Tag Archives: FirstNet

Why I’m Joining FirstNet

FirstNetOn August 8, 2016, I’ll become an employee of the First Responder Network Authority – FirstNet.  FirstNet is the federal government agency charged by Congress in 2012 to build a 4th Generation LTE wireless network nationwide with priority for those who respond to public safety incidents and disasters.   I’ve sometimes called this mission “smart phones and tablet computers for cops and firefighters”.

“The federal government” conjures visions of vast unfeeling bureaucracy, giant buildings with endless cubicles, and waste of taxpayer money.   Perhaps some federal agencies are like that. But also consider this:  federal government employees are National Park Rangers, NASA scientists and astronauts, people who efficiently deliver the mail, serve in our Coast Guard and other armed services, and fight the wild fires which ravage National Forests.   And some agencies are very innovative, like the United States Digital Service and the lean startup 18F.

FirstNet is such an agency.

It is relatively new.  It has a solid focused mission to support the safety of 324 million Americans through wireless technology. It has taken an innovative approach to finding a private company partner to build the network which might be worth $100 billion over 25 years.

Is FirstNet Stalled? Not Any  More!

Is FirstNet Stalled? Not Any More!

FirstNet has had its struggles.  I’ve been one of its most public critics.   I’ve blogged “Is FirstNet Stalled” in February, 2015, at which time three years had passed with little progress and about FirstNet’s Scandal and Resurrection in 2014.   I’ve suggested FirstNet might become the next healthcare.gov when it appeared to be mired in federal bureaucracy outside its control.

But I’ve also been supportive of the times FirstNet has taken bold, innovative action, such as the appointment of Sue Swenson as Chair of the Board and T J Kennedy as President.   I’ve made numerous suggestions of how FirstNet might significantly improve response to public safety incidents such using voice technologies like Amazon Echo, improving transportation (“The Internet of Speeding, Parking Things”) and improving the safety of first responders (“The Internet of First Responder Things”).

FirstNet has now charted and is following the road to a complete success.   With at least three bidders to build our network, and support from major telecommunications companies with extensive existing networks, FirstNet might be a reality in 2018.

In fact, the most significant issue FirstNet probably faces is getting agencies to adopt and use the new network.   Many large agencies are cautiously supportive today, but rightly want FirstNet and its vendor partner to “show us the beef” – a solid working network with coverage equal to or better than existing networks, and a cost equal to or less than existing networks, with an array of new features and functionality (see my blog here for what that “array” might be).

And that is why I’m coming on board: to help FirstNet build a set of services and functions which public safety agencies need, and to convince those agencies to come on board.

I’ve seen the mess created when thousands of agencies each build their own voice radio networks, and then have to make them interoperate.  With FirstNet, we can build a nationwide data and cellular network from the beginning, and with every agency on board, have solid interoperability.   We can have firefighters from multiple agencies rushing to the scene of a major urban fire or huge wildfire, and see their actions coordinated with situational awareness and mapping.  We can have dozens of law enforcement agencies – local, state, federal, tribal – cooperate on investigations or raids on drug smugglers and terrorists, all using common apps.   We will find paramedics interacting with hospitals and private physicians and healthcare records to deliver top-quality urgent care in remote locations.

That is IF FirstNet offers innovative features and apps, and IF agencies sign up to use it.

Innovation

Innovation

We’ve seen multiple waves of innovation which have vastly changed our personal and public lives:

  • The telephone
  • Radio
  • Television
  • The Personal Computer
  • The Internet
  • The World Wide Web
  • Smart phones and apps
  • Tablet computers

I want to help add “FirstNet” to that list.

FirstNet has received a lot of Presidential and Congressional support.   More importantly, it was born from the support of thousands of public safety agencies through their successful effort to see wireless spectrum (the “D” Block) allocated for first responder use.   Hundreds of thousands of stakeholders in 55 states and territories have attended a lot of meetings and heard a lot of discussion about the potential of a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network.

For the sake of the nation, for the sake of first responders and all responders, FirstNet damned well better deliver on its promises.

I’m joining FirstNet to help it do just that.

