This is the second in a blog series that will explore the FirstNet Authority Roadmap domains. You can also learn about: the Core, Situational Awareness, Voice Communications, Secure Information Exchange, and User Experience. Download the full Roadmap at firstnet.gov/Roadmap.
Many of us remember off-key renditions of America the Beautiful from when we were in school, singing about purple mountain majesties, feet beating across the wilderness, and amber waves of grain. Our collective vision of America is one that is vast and varied: from soaring skyscrapers, to pastoral farms, to soaring mountain ranges. The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) envisions a public safety network that reaches across that landscape, there for public safety personnel whenever and wherever they need it most.
Two years into a five year buildout, AT&T has said it has completed 75% of its Band 14 nationwide coverage target. In the last few months, we have celebrated FirstNet towers going up in North Dakota, New Hampshire, and Louisiana. As the network’s reach grows, the FirstNet Authority continues to oversee AT&T’s work and delivery on the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network contract and listen to public safety’s feedback about what they need to do their jobs more effectively.
The FirstNet Authority Roadmap is designed to guide the growth, evolution, and advancement of the FirstNet network. Developed with input from public safety, industry, government, and our network contractor, AT&T, the Roadmap provides a view of public safety’s operational needs and technology trends for mobile broadband communications over the next five years.
While the FirstNet Core already separates public safety traffic from commercial traffic, the inclusion of coverage and capacity as a Roadmap domain will help to ensure FirstNet network presence within any given geography, with sufficient capacity for public safety to perform its duties whether they are serving communities that are urban, rural, or something in between.
Listening to public safety: Identifying and expanding the coverage and capacity domain
Access to mobile broadband with reliable, dependable, and consistent coverage and sufficient capacity can fundamentally change how first responders communicate. The Coverage and Capacity Roadmap domain was developed with significant input from the public safety community.
To develop the Roadmap, the FirstNet Authority discussed this topic with nearly 9,000 public safety representatives from 49 states between April and June of 2019. From those meetings, three Roadmap priorities were identified for coverage and capacity. These priorities will be developed into a series of initiatives that will drive the FirstNet Authority’s programs, activities, and investments. The current priorities are:
- Increase outdoor and indoor coverage, particularly Band 14, at locations deemed to be public safety priorities.
- Advocate for changes in policies, codes, and standards to facilitate in-building coverage enhancements.
- Grow and enhance the deployables fleet considering varying operational needs, staging locations, and technology options.
For a rural area nurse in emergency aviation like Tabitha Smithers, Volunteer Paramedic, Goochland County Fire and EMS, reliable communication is vital wherever she is. Tabitha requires consistent access to medical information, dispatch details, and weather predications to keep her team updated with the most critical information and in turn, her patients’ safe. She explains, “I think it’s super crucial that we do have that ability to communicate, because not having the ability to communicate not only affects patient care, but it affects the safety of those that are involved, and it also affects the ability for our providers to be efficient in their care. When you have lots of hurdles to go over, an EMS situation can be very dynamic in itself, and so, efficiency, having access to resources – it is all beneficial to not only the providers, but to the patients.”
A focus on expanding coverage and capacity can make daily operations easier for responders. Patrol Lieutenant Jim Wheaton of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office said, “In Washington County, we have a large portion of our county, which is mountain ranges and forestry and there can be some gaps in communication. What FirstNet does for us is gives us the ability to stay connected.”
Network buildout can be particularly valuable for tribal first responders, who are often based in rural areas in need of additional coverage. “Coverage and capacity are king when looking at tribal operational needs,” said Adam Geisler, FirstNet Authority Senior Public Safety Advisor, a founding member of the Inter-Tribal Long-Term Recovery Foundation who led the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians through four federally-declared disasters. “Access to deployables, rapid deployment kits, and other devices have made connectivity for rural tribes and their responders a reality. FirstNet and the cadre of solutions that the partnership with AT&T has brought forward to support Indian Country Operations is a game changer for many tribes.”
Since our discussions leading up to the Roadmap, the FirstNet Authority has continued to engage with public safety during hundreds of individual engagements, workshops, and summits. From October 2019 to February 2020, the PSA team conducted 534 engagements and of those, nearly 74 percent (394 engagements) addressed Coverage and Capacity in some form.
The FirstNet Authority uses these outreach efforts to understand what innovations responders prioritize. For example, in-building support was identified as a key need, with nearly all public safety respondents noting that more than half of their work time is being spent indoors and nearly 50% of those users identifying that they consider their in-building operations to be mission critical. The FirstNet Authority shares such outreach insights with industry leaders, so that future public safety communications solutions fit operational needs.
Responding to public safety needs: Investing in deployables
Many of these engagements revealed that deployables were a high-impact tool for public safety. In 2019, FirstNet supported more than 450 deployable operations for planned and emergency events. Some recent FirstNet SatCOLT uses included: helping Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue coordinate their response efforts during the Miles Fire, assisting the Citizen Potawatomi Nation to deliver first aid to a crowd of 34,000 people at the FireLake Fireflight Balloon Festival, sustaining communications for responders and National Guard members aiding in Hurricane Michael recovery efforts, and supporting a simulated cyberattack exercise. FirstNet Flying COWs helped Santa Clara County Sheriff Search and Rescue stay connected in a remote, mountainous region that ordinarily experienced coverage and capacity gaps. The latest addition to the fleet is FirstNet One, an aerostat or blimp, which offers extended coverage during major events or disasters.
Through their feedback and repeated requests for deployables, public safety showed the FirstNet Authority that enhancing the deployable fleet will improve accessibility and effectiveness for emergency operations. With this feedback, the FirstNet Authority Board gave the green light to pursue its first investment: expanding the FirstNet fleet of deployables to enhance network coverage and capacity for public safety during emergencies and events.
For public safety, by public safety
The FirstNet Authority Roadmap belongs to public safety. It was guided by feedback from responders across the country and will evolve with their continued input. If you have input on targeted outcomes for the Roadmap or public safety innovations to help you and your agency’s operations, reach out to your Public Safety Advisor to schedule a meeting or learn how to engage with the FirstNet Authority.
For more information on the Coverage and Capacity domain, including key technology areas, and its relation to the other five Roadmap domains, visit www.firstnet.gov/roadmap.