Urgent Matters

PSAPs should be viewed as a prime FirstNet partner


The ability to push text, audio, pictures and videos to first responders will have limited value if the greatest source of real-time, relevant information—the public—can’t send its media to PSAPs.

There is no question that FirstNet will needs partners beyond traditional public-safety entities—law enforcement, fire and EMS—to make the vision of a self-sustaining nationwide broadband network for first responders a reality.

From an operational perspective, emergency response is not limited to traditional public safety—an “all hands on deck” attitude is needed during large-scale events. From an economic perspective, the case for partnering is even more compelling, because the $7 billion that Congress has earmarked for FirstNet is not enough money to build this network, much less pay to maintain it.

The list of potential partners is massive, including carriers, tower companies, utilities, transportation entities and critical-infrastructure groups, each of which could bring much-needed assets to the table that would help FirstNet deploy the network, as well as assets—infrastructure and, in some cases, potential users—that would bolster ongoing operations.

All of these partnership opportunities should be explored, but perhaps the most important partner that FirstNet has are the 6,000-plus public-safety answering points (PSAPs) across the country that make the 911 system work. This is especially true as PSAPs transition to next-generation 911 (NG-911), FirstNet board member Charles Dowd said last week during the “Future of Public Safety Broadband” webinar that was part of last week's IWCE virtual trade show (register to listen to this and four other information-packed webinars in the Auditorium).

“One of the goals of building and developing this network is being able to push information down to police officers at the local level in real time,” Dowd said. “We have next-generation 911 right over the horizon, coming almost at the same time that FirstNet is coming. So, the question is going to be: What is that going to look like, and how do we integrate the two?

“A key component to the success of FirstNet is going to be how well we integrate with next-generation 911.”

This makes a ton of sense. After all, the ability to push text, audio, pictures and videos to first responders will have limited value if the greatest source of real-time, relevant information—the public—can’t send its media to PSAPs.

Dowd highlighted the potential power of next-generation 911 by telling a story of an off-duty 911 operator texting an on-duty 911 acquaintance that she was on a bus with a man who had just pulled a gun out of his backpack. As good as that information was via text, having pictures and/or video to identify such a person would be even more valuable to law enforcement—and it would all be possible with next-generation 911.

Of course, one of the big barriers to next-generation 911 is funding; having the money to maintain staffing levels is a challenge for many PSAPs, so paying for major technological upgrades can seem like an impossible dream in some locations.

Like FirstNet, PSAPs do not have a dime to waste, which is yet another reason why they should make great partners for FirstNet. There are operational benefits, as well as potential deployment benefits to working together, as FirstNet officials have acknowledged recently.

To have next-generation 911 work as envisioned, a PSAP ideally would have multiple forms of broadband connectivity to the facility—e.g., fiber and microwave—and several days of backup power in a hardened structure that could withstand natural events such as hurricanes. Given this, wouldn’t it be logical to locate FirstNet LTE sites at every next-gen PSAP, sharing costs and leveraging the assets that both entities can bring to the table?

“It certainly would,” Dowd said.

This echoes the sentiment that FirstNet General Manager Bill D’Agostino expressed during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications during the recent LTE North America conference in Dallas.

“It’s one of the initiatives that we’re starting to look at, because there’s obviously a lot of federal dollars out for broadband development and all of these things,” D’Agostino said. “The more we can integrate and wrap our arms around the things that make sense … and leverage that, I think that could be a huge help for us.

“You know, we’ve got to stretch this $7 billion, and we’ve got to stretch it in creative ways. That’s one of the ways to do that without expending any more taxpayer money.”

Hopefully, this vision can become a reality, helping to accelerate the deployment of both the FirstNet system and next-generation 911, and allowing them to be developed along similar timelines—as they should be, because they clearly are complementary. After all, being able to push text, audio, pictures and videos to first responders via the FirstNet system will have limited value, if the greatest source of real-time, relevant information—the public—can’t send its media to 911.

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

Jim Bell (not verified)
on Dec 11, 2013

The FirstNet charter is in and of itself a significant undertaking. Focus will be essential to the challenges of technology, deployment, and cost. While functionally an end-to-end public safety communications continuum would make sense, activities beyond FirstNet's core mission are likely to become distractions. However, if the goal is producing more revenue producing partners, then the FirstNet will be caught in the conflict of compromising focus to achieve sustainability. This is not a reasonable way for a business venture to go forward.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.


Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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