The First Responder Network Authority

Talbot County’s (Maryland) first responders received a boost in their wireless communications with the addition of a purpose-built cell site. Photo taken on August 27, 2019.

 

“So, what’s FirstNet?” You may have heard this on a tradeshow floor. You may have overheard it in the locker room. You may have even asked it yourself. Set to the most simplistic of explanations, the First Responder Network Authority is an organization established by congress that oversees the implementation of the FirstNet communications network built with AT&T. What the FirstNet Authority is not is the provider of the service.  

I connected with Assistant Chief Harry Markley (ret.), and subject matter expert for FirstNet Law Enforcement. “We’re no more a vendor than the FBI is a vendor. We’re actually part of the federal government,” he says.

Harry MarkleyThe First Responder Network AuthorityHarry Markley is the law enforcement liaison for the FirstNet Authority. His experience includes over 31 years as a police officer, retiring from the Phoenix Police Department as chief of the patrol division. He’s been with the FirstNet Authority for about two years and has since produced a newsletter sharing news and information with law enforcement. I spoke with him mid-May.

The FirstNet network has been in operation for two years and, according to Markley, 99% of the U.S. population is covered with 12,000 public safety agencies. That’s breaks down to 1.3 million connections worldwide—a significant milestone for a network so young.

It’s this acceptance that keeps Markley optimistic and parallels the network’s advancement to the Apple iPhone. “The iPhone came out 11, 12 years ago. I remember when you looked at the phone you had about 50 apps on it…and we thought it was the most amazing thing in the world. Now, if you look at the iPhone today and the 100’s of thousands of apps, the capabilities of the camera—those are the leaps to be made.

I just think about where we will be in another 10 years. Just like the iPhone, what this network is going to be able to do and how it’s going to be used are going to be amazing. It’s going to have a significant impact on not just law enforcement but on public safety as a whole.”

AT&T won the FirstNet bid and are partnered together in a 25-year long contract. While the organizations aren’t responsible for the technical side, they’re comprised of teams to oversee various aspects (like confirming reported speeds) to make sure that the build deadlines are being met.

The other side of the First Responder Network Authority organization comprises of education: what FirstNet is, what Firstnet can do, what Firstnet can’t do, and whether or not FirstNet is even the correct choice based on circumstances, location and if the service is right for the agency at the time. With his experience of going from a heavily populated area in Phoenix to the middle of nowhere within Arizona, Markley is realistic and cuts to the point, “It might not be right for everybody. That’s part of my job. Talk to them, find out what their needs are. What their resources are. Where they are located on the planet and if this is the right service for them at this time.”

It starts with coverage. Put simply, without cellular coverage you can’t talk on your phone. Without cellular coverage you can’t use data. But that doesn’t mean that coverage can’t move where you need it. Should there be a need where there isn’t coverage—say, responding to a wildfire in the middle of nowhere—a fleet of deployable units can be sent to the location. You can even use a tethered drone with a ground-based power source to provide a temporary cellular tower.

What about the radio?

Consider the computer in the patrol vehicle. Consider your smartphone. Often cellular coverage for these devices can go where radio coverage hasn’t. “We’re not looking to replace mobile radios,” Markley says. He tells me a story from Arizona, where Phoenix, the fifth largest city in the U.S., is heavily populated – there are extremely rural areas. “Areas where our state police don’t have any radio coverage at all”, he says. Once they hit radio darkness, officers were flying blind with the closest back up an hour or more away. FirstNet built with AT&T were able to provide a solution to allow officers to use their mobile phones to communicate to dispatch through an LTE-LMR integration. One trooper was quoted, “Now I can do police work again.”

Markley goes around the country demonstrating the capabilities of FirstNet, by making a call from Florida to dispatch in Arizona in the midst of IACP 2019 as well as utilizing the new Push to Talk app to connect to California while in Guam.

Can I sign up?

Many officers inquire about 1) whether they qualify and 2) if they can sign up privately. Short answer: yes, if an officer wants to be on the network on their own—they can.

Oftentimes, many people consider public safety as only police, firefighters, and EMTs— but the FirstNet Authority includes so much more. “It’s not always sworn,” he says. “There are task forces that are made up of military and civilian and they do search and rescue for a sheriff department, or they’re a part of a drug task force where they aren’t actually a sworn law enforcement officer but they provide support.” Law enforcement agencies and officers alike can contact AT&T for more information on who qualifies for access on FirstNet.

