under the agreement, connected PSAPs will automatically reroute 911 calls from ICN to FirstNet to keep callers wirelessly connected.

The effort grew out of HSEMD’s work since 2017 to increase shared services among the PSAPs. Because the PSAPs operate under home rule, meaning each makes its own IT decisions, they traditionally have had standalone call-handling equipment, which was costly, said Blake DeRouchey, 911 program manager at HSEMD, which runs Iowa’s 911 system.

An arrangement with ICN allowed for shared services, the use of which HSEMD incentivized through cost-saving measures. HSEMD purchased the bulk of the call-handling equipment from Zetron, a critical communications company, and covers a “substantial amount” of costs, DeRouchey said. PSAPs’ remote equipment connects to Iowa’s equipment via ICN, which is made up of about 3,400 miles of fiber optics.

Other benefits of the shared services, the cost of which HSEMD splits 50/50 with the PSAPs, include computer-aided dispatch, emergency medical dispatch, logging and mapping. Any PSAP may opt into those functions. The FirstNet backup -- a separate virtual-private network within FirstNet’s infrastructure -- is another benefit of the arrangement with ICN.

“We quickly realized that if that one feed through the ICN were to go down for various maintenance windows, [users would be] much more in the dark than they would have been previously because there was so much riding that connection now,” DeRouchey said.

Now, if ICN goes down for scheduled maintenance or a fiber cut, PSAPs won’t lose connectivity.

“If they’re on a call, they might notice a three- to four-second delay gap,” said Mike Lauer, solutions architect at ICN. “What ends up happening is this is automatic reroute, and then the PSAP doesn’t lose a call, they don’t lose connection. They just hear a gap.”

When ICN comes back on, the switch back is also automatic. “I always think of it in terms of driving because networks and data delivery are like cars,” Lauer said. “Data’s the cars on the road, then the road is the network. It’s literally just a car going off on an exit ramp and then coming back on, on the enter ramp.”

Initially, HSEMD considered physical circuit connection options, but found those cost-prohibitive and lacking the redundancy the agency sought.

“The reason why we decided to go more with LTE was it did provide a geo-redundant network,” Lauer said. ICN was looking for connectivity to secure data centers that could be controlled by ICN’s  security and compliance standards, he added.

Iowa was the fifth state to opt into FirstNet, the nationwide high-speed broadband network that AT&T is building for first responders and public-safety workers, so much of the state is covered by Band 14, the spectrum that the government set aside for FirstNet.

That means most PSAPs are able to take advantage of the FirstNet backup, although signal availability and the PSAP’s proximity to a FirstNet tower are considerations, Lauer said. At distances greater than five miles, for instance, the signal becomes questionable, but FirstNet’s relationships with other LTE carriers kick in.

“So far it’s been good -- haven’t had a PSAP yet that has fallen into [being] just too far out of reach,” Lauer said.

ICN is a Radio Access Network, and a benefit of that, Lauer said, is that it uses only the radio network when it switches to FirstNet.

Ideally, all 113 PSAPs will be connected, but the decision is ultimately up to each one. They have time, though, DeRouchey said. “We’re not looking to end this program anytime soon, so that option [remains] available even a year or two from now if a PSAP decides to join,” he said.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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