FirstNet Has Arrived: What EMS Professionals Need to Know about Public Safety’s Broadband Network

June 12, 2018
“I've long seen the vision of what FirstNet can do for EMS. While there is still much more work to do, it's exciting to say that FirstNet is a reality.” – Kevin McGinnis, FirstNet Board Member
“I've long seen the vision of what FirstNet can do for EMS. While there is still much more work to do, it's exciting to say that FirstNet is a reality.” – Kevin McGinnis, FirstNet Board Member
By Kevin McGinnis, MPS, FirstNet Board Member

This blog is a repost from April 2018 issue of Journal of Emergency Medical Services (JEMS) EMS Insider.

For many years, I’ve been talking to my fellow paramedics and colleagues in EMS about the promise of FirstNet, the nationwide public safety broadband network. There were a lot of “whens” and “ifs” and “we expect” in those discussions.

Today, it’s exciting to no longer have to say this groundbreaking tool is coming soon. FirstNet has arrived. Currently, our network partner, AT&T, offers priority and preemption to first responders over its existing network as it expands FirstNet nationwide. The connection that FirstNet provides is helping first responders do their lifesaving mission more efficiently and effectively.

At our recent FirstNet Board Meeting in Little Rock, we heard from two Arkansas agencies that have adopted FirstNet. Metropolitan Emergency Medical Services (MEMS) serves more than half a million residents in and around Little Rock. MEMS Executive Director John Swanson says having another layer of redundancy and additional capabilities drove the agency’s decision to subscribe to FirstNet.

For the City of Bay, Arkansas, a rural community in the northeast part of the state, both the police and fire department have integrated FirstNet. Being on the same public safety network has enabled better communications between the agencies, according to Police Chief Paul Keith.

Now that FirstNet is here, this is what public safety should know about it.

Two Sides of an Innovative Partnership

In March 2017, the First Responder Network Authority selected AT&T as its private sector partner to build and deploy FirstNet to meet public safety’s needs. After the award, the two organizations worked together to issue customized plans to each U.S. state and territory. By January 2018, every governor had chosen to accept the FirstNet plan, meaning that the network is being deployed faster than we ever imagined and will truly be nationwide.

In this innovative public-private partnership, AT&T is responsible for connecting public safety subscribers to FirstNet; building and developing the service; and responding to customer needs, questions, and issues. The First Responder Network Authority is more than the government side of the partnership: we also bring significant public safety expertise, experience, and relationships to the table. Our role involves overseeing the contract with AT&T and being the voice of public safety as we advocate for every aspect of the network’s deployment and development.

FirstNet Buildout is in Progress

The First Responder Network Authority recently announced the launch of the nationwide buildout of FirstNet. AT&T has already hit the ground running on deploying FirstNet’s public safety radio spectrum (Band 14) and is investing heavily in expanding it. This radio spectrum can only be accessed via FirstNet/AT&T. It will expand broadband coverage where public safety needs it, especially in rural areas, and add capacity in population centers.

AT&T is also providing public safety with access to its existing LTE network with priority and the ability to preempt all other network traffic. This means that EMS agencies can have access to a dedicated network that connects to lifesaving data today. We don’t have to wait for a network to be built from the ground up.

With FirstNet, priority and preemption is “always on”—EMS users won’t have to take any action to enable these public safety features. This means that even services which require high speeds and greater bandwidth, like video streaming, will be available to paramedics and EMTs when the general public nearby is unable to access the Internet via a mobile device due to heavy use and congestion on commercial networks. Priority and preemption are available on FirstNet every day, and for every emergency.

The FirstNet Core Has Launched

In March of this year, AT&T also launched the FirstNet core—which serves as the “brains” and “nervous system” of the FirstNet network. The dedicated FirstNet core is built on physically separate hardware for a highly secure network and essentially separates public safety traffic from commercial traffic. The First Responder Network Authority’s engineers and experts have conducted additional testing and validation to ensure the core network stands up to public safety’s needs.

The FirstNet core brings public safety’s dedicated network to life. The first-ever nationwide LTE core infrastructure built specifically for our nation’s first responder community, it enables end-to-end encryption of public safety’s data and voice transmissions. The security of the core will also be monitored around the clock by a dedicated security team.

Additionally, FirstNet’s core enables priority and preemption and introduces a local control framework that unlocks different levels of priority. This puts more control into the hands of local public safety. For a particularly intense or long incident, local control is another tool to ensuring the network supports the most effective and efficient response.

The dedicated core is benefitting public safety now, and over the next several years, the core will enable additional mission critical features for EMS and other first responders, such as mission critical push-to-talk and location based services.

FirstNet is Fostering Innovation Driven by Public Safety

As we have done since our creation, the First Responder Network Authority is actively consulting with public safety nationwide. FirstNet continues to learn how paramedics use data and how we may best share data to get our jobs done. We are also looking at how paramedics can use advanced technologies to address unique challenges and better serve our patients.

In February, I spent a couple days at a FirstNet Stakeholder Innovations Forum hosted by the Houston Police Department. Over the course of the session, participants generated pioneering ideas and identified operational needs that could be addressed with applications and tools running over FirstNet.

The First Responder Network Authority’s Public Safety Advocacy team will be hosting more events like this, meeting with practitioners, and working hand-in-hand with our technology and innovation team to bring the feedback of practitioners into the development of applications and tools that will run on the network. The goal is to accelerate the transition of commercially focused technology for the benefit of public safety users and inspire and nurture a vibrant technology and applications developer community.

The First Responder Network Authority has also designed and built a state-of-the-art innovation and test lab where our engineers validate that approved public safety applications, devices, and tools are working properly on FirstNet. The lab will also serve as an innovation and experience center for public safety users.

Engage With Us

The First Responder Network Authority wants to hear from you. You can see how to reach our team of regional staff and subject matter experts on www.firstnet.gov. For more information on FirstNet products and services, visit www.firstnet.com.

I've long seen the vision of what FirstNet can do for EMS. While there is still much more work to do, it's exciting to say that FirstNet is a reality. Bring us your input as we shape FirstNet into the network and tool that EMS has long deserved.

Kevin McGinnis is a member of the First Responder Network Authority Board of Directors and is a nationally recognized advocate for broadband communications within the EMS community. Mr. McGinnis has been an EMS system builder since 1974, a service chief and active field paramedic, as well as the director of Maine EMS. He was selected as one of 2017's EMS10: Innovators in EMS for his work with FirstNet.

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