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Filed under FirstNet, future of technology, wireless

The Dallas Divide: A Problem Technology and FirstNet Can’t Fix

I have long been an advocate for using technology to improve government and governing, and in particular for advancing law enforcement.   I’ve been a long-time supporter of building a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network – a network for priority use by first responders for their cell phones, body-worn video, tablet computers and sensors. And we are seeing that network come to fruition in FirstNet.

But there are some problems technology and FirstNet can’t fix.   Specifically, technology can’t repair the divide between law enforcement and the black community, underscored by the events in Dallas, Baton Rouge and Minnesota.

You-Tube-Post-Hour

In fact, technology probably exacerbates those divisions, as smart phone video of officer-involved shootings and use of force goes viral on social media, which itself is another feature of modern society made possible by technologies such as the Internet and the Web.

As an “old white guy” I certainly have no special expertise on police-community relations and how to repair or improve them.   But I can cite some innovations which many communities could adopt:

  • Community-police academies. The Seattle Police Department and many other major urban departments have such training, which helps educate non-law-enforcement people as to how their police and sheriff’s departments operate.   Of course people have to actually sign up for these courses, and then attend them.   And often they are operated at night, at times when people may be busy with family or work.
  • Ride-alongs. Most departments have a ride-along program, where a citizen can ride along with a police officer and see law enforcement “in action”.   Trust me – too often it is fairly boring, but can be punctuated with moments of terror.
  • Police situation simulators. Karen Johnson of the Black Alliance of Thurston County and Austin Jenkins of National Public Radio’s KUOW (University of Washington) put themselves into such a simulator recently.   They faced real-life situations similar to those cops find themselves handling, with some surprising results.
  • Better police training. Ron Sims was the longest-serving Executive (Mayor) of King County (Seattle). He was the Deputy Director of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.  He lives in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Seattle, Mount Baker.  Yet he’s been pulled over, while driving, by cops 8 times.   He’s 68.  He’s African American.  Apparently he’s “driving while black”. How many of you reading this blog posts have been pulled over 8 times?
  • dallas-police-protecting

    A Dallas Police Officer protects Protesters

    Guardian, not warrior, mentality. Sue Rahr, former King County Sheriff and now director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Center, advocates for this change in culture and attitudes by police agencies and officers.  Certainly the behavior of Dallas Police Officers during the recent sniper attack, putting themselves in harm’s way to protect the Black Lives matter protesters, is the highest exemplar of this change in attitude.

  • Better police training. Many departments, including Seattle Police, are training hard with de-escalation training and crisis intervention programs.   Crisis intervention is phenomenal, as it seeks to have police officers support the mentally ill, homeless and others in crisis by getting them the services they need rather than taking them to jail or a mental health ward.  Seattle Police, in fact, are working with Code for America to develop a new app to make crisis intervention data available to police officers on smart phones and tablet computers.
  • Open up the data. The Obama Administration launched a police data initiative, which 53 cities covering 41 million people have joined.   The open data portal is powered by Socrata, a Seattle technology firm.   Amazingly, the Dallas Police Department has been one of the most forthright in opening up its data, publishing datasets on use of force and officer involved shootings, something most other departments have failed to do.  Code for America publishes a report card on which police departments have released which datasets.   The Police Foundation has pushed departments to go beyond the White House initiative in being transparent in their actions and operations.
  • President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.   This Commission, headed by Charles Ramsey, former Chief of Police in Washington, D.C. and then Philadelphia, made a number of recommendations to improve police-community relations.  I was honored to present some recommendations to the task force which were adopted in its final report.
seahawks-parade-crowd

The Seattle Seahawks Superbowl Victory Parade, 2014, which cell networks where jammed – one reason we need FirstNet

Technology and FirstNet have significant roles to play as well.  Many of the innovations above rely upon technology such as open data platforms, apps, and training simulations.   Body-worn video, in-car video and similar technologies to record how police operate will build community trust.   FirstNet is extraordinarily important to providing real-time two-way wireless communications for not only police and other first responders, but anyone who responds to public safety issues – transportation, public works, utilities, non-profits like the Red Cross and even teachers who are often “first responders” to incidents in their schools.

All of these innovations are cool and important.  But, ultimately, it is not technology which will bring law enforcement and the black community back into balance.  It is cops getting out of their cars and talking to people in cafes and barber shops and on the streets.    It is one community meeting after another where police officers and commanders show up to hear the real problems facing real people and modify their tactics to help.

