In late July, the Federal Communications Commission announced its decision regarding the creation of a nationwide wireless broadband network for public safety to be included as part of the 700 MHz auction. The new rules mandate the winner of the 700 MHz D Block auction to work with the public-safety community to build a nationwide, broadband and interoperable network for first responders. The cornerstone of this network would be a public/private partnership: The commercial licensee would fund the network build, and public safety would retain control over the network.

This development is a major milestone for the public-safety community as we move closer to gaining access to the state-of-the-art communications tools needed for emergency response. Such a network will provide a national platform built to public safety's stringent specifications, including a single standard to facilitate interoperability; a hardened backbone to withstand natural hazards such as hurricanes, earthquakes and floods; and satellite backup.

The promise of this network's capabilities is amazing. For example, first responders will be able to access floor plans, view aerial videos sent from hovering helicopters, send pictures back to the command post and instantly communicate with other responding agencies at the scene of a disaster. First responders in the field with these capabilities will have access to critical information so that the best decisions can be made in the least amount of time to save lives — something that is dramatically missing today.

Large-scale disasters have opened many eyes to the communications struggles of those charged with protecting our communities, prompting numerous proposals to build a communications network that meets first responders' needs. The lack of progress has not been due to lack of interest, but lack of money. Local, state and federal funding constraints have made it unrealistic for the public sector to finance a national communications network for public safety with the necessary geographic coverage and technical capabilities.

Devising a solution to this funding challenge was not easy. Tapping into the private sector made sense, but public safety's stringent specifications could not be compromised. Cyren Call initiated the national conversation about a public/private partnership, and the issue has evolved over the last year and a half. There have been many stops and starts, but public safety remained adamant that a new paradigm of harnessing the financial strength of the commercial sector in a way that met public safety's needs was the only realistic solution.

We are where we are today because some public-safety leaders worked tirelessly to make sure the policy-makers in Washington, D.C., did what was right. There are others, but Harlin McEwen of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and National Sheriffs' Association, Alan Caldwell of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and Robert Gurss of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials stand out from the crowd and certainly deserve our thanks.

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin and the other commissioners also need to be commended. While the headlines surrounding the 700 MHz spectrum auction rules have focused on Google and Verizon, open access and wholesaling, these decision-makers kept true to the public interest by making sure they took this last viable opportunity to give first responders the tools we need to do our jobs efficiently and safely. Also at the FCC, Derek Poarch, the new chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, deserves praise for making certain that the needs of public safety were understood and addressed.

Though much has been accomplished, much lies ahead. We have earned the right to start the hard work — but I'm willing to savor this moment for now.


Charles Werner is chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department, chair of the Virginia Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee and a member of the SAFECOM executive committee.