It happened during Hurricane Rita and again during Hurricane Ike. When storms barreled toward the Texas coast and millions of people evacuated the Houston area, public telecom networks were overwhelmed.
"There was no priority of service within the commercial network to make sure public safety had access, so they were locked out of the system," says Robert Cavazos, director of broadband services for Harris County.
Fulfilling the last recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, the United States is finally ramping up to build its first national interoperable broadband network dedicated to public safety. While the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, is still in startup mode, agencies around the country have had the opportunity to peer into the future of emergency communications. Before FirstNet was established, the Federal Communications Commission granted waivers to 21 state and local governments to pilot high-speed networks on the 700-megahertz public-safety spectrum. Those waiver recipients formed the Early Builders Advisory Council, which holds biweekly conference calls to share information and best practices.
"This is almost as important as the radios that [first responders] carried on their hips that for the first time let them talk outside the car," says Sgt. Thomas Lampe, interoperability officer for the Iowa Department of Public Safety, whose state is a waiver recipient. "I think they're going to be amazed at what this will do for them."
Drawing more than 1 million visitors, the 2012 Iowa State Fair was an ideal venue for the Iowa Statewide Interoperable Communications System Board to demonstrate the power of a public-safety Long Term Evolution network and how it might work if commercial cellular systems were overloaded. Working with Alcatel-Lucent, the ISICSB placed a Cell on Wheels (COW) with a 700MHz LTE transmitter at the event. As public-safety vehicles drove through the fairgrounds, their video feeds streamed back to a nearby classroom.
"It gave us the first look at the speed of the network," Lampe says. "Our video was crystal clear, it worked great, and there were no skips. It just proved that we can operate our own network without having to worry about the commercial network being bogged down."
Iowa ran another demonstration last winter with a transmitter affixed atop the Principal Building, the highest in Des Moines. The initiative used various cutting-edge technologies — including electronic medical devices, mapping software and photo and video tools — during simulated events.
The first event was a staged multiple-vehicle accident in a snowstorm on Interstate 80. A first responder on the scene placed a medical device on a victim inside a vehicle, and the device streamed the person's vital signs over the LTE network. If it had been a real accident, the information could have been sent to other responding paramedics or a doctor who would advise first responders and prepare for the patient's arrival.
A third demonstration highlighted technology that's now being used by the University of Iowa Hospitals. First responders took photos of a crash scene and shared them with a hospital emergency room, where a doctor then consulted with those on the scene via Skype.
"When you start using these devices, the network has to work all the time," says Lampe. "It can't be bogged down by other users shutting off our vitals on the way to the hospital."
After hurricanes Rita and Ike, Harris County officials were concerned about future disasters as well as the day-to-day security of the Houston Ship Channel, one of the nation's busiest ports. "We have a mission to protect that waterway," Cavazos says.
With port security funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Harris County awarded Motorola Solutions an $8 million contract to construct the nation's first 4G LTE public-safety broadband network.
Harris County has 14 cellular tower sites functioning, but it still relies on a backup Verizon network because the county network has been operating on a series of 180-day temporary licenses while the county waits for the state and FirstNet to work out a permanent lease agreement.
"They can turn us off at any time," says Cavazos. "That's the only thing that's keeping us from putting mission-critical subscribers on the network. It has nothing to do with the viability or our confidence in the network."
Harris County plans to provide 100 modems for public-safety vehicles in the city of Baytown, which sits along the Houston Ship Channel and has several oil refineries. First responders also have mobile broadband cards for notebooks and are testing the Motorola LEX 700, a hardened Android smartphone that can connect to the network.
The county created a gateway between its land mobile radio (LMR) network — one of the largest in the country, with 80,000 subscribers — and the LTE network so that first responders on the networks can communicate. It can also bridge voice from a standard commercial smartphone to the LTE network, explains Cavazos. "We've got the equipment on the ground," he says. "We're just waiting for the license and approval from FirstNet."
The state of New Mexico, a member of the Early Builders Advisory Council and a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant recipient, initially launched a network pilot in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. FirstNet has signed spectrum lease agreements with New Mexico and the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System Authority to complete public-safety LTE projects. These pilot projects will provide FirstNet with a prime opportunity to gather key information and share lessons learned with other projects and public-safety officials.
In order to demonstrate the network's interoperability among various layers of government, New Mexico officials decided to move it south. By the second quarter, the state plans to issue a bid for the construction of nine sites along the southwest border region, where there's a higher concentration of local, state and federal agencies that work together and use common applications, including automatic license plate recognition, fingerprinting and facial recognition software. "We all have a common mission: protect the border," says Jacqueline Miller, deputy secretary for the New Mexico Department of IT.
Even with FirstNet in place, though, public-safety agencies will still need other resources, such as two-way handheld radios, Miller points out. LMR networks "don't give us the bandwidth that we need to do photographs and video," she says. "But we still need that mission-critical push-to-talk solution that comes from our LMR environment. We can't send a firefighter running into a building with a data network so he can send a text."
While there are major challenges with building such a massive network, experts believe they're outweighed by the opportunities. Kennedy says, "Providing public safety–grade broadband to police officers, firefighters and paramedics across the country will allow them to do their jobs more safely, to have better information at their fingertips and to be more effective in providing public-safety services in their community."
As FirstNet gets off the ground, early adopters have been educating agencies in their regions about what's to come.
"The biggest challenge for us has been getting the message out: Hey, this is coming, it's funded, it's going to be a part of your work now," says Jim Bogner, Iowa statewide interoperability coordinator. "You have to be prepared for it."
Here's a look at what the network will offer:
Public-safety agencies in metropolitan, suburban, rural and tribal areas throughout the nation will have access to the network.
It will use Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology, offering 20MHz of bandwidth on the public-safety spectrum. Users will be able to send and watch video, download mug shots and use real-time collaborative tools without delay.
FirstNet is being built from the start to be interoperable across federal, state and local police, fire and medical agencies.