We cannot rely on police departments and sheriff’s department for all of our public safety needs.  Keeping the community safe from those who prey upon us is, ultimately, everyone’s responsibility.

Police officers are also citizens, and need to think like citizens, not as warriors.   But also, perhaps every member of our communities needs to become a police officer, or at least put themselves in the shoes of cops.

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Filed under Code for America, community technology, Law Enforcement, open data, Seattle Police

Why would anyone buy FirstNet?

firstnet-rfpOn May 31st the First Responder Network Authority – FirstNet – accepted proposals from private companies to build its nationwide public safety wireless LTE network.   We don’t know how exactly many companies or groups of companies submitted proposals (although today Rivada announced a number of its partners who have together submitted one bid).   We do know FirstNet has been quite public in its process and wants a “vendor partner” who will develop and deploy its nationwide network with a lifespan of 25 years and an estimated value of $100 billion.

But why would any police department or fire department or transportation authority or electric utility or other agency which responds to public safety incidents ever “buy” and use FirstNet?

Almost every agency involved with the protection of the safety of the public – first responders but also utilities and transportation and public works and others – already uses a wireless LTE network for its field workers.   T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and others have robust networks which are getting better every day.

Why would an agency switch from a proven network provider to a network provided by an untested partner of a federal government agency?

Here are some good reasons, if FirstNet and its contracted vendor can make them happen:

  1. Public safety partners. FirstNet talks a lot about its industry or vendor partner.   FirstNet needs to speak about and model its partnership with public safety agencies too.  Responder agencies can and do buy services as a “customer” from many carriers.   And, frankly, the commercial services are quite good.   To be competitive FirstNet – and whoever gets its contract – need to build a model where its “partner” responder agencies have a lot of input and control over its products.
  2. A great vendor partner. Generally public safety agencies have a love-hate relationship with their telecommunications carrier.  Each agency can enumerate a set of concerns and issues with their provider.  FirstNet will almost completely rely upon the winner of its RFP to provide service to its public safety partners (customers).   Indeed, if it weren’t for item #1 – the need for a true “partnership” with public safety agencies – FirstNet might devolve into a simple contract administration bureau.    FirstNet must choose a vendor which can rapidly deploy the network, make it robust, and provide superior, turn-on-a-dime, service superior to the existing carriers.
  3. Public Safety users. FirstNet must be broad – embrace a “big tent” – in its definition of public safety responders.   Clearly many governmental and non-government agencies have public safety responsibilities and should be able to use FirstNet, at least part time:  transportation, transit, public works, elected officials, emergency management, water/electric/wastewater utilities and more.  Furthermore many individuals volunteer their time for search-and-rescue, firefighting, paramedic, and other public safety functions, and need some access to FirstNet.   Even the media (TV, radio, newspapers, etc.) have a public safety/information responsibility during daily incidents and disasters.
  4. Commercial and consumer service conflicts. A broad definition of an allowable user as defined in paragraph 3 above would take customers away from the commercial carriers, which was not the intent of Congress.  So FirstNet and its vendor must devise some way of “deputizing” users.    For example, when a citizen transforms from a consumer to a volunteer firefighter, their personal device must be “deputizable” to become a FirstNet device, transitioning from the citizen’s commercial carrier to the FirstNet-authorized service befitting a public safety responder.    Indeed, when a teacher is in a classroom and her school goes into lockdown for any reason, that teacher can become a “first responder” and should become a FirstNet user able to communicate to responding law enforcement officers.

    Managing FirstNet Priority

    Managing FirstNet Priority

  5. Priority. Priority for first responders is often cited as THE significant advantage of FirstNet.  Traditionally priority service has not been available from commercial carriers.  However both Verizon and AT&T are offering or planning to offer such service.  FirstNet’s priority service must be clearly superior.
  6. Local control. In the past, “local control” has meant local control of priority – having an incident commander able to designate which users or devices or applications have network priority.  We’ve come to recognize that LTE has considerable inherent mechanisms for this, which do not need much manual intervention.  Most local control of priority can be handled during provisioning.  The federal Department of Commerce’s Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) group and FirstNet are well down the road of developing mechanisms for such local control and they need to be implemented.
  7. Local control of deployment and expansion. Public safety agencies have little control over the deployment and expansion plans of commercial carriers.   Occasionally an agency will say to a carrier “we really need another cell site here” or “please don’t do maintenance and bring the network down at 2:00 AM Sunday morning as the bars are closing”.  FirstNet, however should offer much better local control over network deployment and expansion.  FirstNet – or its state partners – might have public processes and even workshops and conferences where regions can specify their priorities for expanding coverage, or adding applications or improving capabilities such as those listed below.  Such “local control” will be the truest and best demonstration that this network is, indeed “public safety’s network”.
  8. Deployables.
    An LTE Site Deployable on a Trailer (Nokia Corporation)

