A new emergency system is being designed to help make first responders’ work easier. In time-sensitive critical situations where normal communication means, like cellphones, could stop working, the new system will be designed to work despite such blackouts.
The Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) heard a presentation on the system of the future, which won’t be available locally for several years, at its meeting last week.
The idea of the First Responder Network (FirstNet) is to create a seamless nationwide interoperable network, similar to the cell phone systems in use today, but with an emphasis on accessibility for first responders in emergencies, and redundancies that would ensure service above and beyond what would be required of a cell phone company.
FirstNet is described in a news release as an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration. It is governed by a 15-member board consisting of the Attorney General of the United States, the secretary of Homeland Security, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and 12 members appointed by the Secretary of Commerce.
Using the FirstNet network will improve situational awareness, decision-making and responder and citizen health and safety, according to the news release.
“FirstNet devices will work anywhere on the network and will save time when seconds matter,” the statement read.
The release goes on to state that the network is composed of representatives from public safety; local, state and federal government; and the wireless industry.
When implemented, public safety personnel will be able to share applications, access databases and provide better responses to incidents through integrated communications.
Public safety officials will use the network voluntarily, but the costs for FirstNet services and devices have not been set yet.
“When the FirstNet network launches, it will provide mission-critical, high-speed data services to supplement the voice capabilities of today’s Land Mobile Radio (LMR) networks,” the statement reads in part, adding that initially the network will be used for sending data, video, images and text. The network also will carry location information and eventually support streaming video.
According to Gilbert Valerio, the Finney County Emergency Management coordinator, the FirstNet system is designed for first responders to have their own, dedicated network so they can communicate with each other in crises.
First responders who will be expected to use the system include law enforcement, emergency services and the fire department.
“If someone got stuck underground or on a high place where communication has been cut off,” Valerio said, “first responders with FirstNet gadgets can get to the person in need of help and communicate easily with those on the surface.
Valerio said the system isn’t expected to be fully operational until 2022 at the earliest.
“Right now, all they are doing is going out to all the counties in Kansas and giving presentations and letting people know it is coming,” he said.
Valerio said the delay is because the system will cover the whole United States, including Alaska and Hawaii.
“Everywhere that is habitable or where a person can be in the USA will be covered by FirstNet. The system will be usable in the whole covered area,” he said.
According to Derek Voorhis, the National Public Safety Broadband coordinator at the Kansas Office of Emergency Communication in Topeka, cell service goes down many times in disaster areas, and the system will be designed to go round such limitations.
“One thing they are taking into account is hardening the sites where radios will be placed and also having mobile units, as well as possible satellite-based units,” Voorhis said. “They will pretty much get even into fantastical things like drone assets because it wouldn’t be too difficult in a major situation to attach a 700 mega hertz system for drones to get coverage in such situations.”
Voorhis said the system is still shrouded in unknowns, especially about who will have the right to use it.
“When we say first responders, we usually mean police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel,” he said. “There are responders that many people do not generally think of as being first responders; people like the Kansas Department of Transportation, who will be technically the first on the scene, say, if there are 3 inches of snow and the roads have to be cleared.”
Voorhis explained that each state was going through a state consultation, which is seen as a major milestone. For Kansas, the state consultation is expected in March.
The plan is for FirstNet to get all the information about Kansas that is being compiled in the period between now and the planned rollout, and thereafter that information would be used to form the state plan, according to Voorhis.