Aug 22 2022
Public Safety

Is FirstNet Actually Worth It: State & Local Agencies Detail Why

First responders share success stories from deployment of the dedicated broadband network.

The First Responder Network Authority recently released an annual report to Congress for 2021, titled “A Decade of Accomplishments,” revealing the rapid adoption by first responders of its namesake dedicated public safety network.

In fiscal year 2021, the FirstNet Authority reports, FirstNet adoption had spread to 18,500 public safety agencies, up from 2,500 in fiscal year 2018, its first year of widespread availability. Network adoption now spans all 50 states, five territories and the District of Columbia.

FirstNet, built by federal contractor AT&T, is a national high-speed wireless broadband network solely for use by first responders, including law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical personnel and others. Thanks to FirstNet’s rapid expansion in the past year, the public is now beginning to see specific local use cases of the network and its benefits to the public safety community.

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FirstNet Benefits Rural Areas Without Existing Infrastructure

Los Angeles–area cities participate in the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System, which coordinates public safety communications for 88 municipalities and unincorporated areas in Los Angeles County. In 2018, FirstNet integrated 76 LA-RICS sites across the county into its broadband network. The region finds particular value in the deployment of gear using FirstNet in the rural areas of the county.

Authorities harness the power of FirstNet through mobile FirstNet vehicles (called Satellite Cell on Light Trucks, or SatCOLTs) or mobile towers (called Cell on Wheels, or COWs) when public safety agencies respond to emergencies where there is little established infrastructure. As such, much of Southern California has relied on FirstNet to maintain communications while combating wildfires in what has been a dangerous year for them. The FirstNet Authority also touts the capabilities of tools to track the locations of individual firefighters who are responding to wildfires.

EXPLORE: How local governments are expanding interoperability to enhance emergency response.

In July, the Los Angeles Police Department invested further in FirstNet, issuing FirstNet-enabled Apple iPhone 13 Pro Max smartphones to its officers. The department also is outfitting each patrol car with Cradlepoint routers that support FirstNet access via Band 14, the dedicated spectrum for public safety communications.

Similarly, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department installed a Sierra Wireless router in each of its vehicles with FirstNet as its primary wireless network and T-Mobile as a backup network. The routers support LASD’s automated vehicle location system, which displays incident and vehicle locations along with vehicle status and other critical information.

FirstNet Communications Can Bypass Coverage Lapses in Crowds

Chris Stratmann, the section chief with the response operations group at AT&T, says the company has funded more than 90 SatCOLT vehicles across the country, according to a report from K2 Radio in Wyoming.

That revelation came from testimony to the Casper City Council in Wyoming as to the benefits of FirstNet to the Casper Police Department, which sent the trucks to assist gatherings around the solar eclipse in 2017 and a rally in 2022. When large crowds gather, as in those instances, devices overwhelm normal cell service. The SatCOLT is able to bypass such lapses in coverage with its dedicated bandwidth, supporting public safety response when required.

RELATED: How New York is investing in emergency wireless communication.

Casper Police Chief Keith McPheeters said his department hopes to buy a smaller version of the mobile FirstNet vehicle in the form of a trailer attachment to deploy at specific events. The trailer would cost roughly $70,000, substantially less than the $750,000 estimated cost of a full SatCOLT.

Mobile, High-Speed Communication in Real Time Saves Lives

In Texas, the Brazos County Sheriff’s Office has long been a patron of the Panasonic Toughbook mobile computers. Every sheriff’s office patrol vehicle carries one of the rugged laptops. The sheriff says it’s the office’s goal to give deputies the same capabilities in the field that they would have working on a computer at a desk in the office.

Panasonic recently released the Toughbook 40, which incorporates 4G and 5G modems that support FirstNet and has dual SIM cards for redundancy. Using FirstNet bandwidth, Brazos County sheriff’s deputies can speedily transmit large files, such as video and maps, from their patrol cars to headquarters, to an emergency operations center or to other vehicles through their Toughbooks. Officials can act quickly on real-time information thanks to robust FirstNet communications.

DIVE DEEPER: FirstNet Authority launches a virtual lab for public safety research and training.

Deputy Sheriff Josh Hearen shared with Panasonic the story of how one deputy monitored a storm from his vehicle in case a town required emergency assistance. Headquarters easily watched the deputy’s live feed over FirstNet’s Band 14.

“He didn’t have to relay a message or explain the damage,” Hearen said. “Command staff could see that and make their own assessment.”

This article is part of StateTech’s CITizen blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #StateLocalIT hashtag.


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