FirstNet to Bring the Power of Advanced Mobile Technologies to Law Enforcement

January 16, 2015
Officers of the Laurel, Maryland, Police Department under Chief McLaughlin use body cameras and smartphones to enhance communications.
Officers of the Laurel, Maryland, Police Department under Chief McLaughlin use body cameras and smartphones to enhance communications.

Reprinted from Police Chief Magazine, vol. 82, no. 1, pages 48-50, 2015. Copyright held by the International Association of the Chiefs of Police, Inc., 44 Canal Center Plaza, Suite 200, Alexandria, VA 22314. Further reproduction without express permission from IACP is strictly prohibited.

By TJ Kennedy, Acting Executive Director

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), an independent agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce, was created to empower the United States’ first responders with stateof-the-art communications tools, including a nationwide interoperable, wireless network. This network will be established in all 50 states, the 5 U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia per the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012.1 The creation of this law, FirstNet, and the ultimate establishment of a dedicated public safety network can be credited to first responders and associations like IACP who made a 9/11 Commission recommendation a reality.

FirstNet—Smart Mobile Technology for Public Safety

Smart mobile technology, constantly driven forward by the marketplace, holds great promise for public safety. This is particularly true in law enforcement where officers spend most of their time in the field on the move in cars, on motorcycles, or on foot. Body-worn cameras, as well as dashboard cameras and intelligent wearable devices connected to smartphones, can improve public safety operations by communicating on-scene data to dispatch and realtime crime centers. However, public safety needs a modern, wireless, high-speed public safety communications network to support these devices before it can even begin to leverage all of the benefits they offer. That’s where FirstNet comes in.

What it looks like. The FirstNet operating environment will likely be similar to that of newer personal smartphones. On most new smartphone screens, users can see “4G LTE,” which means the device is from the fourth generation of mobile telecommunications technology. In addition to the usual voice and other services of previous generations, 4G provides faster mobile broadband Internet access to laptops, to smartphones, and to other mobile devices. It follows that 4G applications (apps) will include mobile web access, video conferencing, and HD video, to name a few. LTE, an abbreviation for long-term evolution, is a standard for wireless communication of high-speed data for mobile phones and data terminals.

Leveraging new technology. Like the commercial 4G LTE networks supporting personal smartphones, FirstNet is ensuring the establishment of a wireless public safety network that is data driven and Internet based. A key difference between commercial 4G LTE networks and the FirstNet public safety network is that the FirstNet network is being developed specifically to meet the needs of public safety. The network will have additional features such as priority use for first responders. The importance of having a common, standards-based network constantly improved by advancements in commercial technology cannot be overemphasized. This is not the way public safety has traditionally built its networks, and, as a result, law enforcement was not always equipped to benefit from commercial advances in technology.

FirstNet’s goal is to enable law enforcement to take advantage of advancements in Internet-based communications technology for major operational improvements. The LTE architecture facilitates the use of data-driven public safety apps and will likely drive costs down, both for communications services and the devices that run on them. No longer will teenagers have smartphones that are more powerful communications devices than those used by the law enforcement officers who respond to their 9-1-1 calls. No longer will emergency responders have to bring their own smartphones to work to access applications, make phone calls, or share photos or videos that help them perform their law enforcement roles each day.

Shattering old communication barriers. Also critically important, the network will improve upon the current patchwork of communications systems and frequencies that make it difficult for emergency responders from different jurisdictions to coordinate their efforts. Based on the same radio spectrum and standards-based technology throughout, it’ll be a single public safety network linking local public safety agencies with state, tribal, and federal agencies that cross most of the geography of the United States and its territories through a combination of ground, mobile, and satellite communications systems.

Device and spectrum interoperability. Using a 700 MHz spectrum licensed to FirstNet by the U.S. Congress, the network will improve device and spectrum interoperability. The FirstNet spectrum is 20 MHz in the 700 MHz D Block region of the spectrum. Law enforcement officers, firefighters, and paramedics will finally have a communications system that they all can use, across a variety of jurisdictions, at the same time. No matter where public safety entities are sent to help in a large emergency, first responders will have immediate access to video, data, and voice communications via FirstNet’s network. Multiple jurisdictions will be able to share access to apps and common systems such as motor vehicle and wanted person databases.

Priority usage. Unlike the commercial wireless networks that enable personal smartphones, FirstNet’s public safety network will feature priority usage and preemption during large emergencies. The network operating standards will provide local control to public safety agencies, allowing for more control over provisioning, device features, and reporting. The network will be redundant and resilient to sustain service and will support a robust and reliable portfolio of devices for different user types. During emergencies where multiple agencies converge in a small area, public safety entities need an exclusive public safety network so they can communicate without interruption. And, with FirstNet, they will have it. This is especially important during large emergencies when consumers may overload commercial wireless networks to reach their families and friends.

