Since the tragic events of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and 9/11, there has been a concentrated effort within the nation’s public safety community to enhance interoperability in equipment, response operations, and communication systems.
This movement has seen the active involvement of several federal bodies, including the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, FEMA’s Urban Search & Rescue program, the DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, FEMA National Incident Management System, and the US Department of Commerce’s FirstNet Authority.
The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) has been a significant supporter in these initiatives.
A key focus in this drive has been the effective utilization and coordination of the 4.9 GHz spectrum for emergency response communications.
However, this endeavor has encountered challenges, such as limited coordination between states and disciplines, leading to what some describe as a “Wild, Wild, West” scenario.
Further complications arise from entities aiming to preserve this dysfunctional state for personal gain, often under the guise of representing public safety interests.
FirstNet, the official national network for public safety, has been instrumental in countering these challenges.
Despite its early successes, FirstNet faces opposition from some groups and cellular carriers, who are accused of sowing confusion and misinformation about FirstNet’s role and effectiveness.
These critics claim that FirstNet is overly influenced by or is a pawn of AT&T, leading to a loss of control over public safety frequencies and inadequate attention to public safety’s concerns.
Contrary to these assertions, FirstNet boasts unique features that solidify its commitment to public safety.
It is the only provider in the wireless/cellular industry with an advisory group beyond its control, subject to independent federal oversight, and bound by the 1966 Freedom of Information Act.
Additionally, FirstNet has specific contractual obligations to support national public safety communications efforts.
The governance of FirstNet further reinforces its dedication to public safety needs.
The United States Secretary of Commerce oversees appointments to the FirstNet Board, which in turn selects representatives for its Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC).
This committee plays a crucial role in ensuring that FirstNet’s actions align with the needs of public safety officials and agencies.
The evolution of FirstNet represents a significant step in addressing the complex communication challenges faced by emergency responders.
Its establishment and ongoing development reflect a concerted effort to enhance interoperability, coordination, and efficiency in public safety communications.
However, the journey has not been without hurdles, including resistance from certain industry players and misconceptions about its operations and governance.
The commitment shown by FirstNet, backed by federal support and guided by a diverse advisory committee, underscores the importance of a unified approach to managing communication in emergency situations.
As FirstNet continues to grow and adapt, it remains a critical component in the broader objective of ensuring effective and coordinated emergency response across the United States.