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Dave Buchanan interviews Dave Mulholland.

FirstNet’s a Game Changer for the Nation’s Capital

March 8, 2019

When it comes to emergency communications in the National Capital Region, Dave Mulholland has seen it all. Originally a member of the U.S. Park Police, Mulholland later took on the role of Statewide Communications Interoperability Coordinator (SWIC) for the District of Columbia where, among other duties, he helped plan and manage emergency communications for large-scale events in the nation’s capital. Today, he serves as the Administrator for the Arlington County (Va.) Emergency Communications Center, which supports more than 225,000 residents and handles upwards of 440,000 calls every year. Public Safety Advocacy Director Dave Buchanan recently sat down with him to discuss his experiences with public safety communications in the National Capital Region for the Public Safety First podcast.

Reflecting on his time as the DC SWIC, Mulholland recounted his experiences managing emergency communications for the 2017 Presidential Inauguration. Despite having large crowds descend upon the relatively small area of the National Mall, first responders did not experience disrupted communications that day, thanks to extensive planning and the help of several deployable network assets, including Communications on Wheels (COWs) and Cell on Light Trucks (CoLTs).

The next day, Mulholland revealed, was much different. The 2017 Women’s March was 10 times bigger than anyone had anticipated with crowds topping nearly half a million people. The COWs and COLTs that had filled in communications gaps at the inauguration were no longer on site, and cellular towers were quickly flooded.

Priority and preemption are critical capabilities for any first responder community, according to Mulholland. In Arlington, he pointed out, a significant incident would cause serious problems for first responders. With hundreds of thousands of people trying to access a limited number of cellular towers, responders would be effectively handcuffed in terms of their ability to communicate. He explained, “We flow information to our first responders through use of land mobile radio, but also very heavy use of information sent to their mobile data computers. We’ve taken that tool away if that cellular capability does not exist. If they have important information that they need to send back to the field, that’s not voice information, we would not be able to receive or process it. So, this is a huge concern.” FirstNet, with its “always-on” connection, alleviates these concerns by ensuring first responders can communicate without interruption whenever and wherever needed.

Mulholland also noted the significant impact FirstNet will have on response operations by providing a secure, reliable connection to transmit data, particularly video. He explained, “If I go talk to a police chief and a fire chief and I start talking about throughput, it may not be meaningful to them. But when they see something over a video screen, it speaks more than a thousand words.” When the National Capital Region conducted a FirstNet demo at the 2018 Marine Corps Marathon, he said the difference was immediate. “The FirstNet-enabled trailer sent back beautiful imagery, even though we were in a very cellularly challenged area, and dealing with a lot people who are on their phones,” recalled Mulholland. “What we found with the FirstNet-enabled trailer was almost like you were looking out the window of your car — very clear situational awareness video in which you could very clearly identify a person, if we needed to, for lookout purposes or forensic purposes – we could tell if that’s a water bottle in their hand or is that a pipe-bomb potentially in their hand.” By providing a strong broadband connection to share data, the FirstNet network arms first responders with greater situational awareness and enables responders to make better decisions.

Looking to the future, Mulholland was excited about the possibilities FirstNet opens up in the National Capital Region. “We have a game changer,” he said. “You have accountability. FirstNet/AT&T must meet certain parameters ... You’ve become a trusted broker.”

To hear more from the interview with Dave Mulholland, listen to Episode 18 of the Public Safety First podcast.