California fire district leveraging FirstNet, BeOn PTT from L3Harris to save significant LMR costs
One rural California fire district plans to lower its future LMR capital costs about 60% by supplementing its VHF radio system with BeOn push-to-talk service from L3Harris delivered over FirstNet as part of a local public-private partnership that includes sharing tower sites, according to the fire chief spearheading the plan.
Frank Frievalt, fire chief of the Mammoth Lake (Calif.) Fire Protection District, said the hybrid LMR-LTE push-to-talk strategy promises to advance the area’s public-safety communications ahead of where it would with a straightforward upgrade of the multiple P25-compliant LMR systems in the area.
“From my perspective, it is an absolute, complete game-changer—certainly from the emergency-services side—on at least a half-dozen different levels,” Frievalt said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications.
“I’m excited to see what’s going to happen in the future. I think this is really going to turn the page on some telecommunications history.”
Jeff Johnson, executive director for the Western Fire Chiefs and former vice chair of the FirstNet Authority, echoed this sentiment, expressing his belief that the hybrid LMR-LTE solution in California could serve has a model to public-safety entities throughout the U.S.
“I think Chief Frievalt is being very forward-looking,” Johnson said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “He and others are coming to the realization that it’s just not practical to exclusively build our own [public-safety] infrastructure without taking a look at where the cellular companies have infrastructure, where our neighboring public agencies have infrastructure—specifically, what is FirstNet going to build and add to the region—and really go about your wireless upgrade with a set of options in mind. Chief Frievalt has figured that out.
“He’s being so wise … He’s looking at how to best leverage his LMR network, how to best leverage public and private towers, and how to be leverage LTE. Chief Frievalt is taking a very intellectual view of solving this problem, and we’re going to see more and more public-safety officials take a similar approach.”
Addressing an LMR coverage problem
Frievalt said the hybrid LMR-LTE push-to-talk strategy has been developed in cooperation with L3Harris and FirstNet, built by AT&T, to help address coverage issues in the aging VHF infrastructure in the Mammoth Lake (Calif.) Fire Protection District, which includes the city of Mammoth Lakes and Mono County. The area has less than 8,000 full-time residents, but the population can surge to almost 40,000 during peak ski season at Mammoth Mountain.
“Like a lot of rural areas in the America—certainly in California—we’ve had the challenge of rebuilding an old VHF system,” Frievalt said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “We just hit the timing right with some emerging technologies, including the arrival of FirstNet, which I had to push a little bit to get it ahead of schedule in a rural area.
“While we were doing that, we were introduced to the L3Harris technology, and it struck us that combining a few things would get us vastly superior communications capability at probably 60% of the cost to revive a 1970s technology.”
Frievalt said the Mammoth Lakes Fire Protection District—supported by several disparate VHF radio systems—realized significant benefits from a proof-of-concept trial conducted with fire departments in the area. A regional proof-of-concept trial involving law-enforcement entities was in progress before being halted as response agencies turned their focus to efforts associated with responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One key technology from L3Harris is the BeOn software platform, which features an LTE push-to-talk (PTT) application that is designed to emulate a P25 radio experience—“it’s pretty amazing,” Frievalt said, describing the performance of BeOn PTT on the FirstNet LTE network with priority and preemption.
Also critical to the Mammoth Lakes Fire Protection District solutions are two L3Harris models of LMR-LTE portable radios—the single-band XL-185P and the multi-band XL-200P. Recently certified as FirstNet Ready with 700 MHz, these P25 radios also support LTE communications using the BeOn application.
While these L3Harris hybrid radios enable both LMR and LTE, Frievalt said he expected that device users would spend most of their time on the VHF channels, because there is more LMR coverage in the region today than FirstNet. However, that did not prove to be the case.
“The truth is that, when we did a field test here, I don’t think I used the VHF side of my radio for three weeks—and that was during this past Thanksgiving, which is one of our busiest times,” Frievalt said.
“If you look at where you spend your time operating, I think our case tells the story. I did 98% of my radio traffic during peak operational periods without ever touching VHF, simply because the cellular coverage is where most of the people are, and where most of the people are is where you call. So, what we did was we mapped out the hot spots in our VHF system—in terms of activity on the VHF side—and we made those priority areas to get cellular coverage, if we didn’t have it.”
Today, users of the hybrid L3Harris LMR-LTE radios must make a manual change to switch operations between the two networks, but Frievalt said he has been told that automated switching—based on preset policies—may be possible in the near future.
“To me, this [potential for seamless LMR-LTE usage] is just a complete game-changer,” he said. “I’ve been in the business since 1979. I look back, and I can’t really think of too many changes in emergency services that—for the amount of money—you get several quantum leaps ahead.”
Andy Bosshart, manager of sales and engineering at L3Harris who is helping Frievalt and others with technological details associated with hybrid deployments, said the situation within the Mammoth Lakes Fire Protection District is more difficult, because the VHF systems are not trunked.
“What we lack in Chief Frievalt’s case is that we don’t have a control channel, because it’s not trunked,” Bosshart said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “If we can monitor that control channel, then we can understand where he doesn’t have coverage.
