FirstNet making an impact early in three communities, speakers say
Public-safety users have been able to subscribe to FirstNet for only two years, but the nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) is making a significant impact on the operations of several first-responder agencies, providing cost-effective data and deployable support immediately and a mission-critical voice option in the future.
John Cueto, police chief for the Town of Duck, N.C., said that FirstNet has been huge help to his department, which has seen its data needs skyrocket in recent years with the implementation of mobile data terminals (MDTs), in-car video, body cameras and automatic license-plate readers. But the last initiative resulted in the cost with a previous commercial wireless carrier jumping to $3,000 per month with data rates being throttled after high usage, he said.
“I went back to that private carrier and tried to negotiate the price, and I was met yet again with ‘No,’” Cueto said during the session at the APCO 2019 event in Baltimore.
In budgetary trouble with his town council, Cueto turned to a cable company that provided connectivity to support the license-plate-reader for $99 per month, but the solution needed a fan and was not designed for public-safety-grade use.
When FirstNet launched, Cueto spoke with members of AT&T’s FirstNet sales team and determined that the new NPSBN would be an ideal fit for the Town of Duck.
“They started to explain that we can add in the reliability, the security, and the safety of this network without the cost and without the throttling of the data,” Cueto said. “So, our modems with our license-plate readers are now safe, reliable and effective at $49 per month. There are none of those extra charges for the data.
“From there, our in-car environs—the networks that are driving our body-camera systems, our license-plate readers, our MDTs—are all on FirstNet. I didn’t even begin to discuss our cell-phone usage, because it’s PD, our FD, our search/rescue, all of our lifeguards are on FirstNet with those Sonim devices.”
Having that license-plate-reader functionality was particularly important last year as Hurricane Florence approached, as it allowed officials to accurately track the vehicles that left town, Cueto said.
Troy Kennedy, a police officer in Signal Mountain, Tenn., said his department has been able to transform its data capabilities during the past few years, relying on FirstNet to provide connectivity in places other carriers were not willing to cover.
“AT&T is the only product that was going in the areas that we were having issues with, as far as doing rescues,” Kennedy said during the session. “That was our foundation.
“Within the first week of being mobile with the FirstNet product, we had a crime spree that occurred. We were able to actually track that and capture the individuals that were basically breaking into cars and stealing cars.”
Other benefits of being on FirstNet include the ability to support mobile dispatch and have reliable high-speed connectivity that lets officers efficiently conduct database searches for outstanding warrants, Kennedy said.
Both Kennedy and Cueto noted the location-based services associated with FirstNet—something that their LMR systems do not support. Kennedy told the story of a sheriff’s deputy that he discovered who had tried to give his location to dispatch via a radio call at night. Using FirstNet location, dispatch was able to follow Kennedy’s vehicle and provide the deputy with needed assistance that otherwise would not have been received for some time, if at all.
“He [the deputy] was probably two miles from where he said and thought he was,” Kennedy said.
Coverage generally is not an issue in Fulton County, Ga., which includes Atlanta, but sometimes county personnel are deployed to remote areas where “there’s no service on anybody’s carrier,” according to Jim Millsap, technical services division manager for the Fulton County Emergency Communications.
In such situations, FirstNet’s deployable service—at no additional cost to FirstNet subscribers—has proven to be very helpful, Millsap said, describing one incident in which he was leading communications for a response.
“I made one e-mail to FirstNet, and—within three hours—I had a SatCOLT. The incident-management team wanted know, ‘Who do you know?’ and I said, ‘I can’t tell you,’” Millsap said, laughing. “But they were very impressed that happened that fast.
“When you’re dead in the water, everything else is down and that kind of response and service is there, that was icing on the cake.”
Cueto said that FirstNet’s deployable service was a major selling point in convincing his town council that Duck should adopt FirstNet.
“When I went back to council, it really was about the ability to bring in that SatCOLT at no cost,” Cueto said.
Millsap noted the role that Fulton County played in planning associated with the Super Bowl that was conducted in Atlanta early this year. FirstNet links were established to provide support to a complete 911 center that was established at the Fulton County airport, in case the two primary 911 centers near the stadium could not be used.
“We actually moved all of our dispatchers out there—all three shifts—for 48 hours,” Millsap said. “At each position, we had a Sonim XP8 on FirstNet, sitting there ready to take inbound calls to those devices, should we have lost network connectivity.
“We established that backup 911 center in six hours and ran for 48 hours. It mirrored what we had downtown.”
AT&T’s Enhanced Push to Talk (EPTT) service over FirstNet was used by command staff associated with security at the massive event, Millsap said.
“The command staff used the Enhanced Push to Talk,” he said. “Of course, it had elevated priority, because remember, you’ve got 4 million people in town—we had to have priority, so we could use Enhanced Push to Talk to communicate.”
Millsap said that EPTT also was established as a voice backup to Atlanta’s 800 MHz trunked system, which had a rare failure just two months prior to the Super Bowl. While LTE push to talk provided back voice communications during this huge sporting event, it could take a primary role by the middle of the next decade—at least in Fulton County, which has six years remaining on its current LMR radio contract, he said.
“We’ve got six more years to go,” Millsap said. “My director makes a statement every day: He’ll hold up a radio and say, ‘Six years from now, we won’t have this,’ because we’ve already trialed Enhanced Push to Talk.
“You either grab hold of the technology that’s coming, or you’re going to get left behind.”
Millsap acknowledged that such a statement may come as a surprise to many—AT&T plans to unveil mission-critical-push-to-talk (MCPTT) service on FirstNet by the end of the year but has not announced it yet—but he says the biggest challenge is making first-responder agencies aware of all benefits associated with PTT over LTE, particularly over FirstNet.
“There’s a stigma that’s attached to public safety that they’ll never leave land mobile radio, and that may be for a lot of people,” Millsap said. “But it becomes an educational process of saying that this device—as the [Chief Cueto] said—finds your employee in distress and can do a whole lot more than just what land mobile radio does. Then, you’ve got a hardened backbone on top of that, with priority service.
“Six years from now, the whole platform will change, if it takes that long.”
Session moderator Ray Lehr of the Lafayette Group said a transition from LMR to LTE for mission-critical voice is “a scary darn question to public-safety agencies everywhere,” noting that certain features like one-to-many communications need to be implemented in the field for many agencies to consider a shift.
If such performance requirements are met, the incentive to reduce the number of devices on a police officer’s belt would help provide momentum for such a change.
“If you can get two, three or four of them into one device, it just makes perfect sense,” Lehr said.