Episode 38| 100 days as CEO: Ed Parkinson on the FirstNet Authority’s past, present, and future
Dave Buchanan, FirstNet Authority Executive Director of Public Safety Advocacy
Edward Parkinson, FirstNet Authority Chief Executive Officer
Narrator: You're listening to Public Safety First, a podcast to help you learn about the First Responder Network Authority and how you can be part of the future of public safety technology.
And now, your host.
Dave Buchanan: Welcome to the Public Safety First podcast. I’m Dave Buchanan, Executive Director of the Public Safety Advocacy Division at the First Responder Network Authority. Today I’m joined by my friend, Ed Parkinson, newly-named CEO of the FirstNet Authority. Ed has been a long-time advocate of public safety comms and of public safety, from his time on the Hill to his long service here at the FirstNet Authority. It’s a pleasure to have Ed join the podcast today. Welcome, Ed, and thanks for joining us.
Edward Parkinson: Thanks, Dave. It’s great to be here. I appreciate you taking the time.
Dave Buchanan: Great. So, Ed, let’s just jump right into it. It’s been 100 days since you were appointed CEO. Those hundred days line up almost equally to the amount of time we’ve all been in our quarantine mode with limited travel and dealing with this health pandemic. Can you tell us what it’s been like to lead the organization during this time and your first 100 days?
Edward Parkinson: Yeah, it’s uncanny, isn’t it? I remember the day when we had to leave the office and do this new working from home situation. So, it’s been complicated. I think everyone out there in public safety, I think everyone out there in multiple areas and multiple businesses will sympathize with just how complicated it’s been for society in this time. For me, two big things have really been at the front and center of what we’re trying to do. One is keeping the organization connected. The culture of FirstNet is one of cohesiveness, diligent work, exceptional output, and a very high standard, and I think you’ve seen that in the work that we’ve done when you think back to consulting with the states, developing the RFP [request for proposals], working to understand what the market would do, putting a great product out there, continuing to engage with public safety, all the way through to now where we just unveiled our investments, which I’m sure we’ll talk a little bit more. But the culture is so important, and maintaining the FirstNet family that our Chairman of the Board Ed Horowitz talks a lot about. I share that, and maintaining that connection with one another, ensuring that the esprit de corps remains strong has been a really, really key part of everything I’ve been trying to do since I was lucky enough to take the reins at FirstNet.
Dave Buchanan: So, you’ve seen, and I know public safety has seen, we’ve obviously had to change the way we do our jobs. We’ve had to move to a 100 percent virtual environment, when we used to count on handshakes and looking people in the eye, we’ve now had to move to virtual engagements. Talk a little bit about what that’s meant for you, and how the team has responded in meeting that new challenge.
Edward Parkinson: Yeah, I think the wonderful thing that I’ve seen, certainly from the FirstNet Authority workforce is we haven’t skipped a beat. And, you know, there’s a lot of things that we, that the public does see when it comes to the great work that our Communications team puts together and the amazing output in terms of blog posting and social media. The Public Safety Advocacy group is always out there at the tip of the spear, engaging with public safety, being that voice for public safety, gathering the input, gathering data, and bringing that back into the FirstNet Authority. You know, we’ve got our Government Affairs team, we have our Legal team that does a lot of work around government. But, behind the scenes, there’s so much more that one doesn’t see. You know, we’ve got an exceptional CAO [Office of the Chief Administrative Officer] division. We’ve got one of the best finance teams in the business. Our CIO [Office of the Chief Information Officer] group who keeps our networks, internal networking up and running, and gives us the ability to even record this podcast, which is really the direct result of terrific planning by, you know, the leaders and the teams that we’ve had over the years at FirstNet. And so, when COVID hit and we were forced into this environment, you know, we really haven’t skipped a beat, be it engaging with public safety, working with our partners inside the Department of Commerce and NTIA [National Telecommunications and Information Administration], continuing to engage with public safety, and then just being able to have conversations and work with one another. So, you’ve seen the output of FirstNet increase, but the quality of work really pushed forward, too. So, I think we’re in an environment where we’re able to re-engage with people on a person-to-person, in-person basis, plus the capabilities that we’ve now, all across any business we’re in have gotten used to in the last three or four months, I think FirstNet is going to be uniquely positioned to take advantage of that new normal, whatever it turns into, so that we can continue to put our best foot forward for public safety.
