An Oakland County Sheriff’s Office SUV, helicopter, motorcycle, and cruiser with emergency lights activated sit outside at sunset

FirstNet: Providing Mobility and Flexibility for Michigan Law Enforcement

This blog is a repost from the Summer 2021 edition of Michigan Police Chiefs Magazine. The original article can be accessed on pages 16-19 here.

Technology is critical to the work of today’s police force. Decades ago, we were celebrating the development of centralized databases and the advent of computer-aided dispatch systems. Now, agencies can use drones, thermal imaging, and other Internet of Things (IoT) devices to enhance police operations and make officers more efficient and safer on the job.

Mobile broadband technology is a key component of these advances. 4G LTE – and soon 5G – connections enable officers to access the same resources in the field as they would sitting at a computer in a police station. Gone are the days of having to return to the station to complete reports or upload video footage. And FirstNet – the only nationwide broad-band network dedicated to public safety – provides officers the reliable broadband connection they need to operate on a daily basis or during any incident or emergency.

Police departments and sheriff’s offices in Michigan are taking advantage of the secure, dedicated connection FirstNet offers. With FirstNet, they are experiencing the direct benefits of mission critical capabilities like priority and preemption, which prioritize public safety traffic over commercial traffic, enabling first responders to communicate with minimal or no interruption – even when networks are congested. For agencies like the Grand Rapids Police Department and the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, FirstNet is making a difference and aiding officers in better serving their communities.

Grand Rapids Police Department

The Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) is a full-service police department under the leadership of Chief Eric Payne. The department serves the city of Grand Rapids, a largely urban area and home to approximately 200,000 residents. Units within the GRPD include the Special Response Team, Vice Unit, Community Engagement Unit, and a Mounted Unit. They also run the city’s emergency communications center, providing call-taking and dispatching services for the police and fire departments.

The GRPD subscribed to FirstNet in 2018, after experiencing capacity and coverage issues throughout the city. They decided it needed a resilient network that provided officers priority and preemption to remain connected through network congestion. The GRPD is using FirstNet in their everyday operations to effectively and efficiently serve the residents and visitors of Grand Rapids.

FirstNet Increases Efficiency During Calls

Captain David Schnurstein has been with the GRPD for more than 20 years. He has seen the technology needs of officers evolve and has played a crucial role in advancing communications for the department. Mobile broadband is central to his strategy.

The GRPD patrol cars have FirstNet-enabled routers, connecting the officers’ mobile data terminals to the databases and resources they need. This connectivity enables officers to run queries and look up information in the field rather than calling it in to dispatch, making the response to calls more efficient. The computer also makes information readily available for officers to use across traffic citations or other police reports. This minimizes the amount of retyping information and saves officers valuable time. The officers are also able to upload in-car and body-worn camera footage and digital evidence from the field using the FirstNet connection.

Captain Schnurstein explained the importance of having a stable LTE connection while on the job. “We have to have broadband data out there in the field. That’s where the work is,” he emphasized. “With that data connection, officers can review video, they can review reports, they can do anything they need to from the laptop in the vehicle and not have to be sitting in the station. Having reliable, high-speed, wireless internet access is pretty critical to that.”

FirstNet Allows for Greater Flexibility

After serving in various areas throughout the department, Captain Schnurstein understands the many ways that mobile broadband can benefit public safety. The GRPD is looking at using PTT on FirstNet to keep everyone connected, especially for undercover officers, management-level roles, or situations where a radio is impractical or inaccessible. “It affords you the ability, in a management or a command role, to be able to monitor what’s going on in your area of responsibility,” said Schnurstein. “You’re no longer dependent on being in range of your radio network. As long as you have an internet connection, you can hear that traffic and have some situational awareness beyond what someone’s calling and relaying to you.”

Captain Schnurstein also sees FirstNet enabling more flexibility for 9-1-1 services. More public safety answering points (PSAPs) are building backup centers in the event the main PSAPs facility is inaccessible. Captain Schnurstein believes advanced technology, infrastructure, and FirstNet will make it possible to have fewer pieces of equipment required in those backup centers, allowing call-taking and dispatching services to happen from anywhere.

Oakland County Sheriff’s Office

The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) is the largest full-service sheriff’s office in the state. Led by Sheriff Michael J. Bouchard, the agency provides contract police services to 365,000 residents in 15 cities, villages, and townships, provides support services to the entire county of 1.25 million residents, patrols 450 inland lakes, runs a full-service accredited forensic laboratory, oversees a 1,600-inmate jail, and operates several specialty units.

