The future of public safety in America is intrinsically inked with two words that you may not associate with police, fire and EMS: innovation and investment. But these two words must be at the heart of the business of public safety in the very near future.

For years, first responders have been pleading with lawmakers, regulatory bodies, and decision-makers to tackle the problem of interoperability. And, while interoperability means many things to many people, the one thing that should be apparent by now is the strategy of a massive system of federal and state grants has not produced this illusive network. For a nationwide wireless broadband network to effectively reach its potential, the demand for innovation and investment must become the driving force for the national public policy around the network.

Many figures abound in Washington regarding the number of dollars that have gone in to supporting public-safety communications. One report issued by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service notes that an estimated $13 billion has been spent on improving public-safety communications since 2001. About $4 billion of that has been directed specifically to provide interoperability. The truth of the matter is that those funds have not created the nationwide network that they sought to develop.

Plainly speaking, the public-policy goal should not be to subsidize the cost of equipment. The public-policy goal must be to spark innovation in this space, catalyze competition and seek the kind of creative American ingenuity born in Silicon Valley and backed by Wall Street. If fidelity to today’s first responders is at the heart of the billions spent yesterday, than fidelity to the future of this nation’s public safety officials lies in research and development of today for the future.

It is no secret that LTE offers a significant cost-saving potential. But that potential will not be realized unless the equation is changed. It is up to policymakers to create the right conditions for a plethora of competitive corporations to enter this market. That can happen quickly, because the quality of service that public safety requires, especially with mission-critical voice over LTE, is what consumers will be demanding.

As a commercial customer, I want better call quality, higher throughput, and latency requirements that make today’s networks look like an early 90’s movie. If public safety and policymakers come together on mission-critical LTE standards development and device R&D, first responders will get what they need faster from a larger market, and commercial customers will have dynamic options that open them to new boundaries. This kind of strategic investment is how economies of scale can be built.

But there is something else that public safety should be advocating for: capital investment. The proposed public-safety corporation, no matter what shape it ends up taking, will stand able to simultaneously serve first-responder needs and commercial innovation. The most beneficial outcome for all Americans is a network that protects life and property and serves the commercial interest of the people.

If the destiny of the work force, commerce, and intellect is digital, the absence of wireless broadband defers the dreams of current and future generations. Public safety has the opportunity to serve itself and all Americans by creating a network through the proposed public-safety corporation to achieve multiple goals. Expanding the base from approximately 3 million first-responder subscribers to a wholesale model targeting energy, education, healthcare, and other national purposes can beget significant private-sector capital investment. The return on revenue is near to certain, significant in quantity and consistent over time, making it ripe for the backing of savvy financiers.

It is in the best interest of public safety to fund itself; it is in the best interest of the American taxpayer for public safety to do just that with cost-effective equipment; and it is in the best interest of those from Wall Street to Silicon Valley to invest in a network that can reach all Americans with the kind of innovation that serves public safety’s needs first while driving American consumer dynamism.

The question is: How do you support public safety? I contend that my friends in police, fire, and EMS are best served by never needing to worry if their department can afford to buy new handsets. They are best served when the network does what it is supposed to do — no questions asked. Making the right investments now can finally balance the equation in favor of first responders.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

Alex Kreilein served as technology policy counsel and legislative assistant to former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.-36). His work advanced policies in public-safety communications including: interoperability, spectrum management, next-generation 911, research and development, and oversight of existing grant programs at the departments Homeland Security, Justice and Commerce. Prior to working for Harman, Kreilein worked as a consultant at a major technology integrator.