Dave Buchanan: So, we sit in an interesting vantage point, Ed, looking at the way public safety is responding and the challenges they faced and the new demands on public safety because of COVID-19. What are you hearing from public safety? What have they been experiencing these past few months, and talk a little bit about what they’ve come to expect from FirstNet during all of this?
Edward Parkinson: Yeah, that’s a great question, because I’ve been fortunate enough to engage with a number of public safety leaders and folks from across the country and various disciplines – law enforcement, fire, EMT, 9-1-1 – and it’s amazing to see just how public safety has responded. You know, really, during this public health emergency, people are working and going to school from home, which, as you know, creates a massive strain on commercial networks. And that’s just not the case for FirstNet, solely because we are dedicated, purpose-built by public safety, for public safety, and that makes us unique. And so, first responders who are leveraging FirstNet just don’t have to compete for access to the network. And we’ve seen that, right? We’ve seen that across the board. You know, public safety requires reliable, dedicated communications. I mean, it’s absolutely vital for those on the front lines of any response, let alone what we’ve seen across the nation regarding the Coronavirus. You know, in my conversations, we’ve definitely seen FirstNet in use by healthcare workers, responders at COVID-19 testing centers, certainly in field hospitals, incident command posts, and it’s amazing to see it all come together. And, I think it’s really sort of this reflection of public safety thinking creatively in this environment to understand how they can leverage technology, in a way. But it also illustrates the strength of the partnership that we have with AT&T. Now, part of our responsibility and probably one of the most important responsibilities is holding AT&T accountable for what they’ve promised in the contract with FirstNet. But, what we’ve also seen is AT&T has seen massive increase in usage of the FirstNet system during the pandemic. And, I mean, if one goes back to the end of April, AT&T had a number of portable cell sites out there, and they were accepting tens and dozens more requests for deployable assets over time. And, you know, it’s not just the traditional public safety usage that you’ve seen prior to COVID kicking in. We’ve seen an uptick in telehealth, a huge uptick in the number of applications that are being leveraged by public safety, and I think when you combine the power of the technology that FirstNet’s able to bring along with the ingenuity of public safety and their unique ability to do so much with so little, that’s where the true value of FirstNet’s really started to come through during these last three or four months.
Dave Buchanan: And at the same time, Ed, as we’ve seen and we talked about at the board meeting recently, not only is FirstNet, sort of, meeting the new mission in helping public safety deal with this health pandemic, but they’re also meeting on everyday use and everyday situations. We heard about, in Tennessee, the movement of eight deployables to assist with tornadoes there, so, I’ve been really pleased, and I know you have, as well, at how well the network has performed as public safety’s got to deal with not only the everyday and mother nature events they have to deal with, but these new demands placed on them through COVID.
Edward Parkinson: Yeah, and you can take it even further when you think of telework and down in the city of Alexandria, Virginia – hotspots and smartphones are being leveraged by the folks down there, powered by FirstNet, and they are enabling 9-1-1 dispatchers to take calls and handle CAD [computer-aided dispatch] operations from their homes and remote locations, and that’s something they weren’t doing before. So, again, you look at the amazing response that we’ve been able to illustrate with regards to disaster recovery, but it’s also the day-in, day-out implications of the power of FirstNet that is really having a difference. And, you know, that’s what’s so pleasing for me to see because, you know, I remember, Dave, when I, myself and TJ Kennedy interviewed you all those years ago. We were thinking about what the network could be used by then, right, all those years ago. But, now that it’s in the hands of public safety, they are the ones who are using it for what they think it could be used and then they’re finding out new, ingenious ways to leverage the technology, and I just think that’s the power, again, of the combination of the power of FirstNet AT&T, what they can bring, the partnership that we have, and the unique aspect that the FirstNet Authority has, plus then, the everyday interaction of public safety – bring all that together, and you get an incredibly powerful tool, that we’re seeing is having a dramatic impact on the nation.
