Category Archives: OneNet

A Lesson for FirstNet from the Forests of the Okanogan

FirstNet and OneNet

FirstNet and OneNet

As the Washington State Point of Contact (SPOC) for the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) my team and I from the state capital, Olympia, visit first responders around Washington to inform them about and involve them with developing plans for the nationwide public safety wireless network.

As you might guess, “suits” from the distant state capital are often greeted with skepticism, especially when they arrive to talk about a federal government program.

FirstNet was created by Congress in 2012 and funded with $7 billion to construct a wireless network for responders, allowing them to securely use apps, smartphones and other mobile devices to protect the public safety.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015, we visited Okanogan County and the Colville Indian Tribes.   We spent several hours with sheriffs’ deputies, firefighters, emergency managers, mayors, tribal members and civilians from four counties and the tribal reservation.

We got an earful.

The Okanogan country has been through hell.

Okanogan Wild Fire

Okanogan Wild Fire

Two years running this area has seen successively larger wild fires.   They are the largest in the recorded history of Washington.   Hundreds of residents lost their homes.   Hundreds of people barely escaped with their lives.

Three firefighters lost their lives.   Radio communications were partly to blame.

The Okanogan country is rugged.   There are few towers for the land mobile radio networks used by deputies, police, firefighters, paramedics and utilities.  Fewer towers still for cellular services.   Most towns and areas, if they have cell service, have a single tower providing that service, with multiple carriers using it.  Backhaul (connection to the Internet) for these towers is often a single fiber optic cable line, or a single microwave link.

Fire burns through fiber optic cable, particularly if it is carried on poles.  In both of the last two years fiber melted in these fires knocked out 911 service to large parts of these counties, and terminated service on cell towers.  Heroic efforts by some of commercial cellular companies re-established service but often areas were without service for weeks.  At one point the entire government of the town of Pateros operated with just one cell phone for communications for several days.

Responders here, like those throughout the state, are skeptical of FirstNet.   Their story is illustrative of the problems FirstNet must solve in order to be successful in the 95% of the nation’s geography which is rural, remote or isolated.

The first problem is simply coverage.  Most towns have cell phone and wireless data service, and sometimes service from multiple commercial carriers.  But vast tracts of land have no service, or only service if a resident drives down the road a piece.   Many people move to these areas for the remoteness, for the beauty, for the isolation.  And, with lack of Internet or cell service, that’s exactly what they get.

Coverage affects public safety.  In many cases during these wildfires, deputies and police officers and firefighters drove from door-to-door to tell people to evacuate (such orders were often ignored, as explained below).

Cell coverage affects wild land firefighting.   When a significant fire erupts, and an incident command post is created, it is often located on a state highway with cellular service.   The highway location also allows for logistics – food and support services.  Having cell service enables not just incident command, but also allows firefighters to stay in touch with their families.

Cellular phone and data coverage is important, but too often coverage is non-existent over much of these areas in the Okanogan.

Microwave Tower

Microwave Tower

The next problem is something we call “public safety grade”.  As stated above, too often multiple commercial cellular carriers all use the same tower, and it will only have battery backup or a small generator on site as backup in case of an electrical power outage.  And it often has only one connection to the outside world via microwave or fiber optic cable.  Wildfires melt fiber, and when electrical power fails the batteries also are drained after a few hours.  Of course these failures always occur during a disaster, exacerbating communications problems.

Another problem is communications access for members of the public.  For example, the entire Colville Indian Reservation – homes, businesses, tribal government buildings – has only wireless microwave links on towers for Internet access.   But the tribal government uses Facebook pages for communicating with tribal members during emergencies, and that requires reliable Internet.  Incidentally, most non-tribal fire departments and emergency management officials also use Facebook pages for public updates.  When cell service is down, when microwave towers run out of power, communications with residents and tribal members also are eliminated.

Most other, non-tribal, communities in the Okanogan face similar challenges: single cell towers or single points of failure for connections to the Internet, and usually both.