Enhancing the Way U.S. Law Enforcement Operates

FirstNet plans to bring 21st century tools to organizations and individuals that respond to emergencies at the local, state, tribal, and federal levels. Just as smartphones and Internet-based networks have changed the way individuals communicate in their personal lives, FirstNet believes that the nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network will change the way U.S. law enforcement operates for the better. And just as one can download apps on smartphones, tablets, or laptops now, once the FirstNet network is established, FirstNet envisions users being able to go to the FirstNet app store to download law enforcement apps for their FirstNet devices. FirstNet also plans to facilitate the use of rugged, easy-to-use devices designed to meet public safety requirements and provide a rich set of apps and services that enhance a law enforcement officer’s ability to do his or her job.

Today, a police officer chasing a suspect fleeing on foot not only has to pursue and subdue the individual, he or she has to talk on a radio to describe the situation as they’re running. The officer has to call for back-up, describe his or her location, and describe the suspect. In general, officers spend a good amount of time describing what they’re seeing in words spoken into a radio. With the FirstNet network, law enforcement officers will leverage their land mobile radio (LMR) as they do today, but the goal is that they’ll also have use of smart mobile devices with applications that allow them to wirelessly send real-time information to multiple destinations, including other officers.

Significant bandwidth. FirstNet plans to establish the network with mission-critical high-speed data services that augment the voice capabilities of today’s LMR networks. Specifically, the goal is to enable FirstNet users to send and receive data, video, images, and text, as well as use voice applications on their smart mobile devices. The network will also provide location data. Unlike most wireless public safety communication systems today, the network’s significant bandwidth will likely allow law enforcement to leverage mobile apps that wirelessly transmit key information as quickly as possible.

Enhancing emergency medical treatment. Law enforcement officers might save lives during active shooter or mass casualty events not only by immediately helping critical victims, but by quickly connecting a victim with life threatening injuries to care at a trauma center. One way emergency medical services (EMS) could accelerate emergency care is by equipping ambulances with two-way video—connecting patients, EMTs, and paramedics that are in the ambulance to an emergency room physician or trauma surgeon at a hospital. In the future, devices in these ambulances might send vital signs such as heart rhythm, as well as the geolocation and pertinent medical history of patients to the hospital using FirstNet.

From robotics to records management. The FirstNet network will support a range of remote operations. Police officers might use video transmitted over the network in conjunction with robots when dealing with explosives; support personnel could monitor the situation from the command vehicle or watch at a safe distance from danger. And while perhaps less exciting—but critically important to the effectiveness and efficiency of a police department—law enforcement officers who have to go to the station to fill out their paperwork now would be able to complete it more easily from the field wirelessly via their department’s Record Management System (RMS) using the high-speed bandwidth on FirstNet’s network.

Improved situational awareness. The bottom line is that it’s almost impossible to imagine all the new law enforcement capabilities the network could enable. However, FirstNet’s goal is to facilitate a faster, more informed, and better coordinated response to incidents across city, county, tribal, state, regional, and national public safety personnel. When public safety personnel have a common picture of an incident that’s unfolding, they are far better equipped to respond. During crimes in process or medical emergencies, the ability to share real-time images and video of the scene, as well as the locations of responders and locally relevant information, improves communication and outcomes.

Get Involved in FirstNet’s Consultation Process

To ensure that the FirstNet network is realized, the agency has embarked on an ongoing consultation process. FirstNet is consulting with U.S. regional, state, tribal, and local jurisdictions, as well as federal agencies, to ensure that the network meets the needs of U.S. first responders. FirstNet started the formal consultation process in Maryland in July 2014. By the end of 2014, formal consultation meetings were held in Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Puerto Rico, Utah, Iowa, and Florida, with future plans to hold consultations in every U.S. state and territory.

With officers’ help, FirstNet will ensure the building, deployment, and operation of this nationwide public safety LTE wireless network. FirstNet believes that every part of public safety is critical to the success of the organization and to the planning and deployment of the network. This is an opportunity for U.S. law enforcement to participate with their state single point of contact (SPOC), colleagues, and FirstNet. Law enforcement leaders and officers can participate in the planning process by contacting their SPOC. For a detailed and updated list of SPOCs, please visit

This is an incredible undertaking and the support from the U.S. law enforcement community has been encouraging and appreciated. Building FirstNet is not something that happens overnight. There is one shot to get it right, and FirstNet will work with officers to make sure that this public safety network enhances their law enforcement mission each day.

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