    An LTE Site Deployable on a Trailer (Nokia Corporation)

    It is not feasible to deploy cell towers across an entire large state or geography, particularly if most of that geography is national forest or desert.  Yet communications are really important in the first hours of a disaster or emergency like a wildfire.   In 2014 three firefighters died during the initial attack on an emerging wildfire in the state of Washington. FirstNet could be much more dynamic than commercial carriers in rapid deployment of cell sites during such an event.  PSCR is researching small fleets of unhumaned aerial vehicles (UAV) containing such sites which could be quickly launched after a wildfire or landslide or other disaster occurs.  Other solutions might include cell sites on fire apparatus, back-packable sites, cell sites on trucks and so forth.   This demonstrated ability to rapidly deploy would hasten adoption of FirstNet by local agencies.

  9. Voice.    Any cellular network offers cellular telephone calling – one person calling another.  FirstNet needs to offer a wider range of voice calling apps for responders.   One such capability is push-to-talk – where a single user can push a single button and communicate with a whole police department or fire department, and dispatchers can use the same capability to broadcast to an entire precinct of patrol officers.  Another capability is “direct mode” where one device can talk to others nearby without the need to communicate through a cell phone tower (which may be destroyed by a natural disaster).  PSCR is actively working on such capabilities.
  10. Private “channels” for user groups. Channels would allow, for example, tribal police departments across a state or the nation to communicate (voice, video, text, email etc.) with each other privately.  There really no comparable communications mechanism available today, as each county or department has its own land-mobile radio network and it is hard to interoperate across large geographies.    Private channels could be used by elected officials across a region to communicate securely during a disaster, tribal gambling agents at multiple casinos to talk about emerging enforcement issues, or multiple fire departments from a wide region, all responding to a wildland fire, to communicate with each other and air support.

    PSCR's Mobile Architecture

    PSCR’s Mobile Architecture

  11. Provisioning. Every agency has people who buy stuff.   FirstNet and its contracted vendor need to make it easy to buy it stuff – tablet computers, smart phones, traffic ticketing devices, body-worn video cameras and more.   But FirstNet can also bring additional capability to this process.   A police department, for example, will want its Samsung S7 smartphones configured with a certain set of free commercial apps (Google maps), its own vendor apps (computer-aided dispatch), perhaps local apps (crisis intervention app or wanted/warrants app) and a mobile device management system (for example: Airwatch, Mobileiron, Intune).   A police department will also want encryption, VPN, advanced authentication (FBI CJIS policy).   If FirstNet and its vendor can offer a quick and simple configuration tool to ship devices to each department pre-configured, it would be a significant advantage to the using agency.  PSCR is actively working on a mobile device architecture which would enable these capabilities.
  12. Provisioning roles. FirstNet should be planning to allow responder agencies to specify certain roles for users, applications and devices.  For example a police officer might have a role of “patrol officer” and be carrying a device with the role “body-worn video camera” using an application such as “streaming video”.   Police departments should be able to define such roles for all their users, applications and devices.  This provisioning – and the ability to make rapid changes in provisioning (e.g. from police patrol officer to SWAT member) feeds right into the local control of priority specified above.
  13. Fusion center apps.   There are about 70 fusion centers nationwide who collect information to help detect and prevent terrorism, gang activities and other criminal issues.  Fusion centers have trained a cadre of liaisons who feed them information about suspicious activities.  But communications between fusion centers and such liaisons or other agencies can be hard.  A special app or a private channel could significantly improve the functioning of fusion centers be allowing law enforcement and other liaison officers to rapidly and securely send information to the fusion center, and the fusion center to rapidly disseminate intelligence to responders.
  14. Opt-in Plus. FirstNet and its contracted vendor could use (and pay for) sites already owned by local and state governments in order to improve coverage and capacity.   FirstNet could also allow local and state agencies to buy eNodeB’s (cell sites) and similar equipment for deployment on fire apparatus or other areas which need coverage.

