FirstNet is building a nationwide broadband network for first responders that supposedly will provide local control to public-safety agencies using the system, but determining what that should include and how it should be implemented will require a lot of work, based on debate conducted during a session at the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) stakeholders meeting in Colorado earlier this month.

“Whenever I talk with a user about what makes them uncomfortable with a nationwide network, they always said, ‘I’m OK with it, as long as we have local control,’” said panelist Andrew Thiessen, division chief for the Institute of Telecommunications Sciences (ITS). “My immediate follow-up [question] was always, ‘What does that mean?’ And I got a different answer each time I asked that question.”

Most of the differences were not philosophical; instead, the differences stated included different approaches and aspects of local control, Thiessen said.

Session moderator Steve Devine, assistant director for the Missouri Statewide Wireless Interoperability Network (MOSWIN), expressed a similar sentiment as he introduced the notion of local control.

“Local control is a huge part of the nationwide public-safety broadband network,” Devine said. “We all know that it has to happen. What’s less clear is how and when.”

Indeed, there are several aspects of local control that need to be addressed, from network-design elements like site selection and hardening to device management. Wim Brouwer, CTO of Alcatel-Lucent's FirstNet team, suggested that devices might be managed most efficiently by utilizing a carrier model that includes store fronts that are able to serve multiple public-safety agencies in a given geographic area.

But the biggest issue raised was how network resources should be managed during an emergency, including which entities should be allowed to use the system and which ones should be given priority access during a given incident. Devine noted the importance of pre-planning incidents as much as possible to create policies that could be implemented automatically when they occur.

Audience member Richard Mirgon, former president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), expressed support for the notion of establishing policies for automated prioritization but noted that it can get very complicated during large events involving agencies with overlapping jurisdictions.

“Picture this: the world is falling around you, and I’m walking into a building where there’s been an active shooter and I’ve got two different fire agencies responding out of two different CAD systems, which are setting priorities and that are trying to treat patients, while my SWAT team is trying to go into a building to neutralize the active shooter, and you’ve got command-and-control people,” Mirgon said.

“Which CAD system takes priority, and how do you determine which one is more important than the other in an automated system like this? How does that work?”

While LTE has many layers of prioritization that can be implemented dynamically in a real-time manner, panelists acknowledged that determining how network resources are utilized needs to be determined by public safety.

“I wish technology could solve that problem, but I don’t know that it can,” said panelist Gino Scribano, a fellow on the Motorola Solutions’ technical staff.

Audience member Steve Williams, chief technology officer (CTO) for the Florida Highway Patrol, said determining prioritization will be difficult, but the fact that public-safety officials can have input into prioritization on the FirstNet system is an opportunity that should not be squandered.

“I ask anybody in this room, ‘What control do you have now [over broadband data]?’” Williams said. “You have none, so you’re at the mercy of the commercial network. I run a lot of broadband data, I run a lot of applications—a lot of mission-critical applications—but I have zero control.

“What I’m hearing is encouraging out of industry, and what I’m hearing is encouraging out of PSCR. We have an opportunity in public safety that we haven’t had in years, that I haven’t had in my career.”