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FirstNet: Changing Communications Forever

We all remember where we were the morning of September 11, 2001. We watched in awe while police helicopter pilots circled the glowing red towers as they began to collapse in front of us.

From the helicopters, police were able to warn those in the North Tower that the tower would not be able to last much longer. Consequently, most of the police officers were able to heed these warnings, allowing them to evacuate the building safely.

The firefighters in the same building, however, never received this information for one simple reason: Radio systems for the Fire Department, the Police Department, and the Port Authority Police were all incompatible with each other.

Not only were firefighters and police officers unable to communicate, but due to technical issues that day, Fire Department radios, in particular, had very limited range. Chuck Dowd, the head of New York’s 911 call center at the time recalls, “As soon as they went five or ten floors up in the buildings, they couldn’t talk to each other.”

When the 9/11 Commission released its report in 2004, it identified communications failures as a “critical element” that undermined the response to the attacks. Sadly, this is not the first time the US has been confronted with this issue.

In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement noted that, “In emergency situations that require mutual support, neighboring police departments cannot communicate because their radios operate on different frequencies.”

Again when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the storm and flooding had completely wiped out communication networks- requiring first responders to improvise low tech-solutions. “It got to the point that people were literally writing messages on paper, putting them in bottles and dropping them from helicopters to other people on the ground,” Louisiana State Senator Robert Barham told The Washington Post in 2005.

After much lobbying, on February 22, 2012, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Jobs Creation Act was signed into law. This legislation established the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and charged it with creating a Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN). Thus one of the largest government technology projects begun: creation of a single nationwide network for public-safety officials known as FirstNet.

The term “FirstNet” is also used to describe the broadband network itself, which will be a single, nation-wide network. This network will allow our first responders from a variety of jurisdictions to stay safe and to do their jobs, while enabling them to communicate at the same time. To meet the needs of federal, state, local and tribal public safety agencies, it will require one of the largest and most complex I/T projects in the nation’s history. Ultimately this would address the problem of inadequate, fragmented communications that have plagued police, fire departments and other emergency agencies for years.

The premise behind the NPSBN is having available mobile data bandwidth for our nation’s first responders no matter what the situation. Currently, in emergencies the commercial wireless carriers can be overwhelmed and access to cellular voice or data services may become unreliable, if available at all. This “FirstNet project” creates a separate (from the public) wireless network specifically for the public safety industry, thus ensuring access in the worst of times.

State officials with the Bureau of Information and Telecommunications have been working with FirstNet to ensure we design a network that will work not only for our state, but on a national level as well. The South Dakota Public Safety Communication Council (http://sdpscc.sd.gov/) governs these activities. This council is well represented with the many public safety entities in our state. We need to ensure South Dakota is not overlooked by making FirstNet aware of our concerns, and unique aspects of our state’s public safety needs. We want this network to function in some of our most remote areas as well as in our metro areas. With the collaboration and help from our public safety community, we will make sure everyone is properly represented.

Resources to stay informed:
For more information about the national FirstNet project you can browse to http://FirstNet.gov.

To stay informed on the FirstNet effort in South Dakota you can browse to http://psbn.sd.gov.

Our state website: http://psbn.sd.gov/
Twitter: @SDPSBN
Follow along at: https://twitter.com/sdpsbn
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sdpsbn
E-Mail: PSBNInfo@state.sd.us