Dave Buchanan: So, let’s go way back, Ed. Obviously we’re chatting today here as you’ve just been appointed CEO, but you started at FirstNet almost seven years ago this summer, and, let’s go back even further if you can. Tell us a little bit about your first job in Washington, and how you got to FirstNet seven years ago.
Edward Parkinson: Yeah, no, that’s, I think July 31st, 2013 was my first day, so we’re just a few days away from my seven years, and when you say it like that, it’s extraordinary. But, you know, I was fortunate – I was working on the House Homeland Security Committee at the time, and, you know, there was this portfolio on public safety communications that no one really had, and so I, sort of, jumped into it. The member I worked for, Peter King, was out of New York, and as we know, you know, very, very passionate about public safety coming from the epicenter of 9/11, and he did a lot of work in providing tools for public safety. And the big one, the big outstanding recommendation of the 9/11 Commission was the allocation of radio spectrum for public safety. And so, by working with folks that I met up on Capitol Hill, by working with some of the great associations that are out there when you think of, International Association of Chiefs of Police, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, APCO, just so many of them who played such a key role in advising and looking at this. And when I was just a, you know, wet-behind-the-ears staffer trying to educate myself on this, there were a number of folks that came forward and were able to provide such expertise and, you know, some board members we’ve had in the past – Chuck Dowd, Jeff Johnson, as you know, was really, really supportive of this effort, Dick Mirgon back in the day, and Chris Moore, and many, many others. So, I was very fortunate to have participated in that. And the beauty about working on Capitol Hill was it wasn’t just, you know, our idea. It was bipartisan. You know, this was a terrific opportunity to bring partners in from both the House and the Senate, and, you know, you saw that, and you saw Senator Rockefeller, Senator McCain, my boss was really in, you know. We talked about Greg Walden and the role he played. Henry Waxman was a really strong supporter of the efforts. And so, you had different members from different geographic parties, who all played a key role in developing what ultimately became the FirstNet legislation.
Dave Buchanan: So, Ed, you’ve got a job that requires you to exercise a lot of leadership, obviously, at FirstNet. Tell us a little bit about who was a mentor to you. Who was a model for you as a leader that you’ve either looked at the way they did their job or you’ve leaned on to help guide your leadership style?
Edward Parkinson: You know, that’s a great question. I’m very fortunate in that, while I was born in Philadelphia, even though the accent might fool you, growing up in South Africa – which I did for most of my life – I was exposed to a fascinating time and period just as apartheid was ending and Nelson Mandela being released. You saw South Africa going through just incredible change in a relatively short period of time. And so, being exposed to that and being exposed to and watching as a young kid someone like Nelson Mandela, it was an amazing opportunity to really internalize and soak things in, even if you weren’t really knowingly doing it. His ability to coordinate, you know, different groups, bringing them together, but then to communicate and to listen. I think, you know, there are so many incredible leaders out there in the past who have seen the results, but, I think, you know, Nelson Mandela’s unique ability to listen, to speak to people. You know, he learned Afrikaans, which was the language of the oppressive apartheid regime. He learned that while he was in prison. And so, to come out of prison to then be able to speak to his captors in their language was such an amazing piece of his story, you know, I think that’s a lesson we can all take. When we go into an environment that we don’t understand, if we can put ourselves in other people’s shoes and understand the perspective that they are bringing to the table. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. That’s why, you know, I’ve been fortunate enough to surround myself with just such incredible leaders at FirstNet. We’ve got Jeff Bratcher, who was acting CEO before my appointment. You know, he’s been with the organization for so long. We’ve got Lisa Casias, the Deputy CEO. You know, she just brings a wealth of experience, and someone that I really rely on a lot. But, across the board. I mean, lucky enough, you’ve been around for a long time, and we’ve been able to be in the trenches together, which has been a lot of fun, and we’ve gotten a lot of great work done, but there’s an incalculable number of people who deserve the credit of getting FirstNet to this point. I’ve just played a small piece in the larger puzzle, and, you know, I feel very fortunate to now have the responsibility that the board have entrusted in me in leading the organization. And, you know, we’ve got an amazing group of people who really are performing at levels that, I think, would blow anyone away. And to be part of this FirstNet team is, really, it’s just an absolute privilege.
