With FirstNet, Information will Move as Fast as the Incident

April 11, 2018
By Aislynn C. Turner, First Responder Network Authority, Public Safety Advocacy Team

This blog is a repost from the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Bulletin March 2018 Issue.

The goal of the emergency manager is to bring as much data as possible into the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and then to synthesize it into the most meaningful and complete picture of the current situation to share with other public safety and government officials.

The process has gotten faster and more streamlined in recent years as applications like GIS and WebEOC have come into widespread use, allowing emergency managers to create dashboards and reports that put crucial information at their fingertips. What still creates inefficiencies in the current system is that some information is relayed by phone or email, reports are often pushed out only once every operational period, and the reach of the gathered information is limited.

With FirstNet now deploying nationwide, the ability to gather and disseminate information at the EOC will reach the next level. When public safety personnel out in the field have a strong wireless connection that is guaranteed through network priority and preemption, the crucial work of emergency managers will become faster and more efficient.

What is FirstNet

FirstNet is a dedicated high-speed wireless network for public safety, being built by AT&T in a public-private partnership with the First Responder Network Authority. The service is available now to public safety subscribers over AT&T’s existing nationwide multi-band network, including priority and preemption. And there are plans for additional capacity, tower sites, and functionality in the near term.

Congress established the First Responder Network Authority in 2012, and after we combined forces with AT&T in March 2017, the First Responder Network Authority and AT&T issued customized plans to each U.S. state and territory. These plans provided governors with the choice to deploy their own radio access network or to accept the FirstNet plan to build and operate the network. By early 2018, every governor had chosen to accept the FirstNet plan, meaning that the network will be deployed faster and will be truly interoperable and nationwide.

Right now, subscribers to FirstNet have first priority and the ability to ruthlessly preempt all other network traffic. This means that emergency managers will have access to a network that connects to life-saving data when they need it most. Even services that require high speeds and greater bandwidth, like video streaming, will be available to first responders when the general public nearby is unable to access the Internet due to heavy use and congestion.

FirstNet will also expand broadband coverage, especially in rural areas, so that responders can use mobile devices in areas once limited by poor access or reception. Over the next five years, AT&T will be deploying FirstNet’s dedicated band of spectrum and is investing heavily in expanding the network.

The term “FirstNet” refers to the network and wireless service being deployed and managed by AT&T for the benefit of public safety users. The “First Responder Network Authority” is the government entity within the partnership. Our role is to oversee the contract with AT&T and be public safety’s voice as we advocate for every aspect of the network’s deployment and development.

How FirstNet will change emergency management

Imagine a snow storm is moving into my hometown of Atlanta, an area that does not frequently deal with severe winter weather. The temperature is dropping, and the heavy snow and high winds have caught most residents by surprise. The EOC is actively gathering the latest information on the path of the storm and the damage it is doing as it settles over the sprawling city and its suburbs.

With limited salt trucks and plows at the city’s disposal, and drivers unprepared for slick roads, accidents are occurring at an alarming rate and many roads are blocked. Power lines are coming down in the storm, cutting off heat and electricity to thousands of residents.

With FirstNet, the EOC could bring up live images from traffic cameras throughout the city and view footage from drones and from the vehicle and body cameras of police, fire, and EMS personnel to get a clear, real-time picture of the situation on various roads and in communities. The EOC could also track the path of salt trucks and plows as they report on their street-clearing efforts through the transportation department.

With all of this information streaming into the EOC, emergency managers can create dashboards that show real-time traffic conditions, power outages, and the latest weather forecasts and send that information back into the field. As the EOC begins to open shelters, they can instantly share that information, too.

That means police, fire, EMS, and emergency managers in the field can use mobile devices running over FirstNet to see each of the dashboards and have the latest information on cleared and blocked roads and the path of the storm. They can view neighborhoods impacted by power outages and can track the houses where they have checked on the status of residents and can see where the closest shelter is available for people who need a warm place to go.

All of this leads to more efficient situational awareness and more effective response.

Fostering innovation driven by public safety

As we have done since our creation, the First Responder Network Authority is actively engaging public safety nationwide. FirstNet continues to learn how emergency managers use data and how they share that data with other first responders. We are also looking at how emergency managers can use advanced technologies to address unique challenges and better serve their communities.

The First Responder Network Authority has designed and built a state-of-the-art Innovation and Test lab to validate and test applications, devices, and tools and is working with partners at National Institute of Science and Technology’s Public safety Communications Research Division to bring the brightest minds in technology to addressing public safety’s most complex needs.

Our Public Safety Advocacy team works hand-in-hand with our Technology and Innovation team to bring the feedback of practitioners into the development of applications and tools that will run on the network. The goal of both teams is to accelerate the transition of commercial-focused technology for the benefit of public safety users and inspire and nurture a vibrant technology and applications developer community.

The FirstNet Applications Store will provide public safety one place to find tools to help them do their jobs better. New apps have the potential to provide a needed link between the information held by the EOC and the first responder in the field and from first responder back to the EOC.

I can imagine an app that allows first responders to access a list of vaccination locations in the event of a public health crisis. The responding firefighter, paramedic, or police officer could use the app to map the location of the closest health facility and then use the app to report back on the number of people they have transported or directed to that location. That feedback would help the EOC anticipate the number of people who will access each location and better manage personnel and supplies.

How emergency managers can shape FirstNet

Want to get involved? Have an idea to share or a problem FirstNet may be able to solve? The First Responder Network Authority is actively engaging with associations like IAEM and will be at your regional and working group meetings and annual conferences. Agencies can also request a meeting through their respective Regional Lead, found on the contact sheet posted on our website.

Public safety input has guided our efforts thus far and has been key to our success. We will continue to rely on public safety to shape the network and the tools and devices that run on it.

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