Ed Parkinson, Director of Government Affairs for the First Responder Network Authority, visited Washington State (“the other Washington”) and Oregon this week. Mr. Parkinson met with senior officials here in Washington, including the State CIO, Michael Cockrill, and the Director of Emergency Management. He met with Oregon State officials and also gave a talk at the joint meeting of the independent telecommunications companies of Oregon and Washington. His appearance here in the Pacific Northwest gives me some additional hope for this noble effort called FirstNet.
The First Responder Network Authority was created by Congress in February, 2012. It was authorized to use $7 billion in funds obtained from the auction of spectrum to wireless telecommunications companies. FirstNet’s mission is to design and build a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network. Congress broadly defined “public safety” as not just First Responders like cops and firefighters, but also transportation, utilities, public works and anyone who has a role in responding and fixing the incidents that occur every day, as well as responding to major disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.
I am known as a skeptic of FirstNet’s progress, which I’ve blogged about in the past (Is FirstNet Stalled?).
But I’m also definitely heartened by recent developments in FirstNet’s efforts.
My current weather forecast for FirstNet is “fair and warmer”. Ed’s visit, plus a couple of other recent events contribute to that forecast. There are, however, a few storm clouds still on the horizon.
Here are some factors contributing to my sunnier forecast for FirstNet:
- “We’re going to work with states to design this network.” FirstNet doesn’t just have a 12 step plan – it has a forty-five (45) step plan to design a network for each state. The plan includes a number of specific actions and meetings where local and state public safety officials will be engaged to specify the areas the network must cover, who will be authorized to use it, and how much it will cost.
- FirstNet Folks are everywhere, underground and in the air. FirstNet acting general manager T. J. Kennedy, Ed Parkinson and other senior staff spend a lot of time speaking at conferences, talking to folks on the sidelines, answering questions, calling folks on the phone and responding to email. The procurement staff seem to be open to meeting with almost anyone who may have a service usable to FirstNet (if you can find their contact information). This represents a refreshing level of engagement.
- State Consultation is on the Fast Track. FirstNet promised to publish a set of criteria on how they will work with states to design the network in each state by April 30th. And they met the deadline! David Buchanan is driving this process forward despite being short-staffed. FirstNet is actively working with state points of contact (like me) to set up meetings and come meet with local fire and police chiefs, mayors, sheriffs, county commissioners and others. The fact that Ed Parkinson visits with governors and states like Oregon and Washington is a positive sign.
- A draft RFP by the end of 2014. FirstNet officials have promised a comprehensive request for proposals (RFP) for equipment and services. They’ve also promised to publish a draft of that RFP for review/comment by states, local jurisdictions and the vendor community. This is an excellent approach, as it should produce a good set of contracts which FirstNet can tap to build the network.
- Public comment and review. FirstNet promises to ask its stakeholders – police and fire departments, transportation departments, electric and water utilities, commercial companies supplying products and others – to review some of its plans and ideas. These “public comments” build on a series of requests for information (RFIs) which FirstNet issued last year. This public comment process has worked well for other agencies such as the FCC and should help to generate good ideas for FirstNet. But as of this moment, such a process is still just a promise.
Here are some of the storm clouds or difficult waters which FirstNet still needs to navigate:
- “I’m from the Federal Government, and I’m here to help.” Congress said FirstNet is an “independent authority” within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Yeah. Right. FirstNet is part of the Federal government. When a citizen calls 911, the FBI doesn’t show up. The local fire or police department shows up. Usually within 4 to 10 minutes. And those local responders depend on local radio networks and local 911 centers for dispatch and communications. Anyone who has waited in a line at the social security office (“your current wait time is one hour, 54 minutes”) or a veteran’s hospital (“your current wait time is 2 years, 54 days”) knows what a federal bureaucracy can be like. FirstNet has acknowledged it is subject to the onerous Federal Acquisition Regulation for buying stuff and the ponderous Federal personnel process for hiring staff. FirstNet needs to show it is nimble and able to meet the needs of the cop on the beat or the electric company lineworker on a pole inches away from a 25 kilowatt power line.
- How much will it cost me? Will it be sustainable? Will there be enough money to build and operate it? These are all questions which those of us who are state points of contact (SPOCs) get every day. And, hopefully, they will be answered as design moves forward.
- Staffing. FirstNet is charged with creating technical designs and business plans for each one of 56 states and territories. Due to the onerous Federal personnel process (see above), most FirstNet staff have been hired as transfers from other federal agencies – that’s much easier to do than to hire people with experience on the street but outside the Federal personnel system. Finding highly skilled technical staff has been even more of a problem and charged with controversy. But gee, here we are, two+ years after FirstNet was created, and the agency is really not staffed to do its work, with only about 50 Federal employees and maybe 20 contractors. Of course the real numbers are murky because of …
- Transparency (or lack thereof). President Obama promised an open, transparent, government on his first day in office, January 20, 2009. But Federal agencies have been as secretive as ever in withholding real information from citizens, as shown in a recent PBS documentary. I’ve urged FirstNet to trumpet every small success, to acknowledge failures, to talk publicly about every person they hire, full-timer or contractor, to be open about their roadmap and finances. I know FirstNet staff struggle within the straightjacket of Department of Commerce policies on this. And I’m heartened by their embracing regular webinars with stakeholders, Twitter (at least five FirstNet folks tweet) and blogging to improve transparency. But, gee, where is the list of FirstNet staff and contact information on their website? I couldn’t even find the name of the procurement officer much less a current organizational chart on the website. In terms of transparency, there is a ways to go …
- Board meetings. FirstNet Board meetings are … well … ballet. They seem to be well-orchestrated public theater. The members are in a closed room in an disclosed location with video cameras for the rest of us to observe. When the meeting is over they escape out the back door to avoid reporters and those interested in engaging them. This is totally opposite of the way county commissions, city councils and state legislatures work, where officials are very approachable before and after meetings. I will immediately say individual board members such as Sue Swenson and Jeff Johnson, and senior FirstNet staff from T.J. Kennedy on up to the lowest-paid secretary are, individually, approachable and responsive to email and phone calls. But FirstNet Board meetings need to be coached on transparency and openness by any School Board meeting in any School District in the nation.
- Advisory Committees. FirstNet has one advisory committee, the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) with 45 members. The meetings of the PSAC are closed. Although, again, the chair of the PSAC, Harlin McEwen, is very open and engaging with stakeholders. I personally think FirstNet could use an advisory committee of state elected officials (Governors, Attorneys General, Mayors) and perhaps an advisory committee of industry and commercial enterprises in addition to the PSAC. And PSAC meetings, just like FirstNet Board meetings or your local City Council meetings, need to be open for attendance by anyone.
I find that everyone I encounter at FirstNet, from Mr. Sam Ginn and Acting General Manager T. J. Kennedy on up to the administrative assistants, to be committed to the job.
Commitment was clear at NASA in the 1960s, where even the janitors knew what they were doing: “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”
FirstNet staff know they are going to keep 330 million people safe and improve our national and local quality of life: “I’m building the very first nationwide public safety wireless network.”
I see that commitment in Ed Parkinson. I see that in David Buchanan. I see that in T. J. Kennedy. I see it in members of the FirstNet Board. I see that in those of us laboring to engage responders in Oregon and Washington and Florida and Maryland.
The next FirstNet Board meeting is on June 3, 2014 in Colorado.
Will we see that commitment there as well?
I think and I trust that I will.
But we’ll see …
(This version is slightly edited and updated from the original.)