Dave Buchanan: Yeah, I think we’re very lucky to work for such a terrific organization with an amazing mission. It makes it very easy to “go to work” every day, but the people we work with is probably the best part, so thanks for mentioning that, Ed. Let’s talk a little bit about what we just accomplished at FirstNet. In June, the board and the FirstNet Authority achieved a major milestone, yet another one, with the announcement of its first network investments. Tell our listeners about what it took to get there, and why these are so important to our evolution at FirstNet.
Edward Parkinson: Well, I think when the book is written about FirstNet, or the business plan, or whatever it may be, this is going to be a key milestone, and I think it’s important from a historical perspective to, kind of, look back from where we came to now where we are, and, you know, we talked about this internally a little bit about how we’ve really gone into the fourth phase of the project, you know, phase one beginning with the creation of the legislation, the first board being brought up, Sam Ginn as our first chair. The development of the RFP and the consultation with the states, you know, Rich Reed leading that effort and doing so in a way that was able to capture, you know, millions and millions of data points from public safety that were put into the RFP. And then ultimately going through that procurement process and awarding the RFP in March of ’17 to AT&T, and that, kind of, was that phase one period. And then, phase two was 2017, where we worked with the states during opt-in/opt-out, and, ultimately, all 56 states and territories and D.C. choosing to go with the FirstNet plan, I thought, you know, I was part of the team that was working through that, and, you know, a herculean effort to really listen to public safety, listen to the states, and understand where they were coming from so that we could really incorporate their thoughts and reflect them in the state plans. And then, you know, once the network was starting to be deployed, how could we as an organization provide that strategic oversight over the project? And that was key because no one had done something like this on the scale, size, complexity, and scope ever before. You know, it’s one of the biggest public-private partnerships in United States history. And to bring in such experts who have worked on this program for so many years, you know, I can’t name everyone, but there’s just been a herculean effort to get us to this point. And so, ultimately, that led to where we are today, and the legislation calls for the reinvestment of revenue back into the network, and that’s what we were able to do. And so, by reinvesting over $200 million, both in terms of 5G and deployables, back into the network, we’re setting up the network for future success. And that is, I think the key of what we’re trying to do. You know, we’re trying to lay the foundation of where the network is going to go in the future. And being now at the cusp of 5G, seeing how public safety is leveraging technology in ways that they never have before, it’s a really, really exciting time to be part of this project.
Dave Buchanan: Yeah, the brilliance for me of the legislation and of our business model, Ed, is that reinvestment portion right there. The fact that we now have a process not only investing these dollars, but investing them in the most pressing needs that public safety tells us are the most important priorities to continue to evolve and improve their network, it really is a critical component to what I think makes FirstNet, FirstNet, and it’s been exciting, I know, for our public safety-focused team as we engage with public safety to be able to explore those issues and topics and the Roadmap domain issues with public safety, capture that feedback, and then to watch the organization be able to take that feedback and turn it into actual investments. I think it’s really been incredible, and I’m excited to be on the front end of this. I’m looking forward to where we’re going to go in the future.
Edward Parkinson: Yeah, and there’s another piece there, too, which is the actual RFP, right, and how we now have to complement what the law says we needed to do with this recapitalization model that, you know, people like Sue Swenson, Jeff Johnson, TJ Kennedy, Mike Poth, John Quinlan, and everyone who worked on the development of that program – they were all instrumental in developing this recapitalization model. And so, now for us to be in a position where we can create thought processes around strategic investments, and where public safety will be at the center point of all of that – I just think it’s an amazing opportunity. And it’s unique, right? There’s no other network that does that, that puts public safety first and makes them part, not only of the development of the ideas, but ultimately benefits from the final decision points that are made.
Dave Buchanan: So, we’ve got investment number one done. Where do you hope to be with the organization in the next three to five years? What are your hopes and expectations for FirstNet?
