(Appeared in print as "Seeing the Big Picture")
In April 1995, Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed, killing 168 and injuring more than 680 others. It was the first event to highlight the big gaps in public-safety radio communications and real-time situational awareness so profound that information was passed by messengers moving from one end of the scene to the other, instead of over a radio.
Then 9/11 happened. The New York City police and fire departments couldn’t communicate with each other because they were on disparate radio systems. Overloaded commercial networks prevented public-safety and government agencies from broadcasting messages. In addition, data wasn’t available or shareable, such as building plans or personnel location inside and outside of the Twin Towers.
“Oklahoma City really showed our vulnerability as far as interoperability, and then we saw it again on 9/11,” said Bill Webb, executive director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute.
Public-safety agencies have lobbied the Federal Communications Commission and Congress ever since, asking for spectrum to build out a broadband network dedicated to first responders. After much debate, President Barack Obama in February signed into law legislation that reallocates the 700MHz D Block spectrum to public safety and provides $7billion in federal funding — mostly derived from the auction of other spectrum — to help pay for the build out of a public-safety LTE network.
“So when you take it back to 1996, we’ve fought a lot of battles on Capitol Hill to bring this to fruition,” Webb said. “To me, it is a monumental achievement. This was something big — really big — that happened for public safety.”
As part of the deal, public safety must return its T-Band spectrum (470–512 MHz in 13 of the largest markets) within 11 years. The law also calls for the establishment of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to oversee the network, including the creation of technical specifications to ensure interoperability.
What it really means, according to Webb, is that a backbone will be built that can support innovative technologies and applications from the private sector, which otherwise would be reluctant to invest the R&D money necessary to create public-safety-specific products.
“Now with the D Block, we have the means to develop state-of-the-art technology,” he said.
While law enforcement has shown excitement about the development, much of the fire service seems to be indifferent. Some believe that funding instead should be used for recruiting and retaining firefighters who have been laid off in droves during the economic downturn. Others question how they will be able to afford the technologies needed to take advantage of the network when they are short the funds needed to purchase the basics, like turnout gear and apparatus.
Fire chiefs who advocate for current commercial technologies to be made available to public safety argue the network is needed to provide better situational awareness. Among them is Jeff Johnson, CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association and former president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
“[But] the trepidation in T-Band jurisdictions drops when [chiefs] become aware that the federal government will pay for the wholesale move to new spectrum,” Johnson said.
Johnson understands fire-service leaders’ concerns, including the logistics involved with having to relinquish the T-Band. The concern is legitimate, because the LTE network will support data first and then later — likely much later — voice communications.
“This [network] will create the opportunity to have our public-safety radios on broadband, but I believe that is beyond the 10-year horizon,” he said. “Even then, I believe it will be a choice. [But] there is virtually no effect on your local public-safety radio network you are using today for the foreseeable future.”