Every trauma center in the U.S. has close relationships with their local first responder community to handle emergencies. Saving lives associated with everyday situations such as those hurt in car accidents, in falls and from house fires, rely on voice communications over wireless and wireline telephone networks that are also shared with the public. These services can include special features such as call prioritization and, in most cases, are sufficient to handle emergency situations.
Until a big disaster strikes. That’s when the shortcomings of existing communications technologies become painfully apparent.
“It really came to a head during 9/11,” said Brent Williams, a first responder who spent more than 30 years in the EMS field including 11 years working as a police officer/paramedic in Michigan. “Clearly, communications was one of the big challenges there. We just didn’t do a good job. And, that’s been the case for decades really. Every time you look at action reports of any major incident, one of the first things always mentioned is, ‘We couldn’t talk to anybody. Communication was horrible.’”
Commission calls for action
The issue caught the attention of the 9/11 Commission. The group’s report not only recognized gaps in emergency communications but also recommended creating a nationwide wireless broadband network for law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical personnel communications. Public safety organizations advocated before Congress for a dedicated, reliable network for first responders. Their efforts led to the passage of legislation to create FirstNet, the first nationwide public safety wireless broadband network. Congress charged the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) with establishing the network.
“As an independent authority established by Congress, our charge is to create the first-ever broadband network devoted to public safety. The Act also required that we enter into a public/private partnership to actually deploy the network,” said Williams, who now serves as EMS advisor at FirstNet Authority. To move in this direction, FirstNet conducted a competitive procurement process and selected the broadband partner that offered the overall best value solution.
“Congress gave us 20 megahertz of prime spectrum and $7 billion in seed money to get started. So, we were planning on building an entirely new network from the ground up. That would have taken years to deploy. The broadband vendor, however, offered to use its existing commercial network as a starting point, and then build it out further to meet the needs of public safety. That will include doing things like adding coverage and towers and hardening the sites to make it truly resilient,” Williams said.
FirstNet is a dedicated, wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety communications. For first responders – police, fire, and emergency medical services (EMS) – as well as hospitals, transportation and other critical infrastructure entities that qualify to use FirstNet – this ensures communications, plus the ability to give first responders their own “fast lane” on the network when needed. FirstNet also provides “pre-emption” capabilities.
“Priority means you’re put at the top of the list. Typically users wait in a queue for spectrum to open up as the base station is doing things to help try to cram more people in. It’s throttling back your data speeds and doing things to get as many users packed in there as it can, even if it slows them down,” Williams said. “Having preemption, however, is the holy grail. It means that all of the network resources are available to public safety all the time.”
Broadband network supports innovation
Although traditional methods used remain essential to emergency communications today, there are significant benefits and opportunities for public safety in transitioning to broadband.
FirstNet will allow first responders and clinicians involved in an emergency response to take advantage of innovative, life-saving technologies such as:
- Applications that securely share videos, text messages and photos during incidents in near real-time
- Advanced capabilities, like camera-equipped connected drones and robots, that deliver images of wildfires, floods or other events;
- Improved location services that help with mapping capabilities during rescue and recovery operations
- Wearables that could relay biometric data of a patient to the hospital or alert when a responder is in distress
All 50 states have opted into the FirstNet plan. And, so far, more than 1,000 agencies across 52 states and territories have signed on to use FirstNet.
“We’ve never had this level of communication capability before. Imagine ER doctors and EMS being able to fully interact to triage in the field, with high definition video that performs consistently. Even the idea of images gathered by drones that assess developing events. These things can help minimize overwhelming one hospital while another nearby has capacity to take victims,” Williams predicted.
“As new applications emerge that streamline first responder and medical community access to other information systems, then we are going to see many more really innovative uses – innovation and levels of collaboration that we can’t even dream about today. It really brings public safety and first responder activities into the modern technology paradigm,” Williams said.
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