I’ve been skeptical of public-safety leaderships’ push for a nationwide public-safety broadband network and reallocation of spectrum. It’s not that I disagree it’s needed. It absolutely is on the list of must-haves for public safety, especially for those in cities. But from what I hear from the field — especially from volunteer firefighters — fire chiefs are more concerned about finding the money to purchase a reliable apparatus or arming personnel with the best in protective gear. Rarely do I hear a volunteer fire chief say, “Mary Rose, our department really needs to get our hands on some spectrum.”

But public safety does need to get its hands on spectrum and quick. Right now, there is a 10 MHz unencumbered portion of spectrum remaining in the 700 MHz band that aligns with the current spectrum allocated to public safety. Dubbed the D Block, it became available after the Digital TV transition. If allocated, public safety would build a dedicated nationwide interoperable broadband network based on a contiguous 20 MHz spectrum swath, said Ret. Chief Jeff Johnson. He has worked on this issue nationally, including lobbying Congress, as well as in his home state of Oregon on the OWIN project.

Johnson said the proposed 20 MHz LTE network would have the capacity necessary to transmit mission-critical, high-resolution data and later voice communications. Among other applications, it will support future fire service–based data applications, such as accessing traffic camera videos at the dispatch center in order to better prepare for incident response. It will change chief officers’ jobs by providing real-time situational awareness, which can increase safety and communications on the fireground and aid in better decision-making, he said.

“It could enable an incident commander to drop three remote cameras on the three-quarters of a building you can’t see and stream that wirelessly into the incident command vehicles,” Johnson said. “It will allow us to access traffic cameras wirelessly, so we can see the magnitude of a motor-vehicle accident before we dispatch.”

The network also will be dedicated to public safety. It won’t be overloaded with commercial callers during disasters. This year’s D.C.-area earthquake “showed commercial networks will crash during a major event,” Johnson said.

The good news is that some Congresspeople have warmed to D Block allocation to public safety, with several bills already in motion and a thumbs up from President Obama. But, as spectrum shortage increases with the growing adoption of commercial wireless devices, the price jumps, making airwaves “more valuable than oil and diamonds,” Johnson said. “So, while politicians are finding favor with a national network, there’s great debate about whether it should be allocated to public safety or sold to a cell-phone company with the understanding they must accommodate public-safety users.”

Recently the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology subcommittee was considering holding a hearing on a proposal spearheaded by Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who unveiled a draft version that did not allocate D Block to public safety. Walden has publicly stated that auctioning the the D-block to commercial users is a way to kick-start the economy. In a recent statement, Walden said he has “set a personal goal to advance legislation by the end of this year, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to achieve that goal with the strongest, most effective bill we can produce."

The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and other agencies continue to push the issue and feel strongly that fire chiefs nationwide must lobby for the D Block on a local, state and federal level — even if it’s just an e-mail or telephone call.

“All chiefs should join this lobby, because it’s a one-time opportunity,” he said. “We can’t pick up the chant in two more years, when economics are better. It’s now or never.”

Chiefs can contact their representatives to voice their opinion. Every voice counts.