Ing-moody-soo

Mayor Soo Ing-Moody

As a matter of fact, Mayor Soo Ing-Moody of Twisp, and other public officials in the region, have publicly complained that they often receive evacuation orders only from watching commercial television stations.

And FirstNet, wonderful as it might be, will be a responder network, with priority to first responders.   The public is left out in the cold (or, in the case of wildfires, in the hot seat).   FirstNet will provide no direct communications for the public.  When their cell service fails, when the power to microwave towers serving the Colville Tribe are gone, they are “in the dark” for communications.

Finally, there is great skepticism about FirstNet phased development plans.   Residents of the Okanogan are used to getting hand-me-downs.  Although this area has a significant second-home population and tourist trade, commercial cellular companies always build in urban areas first.  Service is the Okanogan is rarely – and slowly – improved.  And that is exactly FirstNet’s present plan – build in urban areas first.

There is great skepticism about FirstNet’s promises:   better coverage, public-safety-grade coverage, for equal or less cost.  All while having a user base 5% the size of Verizon or AT&T (perhaps 5 million subscribers to cover the network’s costs, rather than more than 100 million users).   What sort of business plan magic is this?  Exactly how does that work?

Given all these challenges, local public safety and elected officials are justifiably skeptical of a federal agency, FirstNet, which comes and promises a new wireless data network for responders.

But, as always, great problems spawn great opportunity.   How can FirstNet seize this opportunity to help the people living in these remote areas?

  1. Mobile Cell Site

    Mobile Cell Site

    Deployables. The only real solution to improving coverage – especially in unpopulated areas subject to wild fires – is a robust deployable strategy.  Deployables are cell sites which would be rapidly be set up and activated when needed.  These deployables might be cell-on-wheel (COW) trucks like the commercial carriers have, or they might be cell sites carried on existing police vehicles and fire apparatus, or they might be backpackable cell sites which can be carried or driven to mountaintop locations.   Perhaps there are yet-to-be-fully-developed deployable strategies like Google’s Project Loon (balloons), drone-based cell sites (although those potentially interfere with firefighting airplanes), or low-earth orbit satellites.

But people in the Okanogan are skeptical of fragile new technology which tends to fail when it is needed most.  Satellite is slow and expensive.  And again, who pays for all this, and maintains it?    Where is it based – locally or in some distant state?

FirstNet must have a robust plan for deployables.  Ideally, such a plan would include the ability for local firefighters and state agencies to rapidly pull out the equipment, set it up, and have wireless connectivity where they need it.

  1. Public safety grade. To be “public safety grade”, cell sites in remote areas must have at least two separate connections to the outside world, for example a fiber line and a microwave link, or two fiber lines running in separate directions.  Public safety grade sites must withstand potential earthquakes or fires.   Such sites must be able to operate for many days, if not weeks, disconnected from electric utilities by using generators or solar panels.

In most cases FirstNet could “beef up” existing commercial sites by adding those features, saving scarce dollars.

  1. Access for residents. In the law which created it, Congress expressly prohibited FirstNet from offering service to businesses or consumers.  However, in a disaster when lives are at stake, such niceties as that law are ludicrous.   But there are ways to stay within the law but also address the problems mentioned by Mayor Ing-Moody and the Colville Tribes for informing their residents and tribal members.  Here are specific ideas:

(1)  When constructing the additional backhaul links above, allow tribes and local communities to use the connections for their Internet access.  For example, let’s suppose there is a cell tower with one existing microwave link to the outside world.  FirstNet could add a fiber optic line to that tower, making it more resilient – public safety grade.  Installing 24 fibers is only a tiny bit more expensive than installing two fibers.   The additional fibers could be used by tribes and remote communities for high speed internet access for their residents and tribal members.

