FirstNet and 9/11 Recommendations

Although I typically focus on helping people understand and navigate through NYC hiring labyrinth, or provide use cases or examples of workplace situations that one may encounter within the NYC environment, in this post I’d like to speak on my other passion – Public Safety Radio and Information Technology.

Something big just took place last month – all 50 states  opted in to the government’s FirstNet plan. This will become a nationwide broadband communications network that is expected to provide interoperability among First Responders.

Now, to all the proponents – this post is not meant to be negative, or take away anything from the proposed network. I, myself, am a proponent of it. With over 38 years in the Public Safety Radio and Information Technology business in both the private and public sector, I understand the need and importance of this. Anything that can help improve communications should be beneficial. But – it’s more than the technology. It’s more than bandwidth and system availability and mean time between failures. It’s more than coverage and subscriber life cycle and ruggedness. The technology is solid. Coverage can be improved as needed (generally). Improvements in battery chemistry continuously evolve. I know – I thrive in and continuously absorb and embrace the changes in the industry.

The challenge will be on the operations side. What agency will be allowed to speak with what other agency? Who will be in control of the access to the system? And, do we want everyone to be able to communicate with anyone at anytime? Who is the boss and when would a firefighter, paramedic, or EMT switch channels and lose contact with their own command?

Here’s an example. We all know that the WTC towers collapsed on 9/11. But, according to the 9/11 Commission Report on page 291, “No one anticipated the possibility of a total collapse.” This was again reiterated on page 302 in a similar way.

On page 309 and 310, it was discussed that some NYPD ESU officers advised some firefighters to evacuate but “… essentially refused to take orders from cops.”

So, let’s say, for argument’s sake that the firefighters listened to the PD and went back down to the command post – however, the building(s) did NOT collapse? What do you think the FD Chief at the command post would say? What about the people that could have been saved had the firefighters continued up? Would the FD Chief redirect the team back up? Would the FD officer of the firefighter team be held accountable for failure to perform because he evacuated based on information from a police officer in a stairway?

Fast forward to using the National Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN or FirstNet). IF the system could work in a stairwell, and is used for voice in addition to data (the initial operation will support data services only but there is discussion in having mission critical voice in the future), how would the firefighters use it? Would they switch to a PD channel if they couldn’t reach their chief? What if a police officer switched to their channel and said “evacuate”?

By the way, this interoperability is available now in NYC. The radios are all on the same frequency band. But the same operational issues exist.

In the Atlantic there was an article written by Steven Brill that I believe to be very accurate. His statement “Whether police and fire commanders were coordinating with one another sufficiently in a command center—an issue raised in later investigations—has nothing to do with whether police and firefighters in the building should have been able to talk on interoperable radios” is right on the money. It is about the operations – not the technology.

One statement in the article reinforces some of my discussion points. A comment from the FirstNet official was “…what if there’s a fireman in New York who’s touring West Point and is needed to help rescue someone off a mountain? Wouldn’t you want him to be able to use his radio?” Mr. Brill does provide a gentle response – but I’d like to expand a bit on that. Using that example, what would a fireman be doing with his department radio on a tour of West Point? If I was on vacation and had my radio with me, I’d bet my wife would have a few choice words. But let’s say it’s my phone and my phone is my FirstNet radio too. How would I be notified of an issue at West Point? Would I be able to just “tune in”? Under whose authority would I be allowed to talk on West Point Fire channels? Could I just “tune in” the West Point PD too? Notwithstanding that West Point, NY is a military academy and additional protections and authorizations would most likely be needed to be allowed to operate on their channels…

Let’s expand on that a bit more. Let’s say I’m with my volunteer fire company and several of us have our FirstNet radios. We stumble across this incident and offer to assist. Who will authorize us on their channel? If we have a “mutual aid” channel available, will they be willing to use it along with their own channel? Will they have enough resources to handle their own radio traffic along with the mutual aid channel? Can they link them? And, oh, by the way, there’s someone on the mountain that needs help… have any extra rappelling gear we can borrow?…

Due to the technical complexity, Mission Critical Voice on FirstNet is slated for sometime in the future, so this initial deployment will be using data only and non-mission critical voice, like phone calls and connections to existing Public Safety Radio (aka, Land Mobile Radio systems, or LMR) systems using interfaces. Cops could run plate checks, open warrants; Firefighters can download building plans, hydrant locations, etc. All good stuff. They’ve replaced their disparate existing outdated legacy data systems with FirstNet. But the only thing interoperable is that they are using the same AT&T system. A cop won’t need to look for hydrants and a firefighter won’t be doing plate checks (with the exception of maybe Fire Marshals).

The LMR interoperability was supposed to be relieved through the Project 25 (P25) compliance program. All LMR manufacturers partnered with members of the public safety communications community and through the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) the P25 program defined how equipment would technically work and how it should be configured, among other aspects. Today, Public Safety grade LMR equipment is “P25 compliant”. However, because it was a user-driven standards body, and not an FCC or other governmental ruling, manufacturers were still able to add features that maybe would enhance performance, but deviate from the P25 standard. Users who bought into those features, and the systems that supported them, would lose their P25 interoperability on their channels. Outside agencies that wanted to be part of a mutual aid plan and use those channels now had to still buy that manufacturer’s equipment if they wanted interoperability. For some jurisdictions, the costs for the radios are prohibitive, and, again, interoperability is lost. Either the outside agency has to pay to play, or the host agency has to have a cache of radios to deploy to responding units.

The difference with FirstNet may be that AT&T is running with the program with government oversight and support. States could have opted out and built their own system that MUST interface to the FirstNet system. There were also specific conditions, timelines, and requirements that had to be met for those opting out. Only New Hampshire considered opting out – but with a deadline looming decided to opt-in.

So let’s keep moving forward. The remarkable technology that is helping the First Responders stay safe and improve service. But it’s much, much more than the technology. It’s up to the big bosses to decide how we’ll interoperate – not just at a technology level – but a command and control level.

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