By Stephanie Kanowitz 

FirstNet, the country’s first cellular network dedicated to use by public-safety officials is now live. Born of the communication challenges that have dogged first responders for years, but especially after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the network gives public-safety devices priority when they need it most. FirstNet, built through a public/private partnership between the First Responder Network Authority and AT&T, gives first responders priority and preemption on the network, which uses AT&T’s $180 billion infrastructure as its backbone. This means that police officers who need to communicate with command centers or one another, or run license plate or background checks from their patrol cars will no longer have to worry about connectivity, especially during major incidents or in crowded areas, when lots of devices are connecting to cellular networks. “The priority allows the fast lane, if you will, to on-ramp to this network,” said Jeff King, a public-safety consultation lead for FirstNet and a member of the Metropolitan Police Department Reserve Corps in Washington, D.C. “That’s your phone talking to the tower. That tower sees your phone and says, ‘Hey, this is an important phone. This is a public safety phone.’ That phone is provisioned to get ahead of the line.” Preemption means that public-safety devices – smartphones, tablets, license plate readers, computer-aided dispatch systems and more – will get connectivity before other devices. Public traffic will be offloaded to make room for public-safety devices. That connection is not preemptable; once achieved, it stays for the duration of the officer’s need, King said. “Any system and process that you do today can pretty much traverse this network,” he said. “There isn’t any reason that you couldn’t look at this technology as a place where you could improve those efficiencies by leveraging the network and do so knowing that you’ve got the capacity and the dedicated network to stay up there and do it.” 

How FirstNet can help 
To make the most of FirstNet, managers must understand what it can do for them and for officers patrolling their beats. The guaranteed connectivity makes it easier for managers and officers to use wireless tools to do their jobs better. For fleet managers, FirstNet offers greater visibility. The network and the smart mobility tools that take advantage of it are driving the development of an intelligent fleet. For instance, with telematics – a type of information technology that involves the long-distance transmission of data – managers can see not only where cars are located, but their speed, fuel usage and driver behavior. This gives them a better safety and security posture by enabling them to be proactive about maintenance. In other words, they don’t have to wait until something breaks. For officers patrolling their beats, FirstNet provides better situational awareness. Brazos County, Texas, the first to sign on to FirstNet, placed patrol cars around the location of an armed robbery incident so that all units and the command center could view video feed in real time from several angles surrounding the address. “You can imagine how that would be useful in resolving those kind of situations,” said county Sheriff Chris Kirk during a press conference about the network. To put FirstNet to use most effectively, managers should start by reviewing current business and day-to-day processes for handling the fleet. “Examine your processes, and just take a step back and consider what your information needs are, and what processes are occurring in your daily cycle,” King said. Next, they need to get feedback from end users – the officers themselves. It will help managers understand what they need to best do their jobs, and it will also engage them in the process of change, which will lead to more acceptance. “If you get buy-in from the user, that’s going to make it a much smoother transition than if you are just picking a technology and say, ‘This is our new thing. There’s no training on it. Get used to it,’” he said. The third step is looking at the vendors and products that will best meet the needs identified. These don’t have to be expensive pieces of technology, though. “There may be an app out there that is a low- or no-cost consideration that will traverse this network and have minimal impact on the backend – in other words, at your computer station,” King said. Managers should also study the way their counterparts use FirstNet. More than 350 agencies in 40 states and territories are already using the network and sharing lessons learned. “If you look at the benefits of inserting these technologies into the business processes, ultimately what you will find is you’re going to keep law enforcement officers on the streets for a greater amount of time,” King said. “That is a big, big win for law enforcement leadership.”

Published in Police Fleet Manager, Mar/Apr 2018

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