Sonim Phone - a Band 14 Device

Sonim Phone – a Band 14 Device

(2)  FirstNet spectrum in every device.  FirstNet will operate on a specific set of 700 Megahertz frequencies called “Band 14”.   Very few smart phones or tablet computers have Band 14 built into them today.  But let’s suppose every smart phone and tablet computer sold in the United States in the future had Band 14 built in.   If such a device was used by a first responder – a volunteer firefighter or search and rescue volunteer or other public safety professional – they would easily be able to use FirstNet.  But in real disasters, when commercial services are down, responders and elected officials could activate band 14 in every device, thereby alerting citizens to danger or to evacuate.   Indeed, in incidents like hostage-taking and school lockdowns, responders could use Band 14 to securely talk to victims and teachers to rapidly assess situations.

FirstNet holds great potential to improve public safety in the many disasters and daily incidents we face.  But elected officials and responders throughout the nation are skeptical of promises without concrete plans to address the real problems faced by our communities.   FirstNet, in developing its plans for each state, needs to address the concerns of these officials through innovative, realistic, strategies which make a real difference in the lives of people throughout each state.

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Filed under disaster, emergency operations, FirstNet, OneNet, radio

How Tech Could Improve Wildland Firefighting

The deaths of three wildland firefighters Aug. 19 in Okanogan County, Wash., is both painful and tragic. Unfortunately the deaths of these firefighters is only the latest in a series of firefighter deaths from wildfires.

On June 28, 2013, nineteen Arizona firefighters lost their lives when winds suddenly shifted in the Yarnell Hill fire. An airtanker carrying flame retardant was directly overhead at the time of the tragedy, but radio communications were both spotty and overloaded.

The Thirty-Mile Fire in 2001 in Okanogan County claimed the lives of four firefighters. The firefighters violated several rules of wildland firefighting, but radio communications difficulties also prevented nearby helicopter support from reaching them.
How can modern technology help in fighting these fires and keeping firefighters out of harm’s way?

(Read the rest of this post on Geekwire here.)

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Filed under drones, firefighting, FirstNet, Internet of Things, OneNet, radio, wireless

Oregon’s FirstNet Consultation – Impressions

Oregon-consult-med-10-08-14

Oregon’s Consultation

In February, 2012 the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) was created and funded with $7 billion by Congress to build a nationwide wireless network for responders to daily incidents and larger disasters.  I sometimes call it a cellular network to connect the smart phones and tablets of cops and firefighters, but, really, anyone who responds to disasters will probably be able to use it.

FirstNet is required to consult with state governments about its plans, and then develop a design and plan for each state.   This state plan will include what parts of the state will be covered, who can use the network in the state, and what the costs will be.

FirstNet is starting to launch the consultation and design process, state by state.  I was fortunate to be present on October 8th when FirstNet staff conducted their initial consultation with officials in the state of Oregon at the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST) in Salem.   Steve Noel, Oregon Statewide Interoperability Coordinator (SWIC) hosted the meeting.  This is the third initial consultation of 56 states and territories where FirstNet will be constructed.  The State of Washington is next up for an initial consultation, which occurs on October 16th.

Here are a few of my impressions from Oregon’s consultation.

I was most intrigued to hear real-world examples of communications needs from Oregon’s responders.

Chief Mike Duyck from the Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, vice-chair of the Oregon State Interoperability Executive Council, eloquently spoke about the communications needs and possibilities of FirstNet.     He spoke about “geo-fencing” physical addresses, so when responders were called to a specific address, they would know if people with arrest warrants or histories of violence lived or frequented nearby locations.   He talked about crowdsourcing off-duty responders who are physically close to major incidents, video conferencing physicians from the scene of a medical emergency, and interconnecting traditional public safety land-mobile radios with smart phones and other cellular devices.  All-in-all, his talk was an eye-opening vision of the future of public safety communications from an active, engaged fire chief.

Cheryl Bledsoe of Clackamas 911 discusses the Mall Shooter

Cheryl Bledsoe of Clackamas 911 discusses the Mall Shooter

Cheryl Bledsoe from the Clackamas County 9-1-1 office talked about the combined use of land-mobile radio, cell phones and social media like twitter responding to the 2012 Clackamas Mall shooter.