    Amazon's Echo

    Amazon’s Echo

  15. Personal assistants, speech-to-text and similar leading edge capabilities. Consumers know and use Siri and Cortana and Amazon’s echo.   FirstNet should provide such capabilities – tailored to public safety’s unique lexicon and need – for using agencies.

There are a whole host of other potential capabilities which would give FirstNet a marketing and service edge on commercial carriers, helping to encourage public safety responder agencies to switch to the FirstNet service.   A few others are:

  • Robust, virtually unbreakable, cybersecurity.
  • ICAM – identity, credentialing and access management to identify the user of the device as well as the device.
  • “Public safety grade” – rock-solid sites, electronics, backhaul able to withstand disasters local and regional – earthquakes and hurricanes and terrorism.
  • High sites or “boomer” sites in rural and remote areas to cover wide swaths of area.
  • 911 calling for FirstNet users, plus also secondary users who are consumers and businesses.
  • Integration with public safety answering points (PSAPs), their emergency service internet protocol networks (ESI Nets).
  • Integration with Next Generation 911.
  • A robust applications store of curated, tested, cyber-secure applications.
  • Certain nationwide apps or capabilities deployed on every responder device, e.g. situational awareness.
  • IoPST – The Internet of Public Safety Things. This is a future network where sensors and cameras and intelligent transportation systems and fire detection and similar interconnected devices send information to responders quickly to help in mitigation of public safety incidents.
  • IoFRT – The Internet of First Responder Things. This is a future network which includes sensors and devices on First Responders or their vehicles or nearby to monitor them and keep them safe as they protect the public.

State and local responsibilities.   “Partnerships” are two-way.   Local and state responder agencies – governmental, non-governmental and private – need to be good partners with FirstNet and its contracted vendor too.   I’ll write more about this in the future, but these using agencies need to, for example:

  1. Standardized applications statewide, e.g. push-to-talk apps or situational awareness/mapping apps, which help to coordinate response from multiple agencies to a single incident or disaster.
  2. Designate knowledgeable officials to work with FirstNet and its contracted vendor to design and deploy the network locally.
  3. Work with FirstNet to help prioritize needs across a region or a state. Such needs might be expanded coverage, apps and app stores, in-building coverage and more.
  4. Insofar as possible, help remove or mitigate local permitting and regulatory processes thereby allowing rapid FirstNet deployment to occur.
  5. Step up and fund user fees and devices for those local and state responders – volunteer firefighters for example – who cannot afford them.
Sue Swenson

Sue Swenson

Sue Swenson, Chair of the FirstNet Board, laid down the challenge to FirstNet staff in a speech at the PSCR Annual Conference on June 7, 2016, in San Diego.   Over the next year, she said, FirstNet needs to plan for the “excellent operation of this network.”  FirstNet “has to be better than any other network in the world today.”

She went on to say FirstNet is “demanded by public safety, shaped by public safety, FirstNet is public safety’s network.”

Amen.

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Filed under deployables, disaster, drones, FirstNet, future of technology, Internet of Things, PSCR

Handicapping the States and FirstNet

What decision will State Governors make?

What decision will State Governors make?

Why would the governor of a State refuse an offer from the Federal government to build a statewide wireless network supporting public safety responders?  Cities, counties and states have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to build their own two-way radio networks to dispatch firefighters, paramedics, law enforcement officers, transportation, transit, public utilities and other responders.  Now the Federal government plans to deploy a nationwide cellular network for such responders, called FirstNet, so their smart phones, mobile computers and other devices have connectivity.

Yet some Governor’s may “opt out” of allowing such a network to be built in their states.  In this blog post I advance some of my theories as to why that might happen, and the chances of a State’s success in building its own cellular network.   Read the entire post here.

