Before joining the FirstNet Authority as the EMS subject matter expert, Jon Olson spent 31 years working in EMS in Raleigh, North Carolina. He chose a career in public safety after seeing his father serve as a volunteer firefighter and one of the nation’s first EMTs.
He started as a paramedic and worked his way up to deputy director before retiring in 2021. He was also involved the fire service and has worked at the local emergency operations center and state incident management team.
We recently sat down with Jon to discuss his perspective on how the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network has evolved from concept to solution and how FirstNet will help advance EMS operations into the future.
How did you see communications tools and methods change during your career?
We have come so far in communications during my career. Originally, we had these two-channel radios that were on a simplex radio system. Sometimes your portable radio would allow you to talk to your telecommunicator and sometimes it wouldn’t. I remember trying to get closer to a window or stand up a little bit taller, hoping a signal would get out.
Today we have thousands of talk groups, trunked radio systems, and a variety of cellular and LTE devices. We've got choices that are more ruggedized and mission critical for what we do. The devices are smaller and far more reliable than in previous years.
The concept of a nationwide public safety broadband network came about after the events of September 11, when first responders experienced gaps in information sharing between disciplines, agencies, and jurisdictions. We have developed and implemented FirstNet to fill those gaps.
The greatest impact FirstNet has today and will have tomorrow is in information sharing. Now our responsibility is to find innovative ways to make communications more automated, more seamless, and more real-time.
What made you want to work with the FirstNet Authority?
When the FirstNet Authority’s Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) was first formed years ago and looking for EMS representatives, I was really interested because we were starting to use broadband wireless in the EMS world.
Looking back, the best part about being a PSAC member then was we didn't have a network, we had a concept. So, we got to help shape the future of the network. We constantly were asked, “We're building this network for public safety – what do you want? What does it have to do? What are your expectations?” We worked within our group and with our constituents to find the answers that resulted in the FirstNet of today.
I wanted to come work for the FirstNet Authority because when you get involved with something early on and watch it grow, you get invested. I believe in FirstNet. When I first heard of the concept over a decade ago, the first question I asked the gentleman introducing FirstNet was, “Do you think one day we'll be able to beam people to the hospital like on Star Trek?” And the answer wasn't no. The answer was, “We haven't developed that technology yet.” And that inspired me to get on board and see where this would go. And I've been very impressed so far.
Where do you see FirstNet having the greatest impact for EMS personnel?
I see FirstNet being able to assist EMS personnel today in expanding access to care at the patient’s side, not just with being able to do telehealth with a physician, but also being able to find answers and solutions to their problems. FirstNet gives us a medium to find those answers, whether by accessing an online pharmaceutical guide, talking to a physician, or consulting other resources.
In assessing and treating patients, FirstNet gives us the ability to open up the world of health care experience and knowledge and bring that to patients in the pre-hospital setting to make the best decisions possible.
The best solutions in EMS are often thought up in the front seat of an ambulance. That's where the real fixes come. A lot of work might be needed to make those fixes viable and implementable, but that's where the ideas start. My message to the EMS community about FirstNet is – now we have this network that gives us the capabilities we need, so let’s create those innovative solutions.
In your role as the FirstNet Authority’s EMS subject matter expert, how do you work with public safety?
My primary role is to get out there and meet with the EMS community to understand how they're using technology and how they want to use technology. I see my role as engaging with the EMS community to make sure everything in the field is done as efficiently, effectively, and safely as possible for responders using the available technology. I want to know the challenges they’ve never considered solving with technology, so we can think about the technology that's yet to come.
I want to be a conduit when somebody has a problem or an idea for a solution. I can engage with them and connect to the engineers and solution builders to see if it can happen. I want people in EMS to know that a world of resources is available to them.
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