Bledsoe, who is a prolific tweeter herself, said the first tweets from terrified citizens at the mall occurred more than two minutes before the first 911 call (see also Huffington Post article about that here).   She also related how a senior official of the Clackamas Sheriff’s department got the first word of the shooting from his daughter via a cell phone call.  She was watching social media and noticed news of the shooting, then called her dad.  My lesson from this story:  public safety needs to continue to embrace and enhance its use of smart phone apps and social media, and even the two-way use of platforms like twitter (Seattle Police are one of the best at two-way tweeting.)

Jackson County Vehicle

Jackson County Vehicle

Some of Oregon’s first responders are actively adopting commercial high-speed mobile data networks for innovative use today.   Sheriff Mike Winters, Sergeant Rick Kennedy and Jenny Hall from the Jackson County Sheriff’s department (tweeting here) brought their communications vehicle and demonstrated their use of wireless video.   They showed live video from their communications center 150 miles away, and talked about the use of live video from helicopter feeds as well as fixed locations.  They are hungry for more bandwidth and eagerly await the implementation of FirstNet to help with that.  All Jackson County deputies use smart phones which include both GPS location (so they know where other deputies are located) and applications like an interconnection to their Land-Mobile Radio network.   They also can access video from schools in the county (when authorized by the school).

David Buchanan, Rich Reed and Brian Hobson led the FirstNet team meeting with Oregon.   David has blogged about his observations here.    I was impressed by the team’s attentiveness to the concerns of Oregon’s responders, and by their honesty.   Rich Reed, FirstNet’s director of state plans, says “there are some things we know, many things we don’t know, and some things we believe” about how FirstNet will roll out nationwide.   By coming to Oregon and other states they are hoping to expand the “things they know”.

Oregon-firstnet-consult

Rich Reed addresses Oregon’s Responders

A few other observations, in no particular order:

  • FirstNet staff emphasized again and again that the network needs to be self-sustaining – FirstNet has to find sources of income to match its operational costs and investment needs. At the same time it must be affordable to responder agencies, many of whom do not use commercial networks today, or only use them in a limited fashion.
  • Oregon responders urged FirstNet to make the per-device cost equal to or less than the costs they presently pay to commercial carriers.
  • Police Chief Rock Rakosi, chair of the Oregon SIEC, eloquently spoke about the need to provide coverage for rural agencies, even though there will not necessarily be significant income for FirstNet from a rural build-out.
  • Some of those present in the room cited the need for subsidies for responding agencies with very limited budgets and potentially for volunteer firefighters or search-and-rescue volunteers.
  • Rich Reed discussed the challenge of getting FirstNet’s band 14 chips into commercial devices. He noted the new iPhone 6 has 20 different LTE spectrum bands/chips but not Band 14.
  • Karl Larson of the City of Portland raised the need for procurement contracts and vehicles in each state, so that cities, counties, state agencies and other responder entities could legally procure FirstNet services and devices.
  • Brian Hobson said FirstNet has acquired Mentum Planet modeling software to help it design coverage for states.
  • Each of the 56 states and territories who will be FirstNet partners has a “State Point of Contact” or SPOC.  Steve Noel invited SPOCs from each state bordering Oregon to attend this event, and we all did:   Rob Feeley of Idaho, George Molnar of Nevada, Karen Wong of California and my team from Washington.
  • Another critical success factor is adoption by public safety agencies and other responders.
  • According to FirstNet’s market research, sustainability is achievable as FirstNet doesn’t have to make a profit, support high overhead costs, pay spectrum licensing fees, turn a profit to (or satisfy) shareholders.   (Schrier’s note:   although FirstNet does have to satisfy its public safety user base, who are a tough crowd).

I’m looking forward to FirstNet’s coming to Washington on October 16th to have a similar dialog with our public safety leaders and other responders.  More details about that event on Washington OneNet’s website here.

(This post was slightly updated on October 15, 2014, to add the comment from Chief Rakosi and correct a minor spelling error.)

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Filed under 911, FirstNet, iPhone, OneNet