San Jose announces widespread FirstNet adoption for public safety, other city government personnel
Personnel throughout the city of San Jose will be using more than 4,500 devices on the FirstNet system being built by AT&T—representing the most comprehensive adoption of the public-safety LTE network by any local jurisdiction to date—according to a joint announcement from the city and the carrier.
San Jose Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness said that the city will issue 2,426 city-owned LTE smartphones to employees and more than 2,100 other devices—tablets, hotspots, routers and in-vehicle modems—will be deployed that will utilize the FirstNet network. More than 1,500 of the smartphones and about 1,700 of the other devices are slated for “primary” use on the FirstNet system, while the rest of the gear will be utilized by personnel categorized as “extended primary” users.
“We’re the first to go as deep as we have,” Harkness said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “Others have deployed with fire and police, but my understanding from FirstNet is that we’re the first in the nation to take it all the way—from tip to tail—through the organization.
“We’ve got a partner that we can work with, a system that is robust and will be well invested in, and an opportunity—because of the deal and price points that they gave us—to comprehensively move our entire team over to a single system all at once. All of that together just created a magic moment for us to make this dramatic move.”
According to the joint announcement, San Jose agencies subscribing to FirstNet include:
- San Jose Police Department,
- San Jose Fire Department (EMS is part of the city’s fire department, Harkness said),
- Office of Emergency Management,
- Office of the City Manager,
- San Jose Environmental Services,
- San Jose Parks, Recreation & Neighborhood Services,
- San Jose International Airport,
- Office of Civic Innovation,
- Public Works, and
Harkness said that one reason that San Jose officials were attracted to FirstNet was the fact that the AT&T-built LTE system recognizes that emergency management is a “team sport … and that team goes beyond police, fire and emergency management,” particularly when large-scale events happen. With San Jose being located near multiple geologic faults, the city is always striving to prepare itself for a potentially large earthquake, and widespread adoption of FirstNet is part of that effort, he said.
“I would speculate that we’re going to see the biggest transformation in those larger events,” Harkness said. “When that [earthquake] pops at a significant level, all 6,500 people who work in the city essentially become disaster-recovery service workers. This is the very first time we’ll have an interoperable, cross-departmental way of making sure that they’re in communication.”
Ray Riordan, director of the San José Office of Emergency Management, echoed this sentiment.
“Outdated and unreliable communications have slowed down our public safety response for far too long. In an industry where every second matters, it’s about time that we change the face of public safety communications, and I’m proud to see San José lead the way with FirstNet,” Riordan said in a prepared statement. “We can’t predict when the next emergency will strike, but with FirstNet, we can be better prepared to respond, recover and keep our people safe.”
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo agreed.
“Implementing FirstNet at full scale across the City is key to helping us create a new standard for public safety,” Liccardo said in a prepared statement. “We believe this is a model for cities across the country to ensure those charged with maintaining the safety of our residents and communities have the tools they need to stay connected during disasters and emergencies.”
Large disasters can result in communications outages within terrestrial networks. FirstNet’s demonstrated ability and willingness to move deployable solutions into an area—at no extra cost to subscribers—is one of the most attractive aspects of the offering to the city of San Jose, according to Harkness.
“Their ability to stand that infrastructure back up rapidly and their commitment to do so—including providing mobile devices, COWs, COLTs, etc.—as part of the agreement is something that speaks very strongly to us,” he said.
“The irony, of course, is that the time we’re going to need these is also is likely to be the time when the infrastructure is most stressed, so it’s going to be matter of recovery of Band 14 as well as civilian communications system. We have assurances and a partnership that we believe is the right one to take on that challenge when it happens.”
Somewhat surprisingly, one of the factors Harkness cited as a reason that San Jose officials are willing to make such a significant commitment to FirstNet were the actions of AT&T and the FirstNet Authority in the aftermath of the San Francisco Fleet Week last fall, when the FirstNet system to perform at the level expected.
“We expressed concerns, based on our some of our experience that we had seen during Fleet Week, and their response was immediate and serious,” Harkness said. “I think a week later, I had a room full of about 17 people who had flown in from across the country to understand the issues that we were raising and very rapidly iterate to improve to address them.
“For me, …. the product launch is the beginning. It’s how you iterate along the way and how you listen to the voice of the customer that distinguishes a great piece of technology from a flop. I expect any new piece of technology—no matter how robust and how much it was tested in the laboratory—to learn and grow as it’s deployed in the field.
“What impressed me was—and part of what cemented our willingness to enter into an agreement with AT&T and FirstNet—was their unhesitating ability and willingness to learn from the issues that were brought to their attention and rapidly correct them. To me, that’s more important than getting it perfect the first time, because you can’t get it perfect the first time.”
San Jose plans to serve as a real-world testbed for technological innovations on the FirstNet system, including the implementation of mission-critical-push-to-talk (MCPTT) technology that is scheduled to be offered later this year, Harkness said.
“Part of what we’ve committed to on both sides of the partnership is that, as new features are deployed, we’re going to be in a position to be a bit of a beta tester—or even an alpha tester—on them, so we can give early and real-time feedback on them,” Harkness said, noting that San Jose plans to make its findings and FirstNet best practices available to other cities in the U.S.
“I’m not going to do mass-scale experimentation with either my police or fire—it’s too critical a service to do that—but we are capable of working pretty rapidly on innovation technology here in the [Silicon] Valley, and we want to give FirstNet the opportunity to do some tests and learn with us in a controlled environment as they roll out new features.”
Harkness said he believes that San Jose’s public-safety personnel will continue to use the city’s P25 network for mission-critical voice and FirstNet push-to-talk as an important augmentation.
“I view them as complementary systems, and I don’t see replacing one with the other,” Harkness said. “The other thing is that I’m professionally paranoid. If we lose one system or the other, effectively one serves as a backup to the other, in some limited way. I think, for the foreseeable future, we’re going with both. I don’t see it shifting our roadmap on the LMR, either on the police or civilian side.
“However, I’m always open to learning from the field and learning from our experts, to see if there is a change. My expectation is that—for at least this iteration—there are going to be a fair number of people who are dual users of both, but my extended-primary [personnel] are going to increasingly rely simply on the phones.”
Harkness noted that all of San Jose smartphones will be city-issued devices, with very little personal use permitted by users.
“We have a pretty tight work-only regulation,” he said. “The exceptions are, if you need to reach your loved ones or family in the case of an emergency, that is permissible. But, other than that, these are pure work phones.”
This arrangement is much more practical because of the low cost of the LTE smartphones—some cost as little as 99 cents through FirstNet—and provides the city with a level of control that is especially important in a state like California, where local governments are subject to open-records laws that could result in a device being confiscated to meet transparency requirements, according to Harkness.
“Frankly, I’m more comfortable with that [city-owned devices], for a number of reasons,” Harkness said. “One, we shift from billing operations and management operations that are decentralized to a centralized version. That means I can do more efficient billing, and I can do more efficient security and mobile-device management, which is appropriate for modern uses of phones as work tools.
“I’ve got one phone that’s work; I’ve got one phone that’s personal. I’ve got two pockets for just such an occasion. From a transparency standpoint, from a cybersecurity standpoint and from a billing-management standpoint, that’s actually a better way to do it for us, in the environment that we’re in.”