When Iowa needed a backup communications network for its public safety answering points, or PSAPs, the state turned to FirstNet. Blake DeRouchey shared how Iowa uses FirstNet as a failover so 9-1-1 calls stay connected. DeRouchey is 9-1-1 program manager for the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and represents the National Association of State 911 Administrators on the FirstNet Authority's Public Safety Advisory Committee.
FirstNet as a data connection
Iowa provides FirstNet to its PSAPs—also referred to as emergency communication centers—as backup to the regular ESInet connection in case it fails or is offline for maintenance.
“A lot of folks, myself included, might think of FirstNet in terms of devices, handsets, and calling from one user to another,” said DeRouchey. “In this situation, we're using it primarily for the LTE and data connection.”
FirstNet functions as a backup to the regular ESInet, or emergency services internet protocol network, that handles 9-1-1 calls and services. If the network experiences a maintenance window or fiber cut, FirstNet is on active standby to automatically provide connectivity.
“The connection seamlessly fails over. Even if a live 9-1-1 call is in progress, the call doesn't drop and the switch is made, unbeknownst to the call taker or caller,” said DeRouchey.
Because FirstNet was built for the demands of public safety operations, the network provides a reliable and prioritized connection to keep first responders communicating.
Iowa’s 9-1-1 centers have experienced the reliability of FirstNet. “It has consistently worked,” he said. “The feedback from PSAPs about the FirstNet backup has been nothing but positive.”
Shared services for 9-1-1
FirstNet is part of a shared services model for Iowa’s PSAPs. The state developed this model as a cost-saving measure to make the latest technology available to PSAPs across the state.
“Previously PSAPs would have to purchase their own call-handling equipment, which was expensive and had a short shelf life.” said DeRouchey. “With this program, the state buys the base model for them, and they can upgrade to any bells and whistles on their own.”
Participation in the program is voluntary, but Iowa has created an attractive package that encourages PSAPs to opt in. The base option includes remote access to call-handling technology and FirstNet for backup. In addition, PSAPs can choose other shared features like computer aided dispatch, emergency medical dispatch, mapping, and a call logging recorder.
So far, 70 out of 112 PSAPs have enrolled in the shared services program. “A lot of PSAPs have opted in because they know they get the FirstNet backup,” said DeRouchey. “It's been very successful.”
No single point of failure
The Iowa Communications Network is a publicly owned fiber network that has served as Iowa’s ESInet since 2010. It provides the backbone connectivity for PSAPs to remotely access the centralized call-handling equipment. DeRouchey recognized that they needed a secondary connection that was totally separate from the Iowa Communications Network.
“Enter FirstNet—a great solution for us. It ensured that there was not going to be a single point of failure,” he said.
“Before shared services, there was just one connection into the PSAP, and now we have an environment where 70 PSAPs have a backup. Plus we are saving money through a technological consolidation,” said DeRouchey. “So it's multiple reasons for the value add.”
Public safety focus
Iowa chose FirstNet because of the unique features of the network designed for first responders. “We wanted FirstNet’s public safety focus,” said DeRouchey.
“FirstNet’s priority and preemption helped us know that the connection was going to stay up—even in the case of a large emergency where the normal terrestrial LTE signal might get congested,” said DeRouchey.
DeRouchey said that other 9-1-1 agencies can replicate the success Iowa has had using FirstNet as backup. “Anyone could engineer this with their call handling solution provider as well as their ESInet provider or just by reaching out to FirstNet,” he said. “It just takes a discussion.”
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