The OCSO subscribed to FirstNet in early 2018 to support its connectivity needs. Since then, the agency has used FirstNet to give deputies access to advanced capabilities that help them better serve and protect communities throughout Michigan. Lieutenant Steven Schneider has been with OCSO for more than 25 years. As the main IT liaison for the agency, he is responsible for all technology and related equipment for corrections, the crime lab, and patrol. Lieutenant Schneider said that FirstNet has enabled his agency to expand their use of technology to many different devices. “Every time something comes up where I need to have connectivity, I immediately look to FirstNet.”

Push-To-Talk on FirstNet Augments Radio Communications

One of the initial ways the OCSO used FirstNet is for LTE push-to-talk (PTT) capabilities, enabling deputies to communicate at the push of a button from their smartphones. Lieutenant Schneider described using PTT as a way for deputies to save time and carry out their duties as efficiently as possible without tying up the radio or dispatch unnecessarily. Each specialty unit and substation within the OCSO has a PTT channel for quick and easy communication within their group. PTT also provides a backup option in the event the agency’s land mobile radio system is unavailable, or if a deputy’s radio dies while in the field.

FirstNet Securely Transmits Sensitive Data

The OCSO is also using FirstNet to support inmate services at the Oakland County Jail. Secure, state-approved applications are used on tablets with ruggedized cases to connect inmates to remote court proceedings, telehealth medical visits, and mental health services, such as evaluations by licensed psychiatrists, regular appointments and sessions, and competency evaluations by the state forensic center.

Security of the data is critical to the OCSO, as the tablets are used to transmit sensitive information. FirstNet is built with end-to-end encryption, user authentication, and round-the-clock monitoring to protect the data that first responders share and receive. Lieutenant Schneider explained that using the tablets on the FirstNet network gives them confidence their connection is secure and reliable. “The tablets are utilizing full LTE service,” said Schneider. “In doing so, we dedicate ourselves to high-speed communications, and we lose the lag time or some of the other interruptions you may have by utilizing Wi-Fi. This has worked out extremely well for us.”

Mobile Solutions Provide Cost Savings

Lieutenant Schneider explained how FirstNet gives law enforcement agencies access to technology that enhances the way they perform their jobs. “There are a whole host of things I can do utilizing FirstNet that touches all the different areas of law enforcement,” he said. “We want to see our Deputies having that freedom and being able to utilize the technology in a fashion that is going to be more productive.”

To provide deputies with access to as many resources as possible, the OCSO is exploring options to transform their in-vehicle computing options. The agency has launched a mobility project testing a vehicle docking system, enabling deputies to use their cellphones as a one-stop shop communications tools – from dispatching to accessing secure databases and more. This gives deputies the flexibility to access data while maintaining maximum mobility on duty.

While in their vehicles, the phone can be plugged into a dock and operate as a laptop. When they arrive on-scene, deputies and investigators can take the phone with them and securely access all the same databases, resources, and law enforcement-sensitive information as they would using mobile data computers fixed in patrol cars. As a dedicated network for first responders, FirstNet enables mobile access to this information via its reliable, secure, and prioritized connection for public safety users.

Transitioning to a mobile in-vehicle experience will give deputies more freedom while on patrol, allowing them to better serve their communities. These solutions will also provide a major cost savings to the agency. The OCSO estimates this could potentially save $2,500 per car for 200 patrol cars – a total savings of $500,000.

FirstNet is Built for Public Safety

Law enforcement agencies are responsible for many tasks that extend beyond patrol. As officers and deputies face daily incidents and once-in-a-lifetime emergencies, FirstNet enables them to do their jobs more efficiently with a reliable, secure connection to the communications tools they need.

If you have questions or would like to get more information on how FirstNet can support state and local public safety, contact Kyle Richardson, Senior Public Safety Advisor for Michigan, at Kyle.Richardson@firstnet.gov or (202) 510-8122.

Learn more about how FirstNet is transforming communications for law enforcement — sign up for our law enforcement newsletter and visit firstnet.gov/police. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn for the latest FirstNet Authority updates. .

For information on FirstNet products and services or to access your subscriber account, visit FirstNet.com.     

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