FirstNet: The Future of First Responder Communications

Communication among first responders is critical to mission success. Police, fire, EMS, search & rescue – regardless of what uniform they wear or part they play – their ability to talk to each other is a vital part of any emergency. Unfortunately, that is often not possible, and valuable time is lost and efforts duplicated because of it. For decades leaders have searched for the answer and they may have found in FirstNet.

One of the biggest outcomes of the 9/11 attacks was the attention it brought to a problem first responders had known about since the first uniform was donned – the inability to communicate with their brothers and sisters during times of need. Although many departments had excellent in-house communications, few could talk to even neighboring departments without changing equipment or utilizing a third party such as an agency liaison. The 9/11 Commission even recommended this problem be addressed.

After several unsuccessful attempts at the state and local levels, Congress established the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). The Authority was tasked with researching, developing, and testing a nationwide communication system for first responders. These efforts are supported by headquarters in Reston, VA and a research lab in Boulder, CO, and led by a Board consisting of professionals from all levels of public safety communications. Congress even dedicated $7 billion in funding for the project.

As you may suspect, $7 billion was not nearly enough to design, build, and operate such a system for very long. The Government Accountability Office estimated the price tag for construction and operation during the first 10 years to be $47 billion! The answer? A public-private partnership where an established private sector communications company would partner with the Authority to roll out the system and maintain a dedicated, state of the art, broadband system. Following competitive bidding, the contract was awarded to AT&T.

So how will it work?

The federal government provided $6.5 billion in funding and 20MHz of federally owned broadband spectrum. In return, AT&T will invest almost $40 billion over the life of the contract to build, deploy, operate, and maintain the system. The Authority will oversee AT&T’s efforts to ensure all contract requirements are met and that the system continues to evolve as technology and needs change to prevent gaps or loss of service.


Why would AT&T invest such a large sum?

One of the first questions you are probably asking yourself is why any private sector company would invest such a large sum of money for a public safety project? I would like to think it was due to a sense of community responsibility, and that may be an underlying factor, but the true answer is money. No, not the money they will make selling equipment to first responders. I am talking about the money they will make from their other commercial customers. One of the incentives to AT&T is their ability to utilize the unused broadband spectrum for other commercial purposes, increasing their day to day capabilities. During an emergency, first responders will be given priority with other users bumped until space is available. In other words, AT&T will be able to borrow space for other money-making activities, something that would otherwise be limited by currently available broadband space.

So what will first responders get?

As stated earlier, it is no secret that an inability to communicate during an emergency can hamper the ability of first responders to complete their missions efficiently and safely. Although this was highlighted in the aftermath of 9/11, it was also a major problem in more recent disasters as well – including the multiple hurricane responses of 2017. Imagine how difficult it was to coordinate efforts in Puerto Rico when the island’s entire infrastructure was destroyed. Once FirstNet is up and running, first responders will have access to a host of communication options currently unavailable.

  • Dedicated high speed, secure communications network with priority access, higher capacity, and a hardened connection
  • Specially created devices and apps designed to meet the needs of first responders and take maximum advantage of the network capabilities
  • Ability to do more than talk – will also allow sharing of text messages, photographs, video and related web-based information in near real-time nature
  • Highly accurate location services capable of not only tracking but also mapping assets
  • Specially outfitted drones, robots, or remote cameras to support human response
  • Wearable biometric devices capable of alerting when the responder is in distress or relaying patient information to medical professionals

All technology, including apps and devices, will be tested by the FirstNet lab, ensuring first responders are not guinea pigs during field trials.

Where does the program stand?

So far, all 50 states, Washington D.C. and 3 U.S. territories have accepted the deployment of the network within their individual jurisdictions. This is a major step! Anyone who has worked for or with a government agency knows how difficult it is to get everyone on board for a single project. As stated earlier, AT&T was awarded the contract, and earlier this year the Authority authorized the deployment nationwide. FirstNet has also begun development of the apps and devices need to take full advantage of the network and will soon open a dedicated App Store to make these available to first responders. In the coming months, FirstNet and AT&T officials will be crisscrossing the nation meeting with state officials, first responder leadership, and local jurisdictions to explain the ins and outs of the system and begin getting each trained and equipped. During a recent field application of the system at the Newport, RI Volvo Ocean Race 30, FirstNet devices were deployed with police, fire, EMA and EMS units and was a key aspect of rescuing a man overboard during a pre-race event.

For additional information, updates and a calendar of upcoming events check out the FirstNet website. You can even sign up for a newsletter to make sure you never miss an important development.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Tom Burrell

Tom Burrell

Tom enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserves in 1987. Following service in Desert Storm, he transitioned to active duty with the US Coast Guard. In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position in conservation & maritime law enforcement. Tom is currently a Captain and he oversees several programs, including his agency investigation unit. He is also a training instructor in several areas including firearms, defensive tactics and first aid/CPR. In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Area Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University.
Tom Burrell

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