FirstNet public-safety subscribers in the “primary” user category—law enforcement, fire, EMS, 911 and emergency-management personnel—now have preemptive access across AT&T’s network, FirstNet and AT&T announced today.

Implementing ruthless preemption throughout the AT&T network marks the on-time fulfillment of a major technological feature. After the carrier was awarded the FirstNet nationwide contract in March, AT&T officials vowed that preemptive access would available to “primary” public-safety FirstNet subscribers by the end of the year.

While some public-safety entities have used commercial broadband services for years to support data communications, first-responder representatives repeatedly noted that commercial networks could be overwhelmed by consumer use. This has been especially true during large-scale emergency incidents, as consumers typically want to contact friends and family to provide status updates about the situation.

Of course, these also are the times when public safety most needs to be able to communicate, which has been a source of frustration for first responders.

Fire Chief Richard Bowers of the Fairfax County, Va., said today’s preemption announcement is an advancement he has anticipated for years, noting his experience as a participant in the response efforts associated with the Oklahoma City bombing, the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“The common themes there were the inability to grab a cell site to communicate on emergency operations,” Bowers said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “That was a consistent issue for response personnel, speaking from my experience in both of those situations. When you needed to have a connection, you couldn’t always get it. Now, we will—and that’s huge.

“It’s about the safety of our first responders and certainly the safety of those that we’re responding to. This is a monumental achievement in communications and operations.”

With priority access—something FirstNet subscribers have had across the AT&T network since contracts were signed with public-safety agencies in “opt-in” states beginning this summer—users are moved to the front of queue within a cell sector for service. However, in the unusual circumstance that a particular cell sector was completely saturated with traffic, there is a possibility that a priority user would be denied access to the cell sector and would be unable to communicate.

Ruthless preemption is designed to remove this possibility that a first responder would not be able to communicate. With this level of preemptive access, a user is guaranteed access to the cell sector, even if means that consumer and-or commercial users have to be removed from the cell site to provide the first responder with needed capacity.

Consumer or commercial users making calls to 911—typically the initial step in an emergency response—will not be subject to having their communications interrupted as part of preemptive access, according to the announcement from FirstNet and AT&T.

In addition, industry analysts and engineers note that the flexibility of LTE networks and the massive capacity of the AT&T network means that a consumer or commercial customer would have little realistic chance of losing the ability to communicate entirely. If public safety has a need for a large amount of bandwidth within a given cell sector, that normally could be accommodated by moving consumer/commercial users to another spectrum band or lowering their data speeds, as opposed to removing them from the network entirely.