“But lacking that, what we did was we mirrored his fleet map in the radio. For the users, when they know they didn’t hit the [VHF] repeater, they just flip the selector, and now they’re in LTE mode.”
New PTT usage models
Utilizing both radio and LTE technology on a single device is helpful, but having the linkage also means that new users can participate in talk groups, because BeOn push-to-talk can work on typical smartphones, Frievalt said. That is especially important during the current COVID-19 crisis, when instant communications are needed with healthcare workers that typically would not be familiar with operations on an LMR system.
“I do have radio caches here. I could pull out radios and hand them to them,” Frievalt said. “But then I’ve got to figure out how to charge them. These people have to use a new piece of equipment they’re not familiar with, and they’re going to forget [operating instructions].
“What we’re seeing is … When you’re doing inventory on what your radio cache is in a typical jurisdiction, you have all of these people with radios, because that was the medium that was available. But really, it makes no sense.”
In addition, public-safety entities are able to set up talk groups with LTE users much more quickly and easily than in an LMR environment, Bosshart said.
“We don’t have to worry about frequency coordinators now,” Bosshart said.
Given all of these circumstances, Frievalt said he believes that it is better to let healthcare personnel, bus drivers and others use a push-to-talk application on a familiar smartphone platform, because it is much more effective than handing them a radio, on several levels.
“Using the BeOn app, you can set up all of these subgroups that never chew up another bit of your VHF spectrum,” Frievalt said. “So, I’m going to be able to work on the public-health side of this pandemic over probably the next month or six weeks at least, and I’m going to be able to expand that out to multiple levels and never have to deal with, ‘Gosh, what’s my radio plan going to be? Can I use this frequency and do all of this weird programming [associated with LMR]?’
“I’m just going hand them a phone, tell them to download the app, get it set up through my comms guy, and we’re good to go.
“You’ve now completely avoided the purchasing cost, the holding cost, the bench testing, the life-cycle replacement cost … You start to realize that, except for really extreme environments—probably limited to fire and law enforcement—you really don’t need radios, per se.”
Of course, deploying additional cell sites typically is not a trivial matter. That is particularly true in California, where environmental codes, planning processes and political realities often make constructing a new cell site a lengthy and expensive proposition for wireless network operators.
“Just figure out what [the cost of] a site build is for a radio tower,” Frievalt said. “By the time you get the site, then you do the construction, then you provide power—and, if not power, you provide battery backup to make sure that it’s robust enough to handle the drain—and you figure out what that site is, that’s probably $1 million to $1.5 million.”
This reality is a major reason why Frievalt pursued the opportunity to leverage FirstNet’s cellular coverage and capacity, so he could limit the resources needed to bolster the VHF infrastructure. This became especially attractive after receiving estimates from an engineering firm hired to determine the costs associated with enhancing LMR to the desired level, he said.
“That [proposed LMR] buildout would have cost us about $12 million and would have required about eight tower builds, refurbishments and a bunch of other things,” Frievalt said. “Then, we started looking at doing hybrid coverage. Now, if we have a handheld device that can borrow spectrum from the cellular side or the VHF side, we found that we could drop the number of towers [needed] by about 60%.”
As difficult as it is for government entities to build tower sites, securing cell sites likely is even more problematic for corporations like AT&T, the nationwide contractor for FirstNet, Frievalt said. Helping address this issue is the foundation for another aspect of the local public-private partnership—not just LMR towers but sites supporting microwave links, he said.
“With FirstNet, building out the system obviously builds out the [AT&T] commercial system,” Frievalt said. “One of their challenges—especially in rural areas—is getting sites to build on. We said, ‘Look, from the local-government side, we can help you find sites. There are different places where we have property.’
“You’ve got these sites that are developed that are in geographically suitable spaces to carry signal, and local government can help FirstNet avoid a lot of those costs. A lot of times, there’s already power there, there’s already access, there’s no CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] requirement, there’s no NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] requirement—or if there is, it’s usually a negative declaration. So, a lot of the things that were impediments to cellular buildout start to go away.
Frievalt said he is not allowed to disclose certain details of the public-private arrangement with FirstNet and L3Harris, but he acknowledged that there are multiple ways to make such a partnership work for all parties involved.
“What you do for cost? Maybe you lease back, or you use the lease fees to help pay off your subscription fees,” Frievalt said. “There are a lot of different ways to go about that.”
In this particular case, both FirstNet and L3Harris are deserving of plaudits, according to Frievalt.
“Usually, when I hear public-private collaboration, that’s code for, ‘We’d like you to defer our taxes, so that you can provide the venture capital for our idea,’” Frievalt said. “This is not that. This is truly where we’re both truly coming to the table, we’re avoiding costs while building a network with greater capability than either could have [built alone].”
“I really want to do a shout out here to L3Harris and to FirstNet. They did a lot of courageous things on both sides. I can’t share the details. But I can tell you that both organizations took some real chances to listen to our needs and kind of go well outside the lines that they would normally approach this from. We’re looking at some really amazing results from these proof-of-concept findings.”