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Filed under FirstNet, wireless

Echo, Public Safety, FirstNet

Amazon's Echo

Amazon’s Echo

I recently attended and spoke at the Government Technology Beyond-the-Beltway event.  Our panel of local and state Chief Information Officers (CIOs) was asked “what is the most significant technology advance in your lifetime”.   I answered “either the IBM PC or the iPhone”.  Others mentioned the Internet and the world-wide-web.   (No one mentioned the development of email, invented by Ray Tomlinson, who just recently passed away, and sometimes considered the bane of our existence.)

A more significant question might be “what will be the most significant technology advance in the near future”.   Or, to narrow it a bit, what will be the most significant technology advance for public safety first responders in the near future?

I’m convinced such technologies already exist, or, in the words of William Gibson:  “the future is here, it is just not evenly distributed yet”.

One of the candidates is Amazon’s Echo.

Echo is a speech-enabled technology which is arguably better than Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana and which can be used right now in homes to do everything from order more laundry detergent to play music to control the thermostat. All by recognizing speech.  And connecting to Amazon’s website, of course.

We hire and extensively train police officers, state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and paramedics as first responders. Then, because we want to be “data driven”, we tell them to sit down at computers and type crime reports, hand-write medical reports, prepare fire code inspections and do what are essentially clerical tasks which take them away from the real work of law enforcement and fire protection.

Enter Echo.

Why don’t we have Echo-like devices in police vehicles and fire apparatus and even in police officer badges or firefighter helmets?

star-trek-comm-badge

Comm Badge

Can you imagine a cop who comes to your house to investigate a burglary, taps her badge (just like the CommBadge in Star Trek) and asks “Alexa, have any red Schwinn bicycles been recovered lately?” or “Alexa, search all nearby pawn shops for Canon EOS rebel single-lens reflex cameras sold in the last three days”.

Or the traffic officer who goes to his police car and simply speaks to the car “Car 54 take a collision report for two vehicles who collided at this intersection twenty-two minutes ago,” then proceeds to dictate the report to the car.  And the Echo-like device in the car prompts the officer for any additional information, even doing database searches returning information like “Officer Schrier, I detect that the red Ford Mustang involved in this collision has fourteen unpaid parking tickets.  Shall I call for a tow truck?”

Similarly paramedics responding to an emergency medical call could talk to their devices “Alexa, get me the detailed health records for William M. Schrier, apparent heart attack victim, specifically including any known medications he is using and any known adverse reactions to meds”.  Or “Call Schrier’s personal physician at the highest priority, locating the doctor immediately for this emergency.” And that same paramedic could dictate observations and reports, rather than hand-writing them or typing them.

language-translation-software-image

Language Translation

Another significant use for speech-activated devices are language translation.   We are a nation of immigrants, and real-time translation services like Google translate or Skype.

Although most police cars are equipped with mobile data computers today, many police officers are justifiably skeptical of writing reports in their vehicles, especially if it means looking down at a screen and a keyboard, and not paying attention to their surroundings.   Killing of police officers like those in New York City, Houston/Harris County, and Lakewood (Washington) have reinforced this fear.  But with speech-to-text such as Echo, officers might be able to spend more time on the street, less time at computers in the police station.

Even in daily situations, police officers who need to tap or type on their in-car computer while driving represent a potential hazard to themselves and others.  Being able to give verbal commands such as “acknowledge that dispatch and set status to en route” or “text Sergeant Schrier that I’ll be following up immediately” improve not only speed but also safety for officers.

Echo and similar technologies do, however, require high speed Internet access.

FirstNet-logo-vertical

FirstNet

For first responders working in the field, that means 4G LTE networks.   The First Responder Network Authority (“FirstNet”) is planning to build just such a network, specifically designed for first responders.  FirstNet will, perhaps, have applications, apps and devices specifically tailored for first responder missions.  FirstNet recognized the importance of such voice technologies in a blog post here.

Even more importantly, public safety software vendors of computer-aided dispatch systems (CAD) and fire/police records management systems (RMS) should immediately start integrating speech-to-text technologies into their products.   A speech-enabled RMS will significantly reduce the time for a paramedic, law enforcement officer or firefighter to create reports.  Such reports will be more accurate and of higher quality, and first responders will spend more time on the streets and less time typing in front of a computer.

Echo or similar speech-to-command technologies should be high on FirstNet’s list.  And on the list of any company creating software for first responders.

 

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Filed under emergency operations, eRepublic, firefighting, FirstNet, future of technology, Law Enforcement

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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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