Edward Parkinson: Yeah, I think it’s really interesting when you look now at say, the commercial marketplace and how things have sped up, incredibly so in the past 18, 24 months, and especially in places like 5G. When you look at how there are other networks around the world – the ESN group in the U.K., SafeNet in South Korea, there are a number of other countries who are looking to deploy future networks – there is now a global public safety broadband marketplace, which, before FirstNet, there was none. And, so, to be at the point that was really the catalyst for this global explosion in public safety broadband, I think is tremendously exciting because ultimately, if we get this right and we can coordinate with our partners and we can work with industry, we and public safety here in the United States will benefit – in terms of price points, choice, competition, all of it. And so, making sure that we are at the forefront of this global breadth of public safety broadband, I think is really, really important, and, intrinsic in that is obviously 5G and, you know, we’re going to be ready for that. Our investments are really setting us up for that, which is really, really exciting. I think, too, when you think of the next three to five years, it’s also about capturing how public safety leverages the network. And I spoke about that a little bit earlier, but, you know, there’s nothing better to give a tool to someone, and for them to play around with it and come back with four or five different ideas on how you might actually leverage that same tool or device or whatever it may be. And so, when you put this power of FirstNet in the hands of public safety, they will leverage it in a way and they will guide us in a way, that will really lead us in the right direction. And we tried to capture that in the Roadmap that we published last August. We’ve got the six domains focused in on there, which is really going to drive and act as the blueprint for how we’re going to make strategic investments in the future. But, of course, like anything, it’s a living, breathing document, and as technology evolves, from 2G to 3G to 4G to 5G, the way that public safety leverages that technology will evolve, and we as FirstNet will continue to evolve to make sure that we are staying up with the times, making sure that we can provide the best network for public safety here in the United States, so that ultimately, you know, we can create a safer working environment, which ultimately will save lives out there in the field. It will protect people, and help the American people, and what greater job is there? It’s pretty, pretty exciting stuff.
Dave Buchanan: Ed, this summer, we will be releasing our solicitation for the Harlin McEwen Award for Excellence in Leadership and Public Safety Broadband. People in the public safety communications and public safety officials community can look to our website, where they can nominate their colleagues and peers for this prestigious award that we give to those who exhibit excellence in leadership and public safety communications. Can you talk a little bit about Harlin and what he means to FirstNet?
Edward Parkinson: Yeah, thanks Dave, appreciate you raising this. The Harlin McEwen Award is the biggest honor we can give at FirstNet, and Harlin has been, for lack of a better expression, the godfather of public safety communications for, basically, longer than your career and my career combined. He, you asked the question earlier on about mentors, and he’s certainly been a mentor to me. When I first started on Capitol Hill, he was gracious enough to provide me so much insight into the historical difficulties that public safety faced around communications, and he’s really been at the forefront of what everyone has looked to when one thinks of public safety broadband. And, you know, the recipients of the award being Harlin, Tom Sorley, and Sheriff Neil Miller just last December – they really are the leaders in their fields in terms of forward thinking, really innovative thinking around public safety broadband and public safety communications, trying to keep public safety at the forefront of where technology is, leveraging new ideas and thinking differently around this. So, if folks are listening and they would like to nominate peers and colleagues, please do so. This is a tremendous honor, and one that, you know, I feel very fortunate to be part of in terms of knowing the man and being part of the history of the organization. I hope Harlin doesn’t give me and you too hard of a time in raising this, but, you know, he’s been a tremendous friend to public safety over the years, and someone who, if it wasn’t for Harlin, none of us would be here today.
Dave Buchanan: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more, Ed. Thank you for sharing that, and thank you for joining the podcast today. This was a great conversation, I really enjoyed it. I know our listeners are going to enjoy getting to know you a little bit better. They got to learn about what this has meant for us at FirstNet during these last 100 days where we’ve been quarantined in the middle of this global health pandemic, and we got to chat a bit about where we’re headed in the future, and I’m excited about where we’re going and I’m excited about what we can do for public safety, and thanks again for joining the podcast today.
Edward Parkinson: Thanks, Dave. Appreciate the time today. It’s a privilege, again, to be part of FirstNet, let alone leading the organization, you know. We’ve got such a great team, we’ve got such a fantastic group of people, and talk about the best job that’s out there – to be able to serve people who are looking after us, keeping us safe, and, that’s really a tremendous honor to be part of the organization. So, thanks again for the time. Appreciate it.
Dave Buchanan: Thank you.
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