Indeed, existing FirstNet coverage is proving to have an immediate positive impact in filling VHF coverage gaps, but the FirstNet coverage should be much better in the future, as AT&T begins building sites on existing LMR towers in the area, Frievalt said.
Johnson said that such partnerships make sense, and the Western Fire Chiefs are working with “more than a handful” of other entities to reach similar arrangements in the western U.S.
“The Western Fire Chiefs believe that—as FirstNet broadens its coverage in rural America—the people that are already there with towers are the police chiefs, sheriffs, fire districts, etc.,” Johnson said.
“So, instead of just paying rent to a tower company somewhere, why not strike a deal with a local sheriff, so that you can put FirstNet on their towers? Their officers get better public-safety broadband, and FirstNet gets towers faster and at a more reasonable price than if it [FirstNet] went out and bought the capability commercially. What the Western Fire Chiefs is doing is building the relationship between people who have towers and the wireless carriers that want to quickly gain access to public towers.”
AT&T’s FirstNet team indicated that it is open to discussing such arrangements in a statement provided to IWCE’s Urgent Communications for this article.
“The project in Mono County/Mammoth Lakes illustrates the value of solving the needs of public safety together across agencies with the resources of FirstNet Ready device providers and AT&T,” according to the AT&T statement. “Working hand-in-hand, sharing information and collaborating on the best possible solutions have allowed us to jointly design and execute on a build that meets their operational needs today and into the future.
“This is a great example of how working together we can find ways to creatively address challenges and deliver solutions that work for local agencies. We encourage public safety to keep communicating the problems they encounter so we can partner on solutions.”
As excited as he is about leveraging FirstNet services both now and in the future, Frievalt emphasized both the need for LMR communications and the necessity of funding VHF enhancements in the future.
“We’ll always need VHF, I believe, for many, many years, until you get to some kind of a satellite-based system,” Frievalt said, noting that elected officials in the area still need to fund some VHF enhancements, despite the presence of solutions from L3Harris and FirstNet. “But I think what people are going to find is that—when they have this capability—they’ll do exactly what I did: I turned off the VHF side of my system, because of the clarity and the ability to use data [via FirstNet LTE] was fantastic.
“Obviously, a lot of our work has been suspended here while we’re going through a global pandemic. But we can see very clearly how we could some instant improvements in the VHF system that was crashing on a regular basis. There are some ways to get some very quick wins for very little dollars. But then eventually, you have to go back and do the [VHF] infrastructure site rebuilds.”
Potential long-term impacts
Johnson said the approach Frievalt is using to bolster FirstNet coverage not only will prove helpful to public-safety communications, but it promises to have greater societal benefits by improving the ability for people in remote areas to call 911, so public safety knows that it needs to respond to an emergency.
“What I think Chief Frievalt’s doing that’s really wise is he’s having a conversation about communications that’s broader than just his [entity],” Johnson said. “Historically, as a chief, I was worried about my communications network … we have to have a reliable network when we go out the door. But more than 70% of the time, the inbound call [to 911] is coming over a cell phone. It’s every bit as important to get the  call, so we’re going to a call. It’s every bit as important to get the call as it is to have communications en route to the call.
“Now, an entire neighborhood and transportation route gets coverage that didn’t have it. And, I [the public-safety entity] get push-to-talk coverage. That’s a win-win for everybody.
“I think the wisdom of looking at communication in its totality—the inbound call and the outbound response—I think that’s where chiefs are going to have to focus their attention going forward.”
Such attention may have been part of the long-term strategy for some public-safety officials—Frievalt being one example—but consideration of hybrid LMR-LTE systems and public-private partnerships may be accelerated in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson said. With budgets expected to be slashed as tax revenues drop dramatically, expensive capital upgrades to LMR system simply may not be an option.
“Necessity is always the mother of invention,” Johnson said. “When I was a fire chief, our agency was known for mergers and consolidations. What we found is that the opportunity to merge and consolidate always came during financially difficult times. When people are forced financially to consider cooperation in a way they haven’t done before, the money factor does change your willingness to do it. ”
“It’s probably not too different of a parallel from ride-sharing. If you can afford your own nice car and drive to work, that’s fine. But when your commute takes longer, because you don’t have a commuter lane, and you can’t afford to do it, now—all of a sudden—finding a ride-share buddy makes a lot of sense.
“I think the same kind of thing’s going to happen in business, and I think the same thing is going to happen, to some degree, in public safety.”
Frievalt said that he believes all parties involved in the Mammoth Lakes/Mono County endeavor have learned a great deal about what is possible by considering the integration of LMR and LTE within a public-private partnership structure. And he believes even greater opportunities are on the horizon.
“We’re still figuring out all of the benefits. When we have these group sessions with L3Harris, FirstNet and ourselves, for every topic that we’re covering in the meeting, I’ll see two people off to the side writing on the back of a napkin, and they’ve come up with two other applications, cost savings or efficiencies that we haven’t even dreamed of yet.”
“This is really some frontier country, and it’s pretty exciting, if you start really thinking it through.”