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Public safety needs a pitcher and catcher: NG911 and FirstNet

Public safety needs a pitcher and catcher: NG911 and FirstNet
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Last month, FirstNet submitted its annual report to Congress and reported three major milestones. First, a competitive contract award for the network to AT&T; second, completion of an engagement process with all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories “opting-in,” signifying their readiness to begin implementation; and third, establishment of the commercial ecosystem for first responder end user devices and applications intended to bring radical improvements in emergency response functions at consumer market prices.

Our nation’s first responders are amazing people who work selflessly to save lives and reduce risk in our neighborhoods. When it comes to the technology they use, they are appropriately demanding. Their communications must work all the time, every time. Communications are key to saving victim lives and first responder lives as they head into harm’s way. It’s natural, then, that first responders are risk-averse when it comes to technological change and, in most jurisdictions, this coupled with tight government budgets means that older technology is used well beyond an age that any of us would tolerate for consumer electronics.

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Public safety communications and computer systems often are at the end of their product life cycles. They can be costly to maintain and their limited functions hinder optimal employment of police, fire, EMS and emergency communications personnel.

 

FirstNet’s annual report signifies good news on the horizon. Years of planning at the federal, state and local levels have placed us on the cusp of the greatest improvement to emergency response in decades. Two complementary programs — Next Generation 911 (NG911) and FirstNet — are reaching the implementation stage in “first mover” public safety departments. There are more than 10,000 jurisdictions, however, that will need to take steps to initiate their transition, and the very different governance structures in place for NG911 and FirstNet can confuse citizens and community leaders.

NG911, defined by Congress in 2006, will expand 911 capabilities from voice only to text, imaging, video, live streaming, automated sensor reports and a host of data-rich information flowing into 911 operations centers. This will greatly improve situational awareness for 911 staff when determining the location and nature of emergencies. Enhanced situational awareness will enable them to tailor response for the best possible outcome. It will give them better capability to handle the surge of reports that come from mass casualty events, to triage in real time, and to communicate lifesaving and casualty-reducing instructions using multimedia with victims. State and local NG911 initiatives are key to making this happen.

FirstNet, the first nationwide communications system for public safety, will connect first responders with multimedia content designed to improve their en-route and on-scene situational awareness, and their internal and external coordination as they address victim issues. In military parlance, FirstNet will be the “command and control” network for first responders. Just like military teams down range, first responders will be privy to a common operational picture, with real-time tracking of responder and victim locations with geo-spatial cues along the way, a “God’s eye view” from overhead cameras, around-the-corner status, drone and robotic augmentation, and “just-in-time” reference to procedures and protocols available for instant lookup. 

NG911 and FirstNet will provide the ability to transition from aging legacy systems, but one without the other will greatly reduce their value to dispatch and response. Having NG-911 without FirstNet would be like playing baseball with a great pitcher but no catcher. Even worse, FirstNet without NG911 would be like having an all-star catcher without someone to “throw the heat.”

The best use of FirstNet will come from multimedia, multisensor information provided to responders from the caller and sensors at the scene. NG911 will be the system to collect this, analyze the multiple inputs and send only helpful, “digestible” information to responders — we want FirstNet tools to augment their on-scene response and not distract them from tough tasks at hand. We need both the pitcher and the catcher, trained together, to get the most out of technological enhancements.

Unlike previous public safety communications systems, FirstNet will not require state or local government infrastructure investment, only monthly service, device and app costs similar to the consumer wireless marketplace. Communities will have discretion to add public safety communication products and services from other providers, which makes planning critical to ensure interoperability and affordability. Interoperability must include NG911, since local and regional governments will make implementation decisions for system infrastructure, maintenance and service fully independent of FirstNet national decisions.

Consumers pay for NG911 operations through fees added to phone bills, and those fees vary widely by state. We will want our NG911 leaders to be cost-efficient, with full transparency in the collection and application of funds.

State and local planners need to work this year to ensure that both FirstNet and NG911 transitions are funded for all public safety jurisdictions. People should demand from their elected officials and public safety leaders clear descriptions of their plans to attain these capabilities. A safer America is possible from these new technologies, but it will cost more in the long run and put lives at risk in the interim if we don’t move out smartly.

David G. Simpson, a retired rear admiral with the U.S. Navy, leads Pelorus Consulting Services, specializing in public safety, telecommunications and cyber security. He’s a visiting professor for Virginia Tech and was chief of the Federal Communications Commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau (2013 to 2017).