For today’s Critical Issues Report, Chuck Wexler interviewed three experts on the use of FirstNet for advanced communications in public safety agencies, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and other major events, including public demonstrations and protests.

Ed Parkinson, CEO, First Responder Network Authority:

End Users Find News Ways of Innovating

Chuck Wexler: What’s the status of the FirstNet buildout?

Ed Parkinson: Roughly 80% of the initial deployment of FirstNet is complete. That’s the Band 14, public safety-dedicated spectrum. This is the initial five-year buildout, but we have a 25-year contract with AT&T. That will allow us to make strategic investments to further expand, upgrade, and make improvements to the network in perpetuity.

As of June, we have just over 1.5 million connections on the FirstNet system, as well as over 13,000 agencies, including law enforcement, fire, EMS, and emergency communications.

We’ve seen dramatic growth, especially during the COVID pandemic. It’s been amazing to see how public safety has stepped up for their communities from coast to coast. We’ve seen data usage on FirstNet by public safety double between January and May. That underscores the importance of a network built specifically for public safety demand. 

And this isn’t just being used in urban areas. It’s also being used in rural communities and tribal lands, in parts of rural California, where FirstNet is supporting emergency communications, and  in the Navajo Nation, which has been heavily impacted by the coronavirus.

For example, we’ve had 9-1-1 dispatchers who have been able to connect remotely.

Wexler:  How have deployables been used during the pandemic?

Parkinson:  We’ve had over 450 deployments of our fleet of 72 deployables that are specifically for FirstNet users. That’s a dramatic increase. The way they are used, managed, and leveraged by public safety continues to evolve. Like any technology, when you put it in the hands of the end user, they figure out imaginative ways to use the technology.

So we’ve seen a variety of different technologies and devices, including smartphones, mobile hotspots, applications, and deployables.  And agencies from different disciplines are coming together to use the technologies.

Wexler: How has FirstNet been used during recent demonstrations?

Parkinson:  One of the key aspects is the ability to understand what is happening in real time on the ground. Things have moved so quickly since the killing of George Floyd on May 25.  FirstNet helps provide situational awareness so that law enforcement can protect themselves and the protesters.

Wexler: Has FirstNet been used during the recent wildfires in California?

Parkinson:  It’s not just California. There have also been lightning storms in Colorado and throughout the west. And it follows the wildfires we saw last year. I was out in Paradise, California a month or two after the devastating Camp Fire. FirstNet deployables have been used during the Camp Fire and recovery efforts, and are still used today.

It’s important to remember the challenges the fire community faces, especially in rural parts of the country. There are areas where terrestrial networks just do not operate. 

Doug Campbell, Deputy Director, Alexandria, VA Dept. of Emergency and Customer Communications:

Even If COVID Disappeared, We Would Still Use Our Remote Call-Taking Capabilities

Wexler: Alexandria has used FirstNet to support remote 9-1-1 call taking during the pandemic. Why does that require FirstNet? And will you continue after the pandemic?

Doug Campbell: We do have call takers at home. They answer 9-1-1 and non-emergency calls from home.

We deployed the equipment, which are called command posts and are basically a phone in a box. It’s pretty much “plug and play.” They take this equipment home, plug it in, log in, and they have the exact same phone system that we have here in the communications center. They’re looking at the same screen and have the same functionality. The only thing they need then is the connectivity, which they have through a Wi-Fi hotspot.

We first started in late February/early March. We started with non-emergency calls, to make sure the system functioned properly. Once we were comfortable with that, we moved into the emergency call-taking. Things were fluid, and still are, because this is something we never thought we’d be doing so quickly, and we’re learning as we go.

Connectivity has not been an issue since we’ve used FirstNet. We experimented with others early on and found that FirstNet was our best choice. The primary factor here is that we don’t want to have a missed or dropped call, so connectivity is key.

We are going to continue this as part of our normal operations from this point forward. We consider this the new normal, and we will continue to use it. We feel that it will exercise the equipment, to make sure that it’s always functioning properly. It will also keep our personnel’s skill-set up. When someone stops using something for a couple months or longer, they get rusty. So we’re going to continue to rotate that equipment through every shift.

We don’t dispatch from home at this point. That’s the next phase we’ll move into.

Wexler: What percentage of your call takers are working remotely?

Campbell: Maybe 5%. It varies depending on scheduling and if they’re being quarantined at home. They could have tested positive for the virus, been asymptomatic, and still be capable of answering calls at home.

We keep those boxes in a ready state. For example, today we had someone return from Florida. They will pick up a phone and quarantine for 14 days while answering 9-1-1 calls from home.

Wexler: Does this work well for both you and the employees?

Campbell:   Yes. If this virus were to completely disappear, we would still continue using the remote call-taking capabilities. 

Teddy Kavaleri, Washington, DC Office of Unified Communications:

We’re Working to Get Approval of FirstNet Apps

Wexler: Have you been using FirstNet during the pandemic?

Teddy Kavaleri: Yes, we’ve been using FirstNet for our non-emergency telephone reporting unit since March. It’s going great. We’re also using it for our 3-1-1 city services team. At this point, about 65% of the staff is working remotely, all using FirstNet Wi-Fi.

We’ve provided them a laptop with MiFi (mobile hotspot) and a headset, so they log in securely and get access using a FirstNet MiFi. We have an end-to-end secure path to get calls delivered to the agent.

The District has been testing public safety broadband for a number of years, going back to before FirstNet was a reality. So we’ve had extensive experience evaluating public safety broadband networks. FirstNet is a very secure platform that allows us to do some of the things we’re doing now because of COVID. Our agency also manages all the mobile data computers for the police, fire, and EMS. We’ve been using commercial broadband for a number of years, and we’re always looking for a secure way to get data back and forth between our systems and the first responders.

One recent thing we’ve done is use deployables for large events, like July 4th. In past years, our responders were having a hard time accessing the critical systems they need, such as dispatch. More recently, during some of the protests, we were able to set up a deployable to support police, fire, and EMS, particularly in parts of the city that have limited coverage.

Wexler: Are there any FirstNet security features that you’ve found useful?

Kavaleri: We have set up an AT&T private network through the FirstNet core, and it’s doing great. We tested it to make sure we could route actual 9-1-1 calls, non-emergency calls coming into 9-1-1, and 3-1-1 requests, including requests for COVID-related items.

Wexler: Are there other applications you anticipate DC public safety agencies will migrate to FirstNet in the future?

Kavaleri: Definitely. We’re working with our public safety application providers to make sure they’re going through the FirstNet application vetting process. Our police department currently uses smartphone-based dispatch applications, and fire/EMS uses it for special events. So we are definitely working with our vendors and encouraging them to start working with the FirstNet team to certify those applications. 


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.