Fire chief encourages early FirstNet adoption, cites cost savings, potential mission-critical use in 2024
Public-safety agencies should subscribe to FirstNet soon, so they can test the system’s capabilities and better evaluate future possibilities—perhaps LMR replacement within five years—according to a California fire chief, who said adopting FirstNet allowed his department to save $360,0000.
“We’re all-in on FirstNet,” Stockton, Calif., Fire Chief Erik Newman said this week during a panel discussion at the CES show in Las Vegas. “If you’re wavering and you’re not on it, now is the time to get onto FirstNet and explore it.”
Newman said his department began beta testing FirstNet in 2017. While it can be a struggle to get employee “buy in” when implementing any new service, that has not been an issue since firefighters witnessed the FirstNet response to a fire in Napa and Sonoma County, he said.
“In my case, our folks were at a fire, and the cell towers burned up,” Newman said. “FirstNet came in, they set up trucks and got the system back up. They gave the command team devices, and they had a radio system up and running.
“Our guys were amazed. They came back and said, ‘Chief, we saw these phones where people can talk and direct connect, like the old Nextel function.’ It brought a smile to my face, because I was like, ‘Yeah, this is where we’re going.’ I didn’t have to sell it, because the folks operationally bought it.”
Newman said his department does not rely on FirstNet for mission-critical communications at the moment, but he believes that will change within the next five years.
“I’m only talking non-mission-critical [communications from FirstNet now],” he said. “I believe that, in 2024, we will get to the point where we I can give this to firefighters to go inside of buildings, but we’re not quite there yet. What I will tell you is that FirstNet is close.”
Officials for AT&T—FirstNet’s nationwide contractor—have announced that the carrier plans to give FirstNet subscribers a choice of multiple vendors providing services that are fully compliant with 3GPP’s mission-critical push-to-talk (MCPTT) standard during the second half of this year. AT&T uses Kodiak technology—owned by Motorola Solutions—to provide push-to-talk-over-cellular (PoC) services today. AT&T completed an RFP selection process for MCPTT vendors last year but has not announced any result to date.
Under the contract that the FirstNet Authority has with AT&T, the carrier giant is required to provide unicast MCPTT services to FirstNet subscribers by end of March 2021, a FirstNet Authority official told a California board last month. Mission-critical data, mission-critical video and MCPTT supported by multicast—designed to be a more efficient method to deliver one-to-many communications services—are contracted to be available by the end of March 2022.
Whether MCPTT services could supplant public safety’s traditional LMR mission-critical voice communications has been a topic of hot debate, and the technology is expected to be thoroughly scrutinized during the next several years.
Most industry experts believe MCPTT will meet or exceed public safety’s needs when users have access to a reliable broadband network, but there are significant doubts whether a direct-mode MCPTT solution can provide the communications range that public safety has today with LMR. Some have suggested that ever-expanding cellular networks and “bring-the-network-with-you” solutions—from deployable vehicles to portable networks that fit in backpacks or pelican cases—largely could address the issue, but many of those products are unproven today.
While it may be some time before FirstNet provides a mission-critical-voice alternative significant budgetary benefits of moving certain personnel to FirstNet already have been realized, Newman said.
“I gave our phones to people who didn’t do mission-critical things, like prevention,” Newman said. “I have 20-30 prevention folks. I took their $8,000 radio, and I gave them a phone with the ability to talk to dispatch, and I saved—I got a little pat on the back from my city manager—$360,000 that I could put back into my budget to buy some other things.
“When you at FirstNet and you look at your application, you’ve also got to look at it from a budget perspective. It’s going to save you a little money, and I look at it from that perspective. Now, I have folks that have data, text, e-mail and radio all in one device. I’ve taken an $8,000 radio, I’ve repurposed that, and now I’ve saved my department and the city $360,000.”
Newman said he enjoys the flexibility that FirstNet provides by enabling him to monitor communications on the city of Stockton’s LMR system, even when he is traveling outside of the LMR network’s coverage area.
In addition, leveraging FirstNet has let the city of Stockton to enable interoperability between its public-safety, non-public-safety agencies and other officials that may need to be informed about updates during a response effort, Newman said.
“In Stockton, before I got there, we could not talk to other county agencies,” Newman said. “But now, with FirstNet, we were able to bring everybody into one system, where I could get on the dispatch center and talk to them. That’s important.
“All the things that we’re talking about it is great, but if you don’t have the communications piece to talk to your neighbor, talk to county reps or talk to people that are going to come in and help your jurisdiction … the recovery process is not going to work—it’s going to be a struggle.”