Urgent Matters

NTIA has several good candidates for FirstNet board


Last week, I shared a few thoughts about the political maneuvering that already is underway to fill the board of directors for the First Responder Network Authority. FirstNet is the newly formed entity within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that will guide the process of building the nationwide broadband communications network for first responders. Congress made that a reality by enacting legislation last month that ceded the D Block — a 10 MHz swath of broadband spectrum in the 700 MHz band that originally was to be auctioned to commercial interests — to public safety and provided $7 billion in initial funding.

The new law stipulates a couple of key criteria for creating the FirstNet board. One is that a minimum of three members shall "represent the collective interests of states, locals, tribes and territories." Another is that a minimum of three members must have "served as public safety professionals." Note that these are minimums — there can be more than three members who meet either of these criteria. The board will have a total of 12 members that will be appointed by the secretary of Commerce by Aug. 20.

This week I'd like to make a few suggestions regarding the makeup of this vitally important board. The first is that each of the three major disciplines that make up public safety — police, fire and EMS — should be represented by at least one board member, because these segments will be most affected by the deployment of this network.

Now let's move on to individuals who potentially could serve on this board. Two people immediately come to mind who meet the first criterion: Bill Schrier, CIO for the city of Seattle, and Don Denning, public-safety CIO for the city of Boston. I've gotten to know both over the past couple of years, and I can tell you that no matter where they are at any given moment, they are among the smartest people in the room.

Another good choice who would meet the second criterion — and who also would satisfy my suggested need for having an EMS representative on the board — is Kevin McGinnis, who currently is program advisor for the National Association of State Emergency Medical Services Officials (NASEMSO). McGinnis has been involved in emergency medical services since 1974 and was the state of Maine's EMS director for a decade. He has written for Urgent Communications in the past, has served as a source for numerous other articles and knows his stuff. In particular, we always have found him to be particularly forward-looking, which will be a prerequisite for any FirstNet board member, as it will take at least a decade to build out this network.

Also, it seems to me that Charles Werner, chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department, would be a good selection. Werner always has been on the leading edge of public-safety communications and has been guiding the Department of Homeland Security's SAFECOM program in one way or another since its inception. Currently, he is a member of SAFECOM's executive committee.

I have no idea whether Schrier, Denning, McGinnis or Werner would have the time or energy for such an endeavor — let's face it, they all have very demanding day jobs. I suppose a lot would depend on what sort of support staff FirstNet will have — usually, board members direct and worker bees execute their directions.

In any event, time shouldn't be a problem for my final suggestion for the board: Harlin McEwen, who would serve the interests of the law-enforcement community.

McEwen's pedigree and qualifications for this post are beyond debate. He is the longtime chairman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) technology committee. He started his career as a patrol officer, served for a time as a deputy sheriff, and then moved on to spend a dozen years as the police chief in Ithaca, N.Y. He later went on to become a deputy assistant director of the FBI, where he oversaw the development of the Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS). Clearly he meets the "served as a public-safety professional" criterion.

Perhaps most important of all, McEwen has lived and breathed the nationwide broadband network for the past six years, serving as chairman of the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) for most of that time. The PSST is the entity that holds public safety's 10 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum — airwaves that will be paired with the D Block to provide the spectral foundation for the network. Soon, the 20 MHz block of contiguous broadband spectrum that will result from this pairing will be managed by FirstNet. That means McEwen is going to have some time on his hands.

Some people are put off, even intimidated, by McEwen's candor. If so, that's their problem. I have known McEwen a long time, and I have learned a few things about him. One is that he's a straight-shooter — what you see and hear are what you get. Another is that he listens and eventually is willing to move to middle ground. Also — and this might be the most important of all — he only has public safety's interests at heart, and not his own. Finally, his inclusion on the FirstNet board also would help to ensure continuity and historical perspective as the spectrum-license responsibilities are shifted from the PSST.

I think that McEwen is exactly the type of person public safety would want as one of its representatives on the FirstNet board. However, I know that there are plenty of other deserving people — Chris Moore, Jeff Johnson and Dick Mirgon immediately come to mind — that may be every bit as qualified as these candidates. The good news is that the NTIA has a plethora of potential choices that can ensure that the needs of key stakeholders in this nationwide network are met.

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

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.


Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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