Since the first attempt to create a nationwide broadband network for public safety, the FCC has strived to strike a more precise balance between the interests of first responders and the private sector. Public safety has shown considerable flexibility on the requirements for this network while making certain it still is designed to meet the needs of first responders. They realize that this must be an opportunity that works for both sides or it will work for none. Some calibration must happen now, and the balance will occur once the winner of the auction and the Public-Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) negotiate a network-sharing agreement. As the FCC sorts through a final rulemaking, it's important to reflect on what will make this wireless broadband network desirable for use by first responders.

Public safety must have priority access encompassing real-time, automatic prioritization of their communications. First responders simply must have access to their communications capabilities in times of an emergency. If public-safety agencies cannot do their jobs, we're all at risk.

The partnership must ensure that public safety will have pre-emptive access to the shared network in times of emergency. Just as we pull over to allow emergency vehicles to pass, so too must we allow public safety pre-emptable use of this broadband network. This doesn't mean closing out commercial users. Considering the scope and technology available on a next-generation network, arrangements can be made to minimize disruption to other users of the network — the most recent draft of FCC rules for the shared network indicates this is possible.

Public-safety communications must be sufficiently robust to meet the reliability and performance requirements to protect life and property. Network specifications must include features such as hardening of transmission facilities and antenna towers to withstand harsh weather and disaster conditions, as well as backup power sufficient to maintain operations for extended periods of time.

A comprehensive solution for public safety must be available to first responders across the country. The lessons of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina teach us that public safety must be able to collaborate because crises frequently know no boundaries and we never know where they will hit. We cannot afford to divide wireless broadband capabilities between those in wealthy urban areas and those in rural locations with fewer resources. Our communications crisis is national in scope, and we must create a level playing field so that first responders have uniform access to state-of-the-art capabilities wherever we ask them to go. As currently contemplated, the FCC will require a nationwide satellite overlay for the shared network, ensuring first responders can communicate in tough terrain and if the terrestrial network fails.

Perhaps the most important reality-check for public-safety agencies regarding this broadband network is how much it will cost them to use it. Bringing next-generation services to public safety must include a way to finance the network and make the equipment affordable. Importantly, only a nationwide network shared with a commercial partner will create the economies of scale needed to lower costs for equipment and services for public safety.

I remain optimistic that the right rules can be put in place before the end of this year to ensure a successful auction. With continuing hard work and flexibility, I'm confident by this time next year we can say a permanent solution to this national communications crisis has arrived. Failure is not an option.

Charles Werner is chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department. A 34-year veteran of the fire-rescue service, he serves as SAFECOM Executive Committee chair and IAFC Technology Council chair, and he is a member of the NPSTC Governing Board.