Ken Nesemeier, Administrative Lieutenant, Stephenson County Sheriff’s Office, has adopted FirstNet to help keep his county safe.

Jan 24 2023

FirstNet Expansion Makes a Difference for State and Local Public Safety Agencies

A large number of networking devices can make use of the dedicated first responder spectrum.

Recently, a bomb threat in rural Stephenson County, Ill., 120 miles northwest of Chicago, tested the reach of the state’s STARCOM21 two-way radio network. Starcom21 is a statewide network for government users run by Motorola. Stephenson County has many widely dispersed factories and other facilities where wireless communication can be a challenge.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, it stays on signal,” says Ken Nesemeier, administrative lieutenant in the Stephenson County Sheriff’s Office. “But there’s always that one time that causes you to make some changes.”

In the case of Stephenson County, which shares a border with Wisconsin and spans 565 square miles, change has included adopting FirstNet wireless service and solutions to bolster its existing radio communications. With FirstNet, the Federal First Responder Network, established by Congress in 2012 and dedicated to public safety, Stephenson County enjoys reliable wireless communication in even the most remote areas.

“When our STARCOM radios sense a lack of coverage, they’ll search out our FirstNet devices to continue service,” Nesemeier says. “Now we have better coverage in areas that lacked it.”

“Public safety agencies had been using wireless networks before, but FirstNet was created to be a more reliable network they can trust, especially as they become more dependent on broadband to exchange information,” says Brian Hobson, senior director in the FirstNet Authority’s roadmap development division. “We’re on the cusp of more mission-critical services, like push-to-talk services and video. They’ll always be able to rely on FirstNet for traditional land mobile radio systems, but increasingly, first responders need richer ways to communicate.”

And gradually, state and local agencies have embraced new solutions so they can tap into FirstNet under varying conditions.

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While FirstNet, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, was founded a decade ago, the network didn’t start taking shape until 2017, when AT&T won the contract to build it using a chunk of wireless bandwidth in the 700-megahertz spectrum (band 14). In the years since, AT&T has been adding purpose-built FirstNet cell sites throughout the country, such as the 1,500 in Illinois, over which FirstNet-certified wireless devices enjoy priority access and service.

Stephenson County uses Cradlepoint IBR900 wireless routers installed in patrol cars to give officers enhanced FirstNet access. They use FirstNet-enabled Samsung Galaxy S20 smartphones or ruggedized flip phones to share information, and if their Motorola SmartConnect STARCOM radios lose coverage, they automatically connect to FirstNet via the Cradlepoint routers.

“FirstNet, combined with the Cradlepoint NetCloud service, has been a big timesaver,” Nesemeier says. “New Cradlepoint routers are automatically programmed by NetCloud once they’re activated, and any updates are only a few clicks away.”

For investigators and other administrators not normally in squad cars, Stephenson County uses Netgear Nighthawk MR1100 mobile routers attached to mobile PCs with serial cables, allowing access to a wider variety of applications. It’s a trend FirstNet executives see increasing across compatible solutions.

“More agencies are using FirstNet devices for data-rich applications, such as computer-aided dispatch and record management systems,” Hobson says. “And with more streaming video, especially from fixed cameras used to get a view of what’s going on, that trend is only going to grow.”

DIVE DEEPER: Is FirstNet actually worth it? State and local agencies detail why.

FirstNet's Role in Responding to the Pandemic

By October 2022, FirstNet had reached over 23,000 public safety agencies on the network. Ford County, Kan., added its name to the list in 2020 when pandemic lockdowns led to an overload of the area’s wireless networks.

“As soon as stay-at-home orders cleared out schools and businesses, the networks were overwhelmed, and it impacted our ability to make simple calls,” says Elliot Linke, the county’s director of emergency communications.

Initially, Linke resorted to Wireless Priority Service, a federal program that gives authorized users special access to make cellular calls. “I ended up using WPS just to call dispatch, which is unheard of,” he says.

The next day, as the National Guard showed up in Ford County in response to COVID-19 and needed its own communications setup, FirstNet began delivering phones and devices to get fire and EMS workers — and guard members themselves — online. “Overnight, we had phones, modems, all sorts of technology that we deployed as rapidly as possible,” Linke says.

Like Stephenson County, Ford County installed Cradlepoint routers in a variety of vehicles — police cars, ambulances and some fire trucks. “We’re right around 90 modems deployed now, and we’ll probably expand that,” Linke says.

In ambulances, Ford County EMS is able to transmit electrocardiogram data from patients to hospitals over FirstNet so doctors are better prepared when an ambulance arrives. Elsewhere in the field, Ford County has begun transmitting video footage from its DJI drones over FirstNet to give first responders better situational awareness during large fires.

More recently, Ford County has taken advantage of a new FirstNet solution to enhance in-building coverage, the Cell Booster Pro. “It’s plug-and-play, kind of like your router at home, and works on band 14 to give users the full suite of FirstNet capabilities, like quality of service, priority and pre-emption,” says Hobson. “When users are in government buildings or back in their headquarters, they don’t have to switch back and forth between FirstNet and Wi-Fi.”

“We’ve got 10 of the devices, and we’re installing them in locations like the county jail, the sheriff’s office and the fire department,” Linke says. “They cover 15,000 square feet each, and in our experience, that’s probably an understatement. The difference is immediate and profound.”

How State and Local Governments Are Supporting 911

Another growing use of FirstNet 911 services. Stephenson County operates a mobile 911 center where it plans to install FirstNet-enabled mobile routers to ensure emergency calls always get through to operators.

In Tennessee, the state’s Emergency Communications Board has integrated FirstNet with its wired AT&T Emergency Services Internet protocol network (ESInet), which supports Next Generation 911 (NG911) in the state. In this way, FirstNet acts as a backup to ensure crisis calls are always routed to local call centers.

“The FirstNet solution uses wireless Cradlepoint modems to provide a redundant path for 911 calls to 911 call centers,” says Curtis Sutton, executive director of the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board. “In the event of an accidental fiber cut or some other outage, FirstNet allows the 911 call center to maintain connectivity to answer 911 calls.”

Going forward, Hobson notes, FirstNet is working to support “z-axis” location services over its network, adding a third dimension to NG911 positioning data. “When you get a call, you can know more accurately what floor of a building you need to be on,” he says. “It’s been a big request, especially where enhanced 911 is a goal.”

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Photography by Bob Stefko

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