The network is only in its infancy. “We’re so early on in this process that what we’ll look like even five years from now will be so much different than what it looks like now,” says Markley. “When you look at live streaming video, when you talk about being able to live stream dash cam video, body cam video, video cameras on the end of electronic weapons. The possibilities are endless.”

Find more information at FirstNet.gov/police.

By Jonathan Kozlowski | Officer.com

Benefiting From Crisis Lessons Learned

COMMENTARY | Elected and appointed officials must anticipate a broad range of possible catastrophes and put effective plans in place now to meet challenges like Covid-19 and future disasters.

From hurricanes to pandemics, all disasters share a common set of characteristics. They are sudden, unexpected, carry severe life-threatening consequences and won’t abate until there is a satisfactory resolution of the underlying situation.

The key to successfully navigating crisis is recognizing the six distinct phases of emotional reaction that come before, during and after a disaster. They start with the pre-disaster phase, when people are gripped with fear about what is to come; next is impact, as everybody juggles different emotions and begins to comprehend the damage toll; and then heroic, when people can act to address the immediate challenges they face. Subsequently, there is the honeymoon phase, when people feel optimistic about how things will work out, which is then followed by disillusionment as individuals confront the totality of the tasks ahead of them. Finally, there is reconstruction, where people come to grips with what they lost and accept the need and timetable for rebuilding.

Viewed through this prism, the re-emergence of Covid-19 and the resulting seesaw between openings and closings is understandable as optimism morphs into disillusionment. For government, that means calibrating its ongoing engagement accordingly.

As the city manager of Panama City, Florida, where Hurricane Michael made landfall in October 2018 as the first Category 5 storm to strike the U.S. since 1992 and the strongest storm to ever hit the Florida Panhandle—our community knows the evolution of people’s reactions well. To that end, the successful four-part template that guided our recovery can, with some necessary customization, can help communities across the country manage the impact of, and recovery from, the Covid-19 pandemic. The key elements of that template are:

Outline Specific Lines of Effort: There is no question that disasters are complex operating environments. Therefore, the first step is to develop a strategy aligned to each specific function of the recovery effort that is overseen and staffed by the professionals best suited to those tasks and articulate defined goals and success metrics. In response to Hurricane Michael, we identified safety and security, economy, key and vital infrastructure and quality of life as the key lines of effort. This format could serve as an effective coronavirus response framework. For example, communities could focus their coronavirus strategy around health and medical care/personnel, economic continuity, equipment supply chain, community changes, and education. Without this division of responsibilities, the enormity of the crisis leads to confusion of roles and an inability to achieve sustainable progress.

Communicate: There is no such thing as over​-​communicating in a disaster. Officials should communicate as often as possible to the widest possible breadth to both internal and external stakeholders through the crisis and its aftermath. Within government that means setting expectations for city employees, like first responders, involved in the response so that they can rise to the occasion. Externally, regular communication to the affected community will foster trust and help reduce anxiety and displace rumor and speculation. Harnessing every communications tool available and driving a reliable cadence of information will earn the trust of citizens that their leaders are acting decisively on their behalf.

Document Work and Accomplishments: The need to prove that work was accomplished through a workflow is crucial. Given the sums of direct and reimbursed federal assistance at stake, and the urgency of the situation, audit trails and transparency play a key role in demonstrating that the assistance was used properly. Moreover, this careful tracking makes it possible for communities to tangibly demonstrate the value the assistance provided.

Prepare Proactively: Simply put, the time to prepare is before the crisis arrives. Start with conducting a candid vulnerability assessment and then map each major threat to a specific plan of action. Once those are in place, holding tabletop drills that further identify areas of improvement will make the difference between a successful response and one that falls flat. Working through these exercises will help teams make necessary changes that will preserve life and infrastructure. This process also presents opportunities for government leaders to recognize the specific types of relief it can provide like waiving taxes and fees before the crisis occurs.

In Panama City, we are working to ​​become the premier city in the Florida Panhandle. We are doing that by developing a strong bond with our resilient and resolute community and marshaling all of our available government resources to set overall objectives. Never is this more important than in crisis recovery. No challenge is too large or complex, to keep us from fulfilling our duties, not even one as omnipresent as the Covid-19 pandemic.

​By ​Mark McQueen ​| Route 50

Mark McQueen ​is the ​c​ity ​manager of Panama City, FL., and a ​m​ajor ​g​eneral (retired), United States Army.