Fire Service Must Offer Input to FirstNet State Plans
By Eric Tade
Tuesday, August 08, 2017 | Comments
Change is inevitable. During the past 127 years, the fire service witnessed the transformation from the use of a fire alarm box to dispatch centers. The first fire alarm call box was put into service in the 1880s to telegraph a location code to the central fire station when the lever was pulled in the box. As technology progressed, the fire service actively transitioned to dispatch centers that would receive and disseminate calls for service all over a city, county or jurisdiction.

According to the Denver Firefighters Museum, the last fire call box was taken out of service July 12, 1979. The dispatch centers that replaced call boxes handle multiple calls simultaneously and dispatch the appropriate resources and personnel. Communications was transformed as the fire service moved from the call box to the dispatch center, and we are standing at the brink of another communications revolution. While some are cautious to embrace trends that transform the way organizations do business, other shifts are quick and irreversible.

The transition to a nationwide public-safety broadband network (NPSBN) is such a shift. This network is being built in a partnership between a federal entity, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and its commercial partner AT&T. The NPSBN has the potential to offer first responders and others supporting all types of incidents and response, priority access on a Long Term Evolution (LTE) data network — the exact same network that the public uses. However, the nation’s responders will no longer compete with the public for access to this network. If they use it, their services will be prioritized.

Before an agency or volunteer can use this network, it must be built. The 2012 Spectrum Act, which created FirstNet, detailed a thorough process by which each state would have the opportunity to ensure FirstNet and its partner meet the needs of its first responders. If it was determined the national plan did not meet a state’s specific needs, the act provided the opportunity for a state to build its own network instead and connect to the NPSBN. The governor will make the final decision sometime in late 2017 with significant input from those of us in the field, at the local and state levels.

Why is this important to the fire service? Because Colorado and other states have unique wildland, rural and urban response challenges and considerations, and the fire service should consider how data is transforming its response paradigm. For example, new technology such as environmental sensors can help save lives and mitigate damage done by wildfires, but it requires a network that provides the best possible coverage balanced with costs that are feasible for even small, volunteer agencies.

The process to assess the proposed network is occurring now and it’s critical for agencies to follow the effort and provide input wherever possible. States cannot assume that FirstNet and AT&T will provide the network required; public-safety officials must proactively ensure it happens. AT&T’s current network coverage in most areas is inadequate for first responders and must be expanded to meet needs. Anything less than the best for the fire service is simply unacceptable. We must ensure we look at all options to best serve citizens and first responders.

In Colorado, the FirstNet Colorado Governing Body (FNCGB) was established to provide a mechanism for direct input and oversight from both local and state first responders. This body is actively engaged in our respective communities and at all levels of government to ensure the best decision is made for our state. There will be much activity and conversation regarding this topic in the coming months. I encourage you to provide your input and feedback through the established channels so your voice can be heard and the right decision is made for your state.

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Fire Chief Eric Tade is a second-generation firefighter who is in his 20th year of service with the Denver Fire Department. Tade was first appointed to the position of fire chief in 2010 and was reappointed in 2011.

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