Episode 62 | Discussing the Future of Public Safety Communications with Board Chair Benjamin
Ed Parkinson, CEO, First Responder Network Authority
Stephen Benjamin, FirstNet Authority Board Chair and Former Mayor of City of Columbia, South Carolina
Narrator: You're listening to Public Safety First, a podcast to help you learn about the First Responder Network Authority and how you can be part of the future of public safety technology.
And now, your host.
Ed Parkinson: Welcome to the Public Safety First podcast. I'm Ed Parkinson, the CEO of the First Responder Network Authority. Today, I'm honored to be joined by our guest, the FirstNet Authority Board Chair, Stephen Benjamin. Steve has had a long career serving the public. From 2010 until January of 2022, he was the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, the second largest city in the state and the state capital. Under his leadership, the city saw investments in infrastructure, public safety, schools, and the local economy. He helped the city navigate through historic floods, hurricanes and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. I'm delighted to have you here today, Steve, to share your thoughts on FirstNet and the future of public safety. So, welcome.
Steve Benjamin: Hey Ed, thank you so much for having me. I've been looking forward to this.
Ed Parkinson: Fabulous. Well, we were thrilled when it was announced that you were going to be appointed chair of the FirstNet Authority Board in October of last year . Could you tell us a little bit more about your background, where you came from and what drew you to the FirstNet mission?
Steve Benjamin: Oh, wow, you know, I'm a New Yorker by birth, came back to my family roots in South Carolina as an undergraduate at the University of South Carolina. Matriculated there in 1987 and been on this wonderful American journey. I finished undergrad and law school at the University of South Carolina and began a great career that's crisscrossed the lines of the public sector and private sector for the last two-and-a-half decades. I practiced law. I worked for two Fortune 500 companies, and then I had the wonderful opportunity under former Governor Jim Hodges to join his cabinet as the director of the state's second largest law enforcement agency, the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.
It was my first real exposure to actually working in and around every day with the men and women of law enforcement, and it completely changed my life. It was one of the most fantastic experiences that I've ever had. Literally a week after I left that that position serving the governor for three years, the terrorist attacks on 9/11 began to completely reshape the trajectory of geopolitical politics and certainly law enforcement and public safety in this country. I've been closely attuned to all those issues ever since then and deeply committed to public safety and the men and women in law enforcement as manifested during my years as mayor of Columbia, as well.
But I'm a city boy turned country boy; public sector citizen, now back as a private sector citizen and enjoying the opportunity to continue to serve the people and the communities that I love.
Ed Parkinson: Well, you're a brave man putting the year you matriculated out there. You've got to be careful. That'll get ya.
Steve Benjamin: The gray, the gray hairs have taken over my head, Ed, so I can't pretend. I can't pretend to be young anymore, so I've just given up on it.
Ed Parkinson: Young at heart, right? Well, you mentioned 9/11. And as you know, that was the catalyst which began FirstNet. And on February 22nd, we celebrated 10 years since Congress passed the legislation that created FirstNet and the FirstNet Authority. And it's remarkable, I think when you think about in 2012, when the FirstNet legislation passed, you know, the iPhone had only really been around since 2007, and that was the catalyst to the smartphone ecosystem, right, of which we all enjoy today. But even as smartphone usage was increasing in the United States, public safety didn't have that mission ready, mission critical broadband connection that they needed to take advantage of this new technology. And frankly, in some ways, public safety was left behind as those of us in the commercial, public world, were reaping the benefits of this. So, now that FirstNet's here and offering that reliable and secure connection, how have you seen this new marketplace open up and help with public safety and their mission?
Steve Benjamin: Well, it's so exciting because public safety is unique. I'm going to come back to that. What we saw, what you just laid out for us very, very clearly is so often we have 19th century infrastructure, 20th century solutions to address the infrastructure, but then we have 21st century technology that should make all of this better and easier and as a result, make our communities safer. So, you can't have a great city, I tell my citizens in Columbia this for the last 12 years, you can't have a great country if you don't first have safe communities, and the men and women who dedicate themselves every single day to keeping us safe ought to have every possible tool at their disposal to keep themselves safe and to keep us safe. So, the fact that you had these wonderful, commercially available tools that were not yet available on a grand scale to public safety, I think begs reason in so many different levels. So, the establishment of FirstNet and the dedication of real resources and wonderfully established public private partnerships that you and the amazing team and all my great predecessors have been able to dedicate to building out this wonderful, resilient, robust system over the last decade — it's downright exciting.
And you know, technology ought to be a real force multiplier, in the words of the late General Powell. And this is a classic example of how, in fact, if we use technology very effectively and efficiently and we make sure that all of our folks, whether you're an urban, suburban, or rural environments, have access to it, then we can certainly make sure our men and women come home safely every single night and that they are able to take care of us every single day as they sworn at great cost and great risk to do so every day. So, I am incredibly excited.
When I first joined the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardons, gosh, 23 years ago. I mean, the level of technology that's now available to the men and women who lead our Columbia Police Department, I mean, it's just a whole different world. So, I think we have to continue to dedicate ourselves to make sure that we get better, that we get smarter, that we have more resources available and that we continue to grow our mission.
I'm excited about what FirstNet has become over these last 10 years, and hopefully we'll continue to aggressively meet the needs of the men and women who rely on us and we’ll watch our mission become deeper and broader and grow.
Ed Parkinson: So, that's a great caveat to the next phase, right, which is we've had an incredible success up to this point. You think of just the numbers, a little over three million connections, knocking on the door of 20,000 agencies on the FirstNet system, 190 applications, over 300 different devices. All those numbers were zero a few years ago, and that's terrific where we are now. But what about the future? What are you excited to get working on for public safety and the network looking forward?
Steve Benjamin: The reality is that the world is changing so rapidly around us. The amount of wet weather events and tornadoes and forest fires, I mean, we're watching the pace of natural disasters become downright overwhelming. It's important to me that we continue to build a more resilient and redundant system that continues to not only meet the needs of our communities in urban, suburban, and rural areas across the 50 states and in many territories, but that we also continue to become more and more flexible. You know, the ability for FirstNet to stand up operations when an act of nature and act of God has completely decimated all legitimate 21st century infrastructure in the area. And because of the investments that we've made, the technology that we're leveraging and the men and women who deploy it every single day, we're able, pretty rapidly, to stand up a communication system that allows people to have some hope for the very next day. So, it's us continuing to invest in technology that continues to be more flexible, more resilient, more redundant, and more robust is what I hope that my tenure on the board allows me and our colleagues to make sure that we empower you and the team and all the men and women who serve FirstNet to continue to meet the needs of our first responders.
Ed Parkinson: I appreciate that, and it's a fascinating time here at the beginning of the year. Looking forward, what we're looking to accomplish and how we want to try and bring this robust resiliency that you mentioned to public safety. And I think it's certainly going to, again, further differentiate the FirstNet system from other commercial networks that are out there in a way that public safety know they can trust and trust is a hugely important thing, is it not? I mean, you've been an elected official, you've served with law enforcement practitioners. The trust is central to ensuring that, you know, folks can rely on us. And I think that's something that I know you and I have talked a lot about. How do we make sure that we show people that this is something they really can believe in?
Steve Benjamin: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. It's one thing to tell people, it's another thing to show them, and we all certainly pay attention to what people do, and I think the wonderful thing about FirstNet is the proof is in the pudding. We’ve got a good track record of delivering for public safety. And now we're going to have to continue to grow that mission as, again, as the world becomes that much more challenging.
The last few years have been so difficult and tough for law enforcement. I mean, again, it's one thing to put on the uniform every single day and leave your family and work your tail off to provide for them, put a roof over their heads, put food on the table, make sure that your children have a chance to live up to their God-given potential every single day. It's already tough. It's that much tougher when you're dealing with the greatest pandemic since 1918, the greatest economic disruption many of us have seen since maybe the Great Depression, and certainly all the social unrest that we've seen after the death of George Floyd and others in this country. I can't imagine what those men and women on the frontline are having to deal with every single day because I often have to tell folks that, you know, we're not talking about robots in uniform here, we're talking about human beings who have dedicated their lives to making sure that we all remain safe.
And it's up to us to make sure that we continue to listen to the men and women on the frontline and that we continue to equip ourselves to make sure that they have what they need. And that's what I'm going to do over these next several years, what my grandmother always reminded me to do. She said that God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason. You're supposed to listen twice as much as you talk. So, we're going to listen, continue listening to public safety, listening to our first responders and continue to grow FirstNet according to their needs over the next several years, and I'm so excited about it.
Ed Parkinson: Well, I really appreciate that, Steve, you know, I've really enjoyed working with you just over this short few months and looking forward to the future. I know that the organization and the program is in really good hands under your stewardship and just really appreciate you taking the time. You're a busy man and thank you so much for not only being here today but also being part of the FirstNet family and taking us forward. It's going to be an exciting 2022 and beyond.
Steve Benjamin: Definitely, we’ll do some great things together. That's my hope. Thank you, Ed.
Ed Parkinson: Thanks, Steve.
Narrator: Thanks for listening today. We're excited to have you join our podcast community. Make sure to subscribe on iTunes, SoundCloud, and YouTube. You can learn more about the First Responder Network Authority at FirstNet.gov and learn about FirstNet products and services at FirstNet.com.