Why first responders need a dedicated communications network

By Claude Cummings

As one of the most devastating storms to ever hit Texas, Hurricane Harvey taught us many lessons. One of the clearest is that we need to equip Houston’s first responders and public servants with the strongest communications platform available — and now we can.

First responders are the brave men and women who worked around the clock before, during and after Harvey made landfall, making quick decisions to keep our families safe and our city running. Since the storm was so severe, public employees were also tasked with performing critical support functions so first responders could effectively coordinate recovery efforts and relay emergency updates.

With the start of hurricane season approaching soon, we should assess the wireless communication needs of our first responders and public servants. The City of Houston’s wireless services contract expires early in 2020, and wireless networks have improved tremendously since the city last solicited these services back in 2014. Last year saw the launch of FirstNet — the first nationwide interoperable broadband network specifically dedicated to first responders and the agencies and personnel who support them. The network grew out of a 9/11 Commission recommendation, and last month, the network was adopted by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

FirstNet’s features guarantee that our first responders will always be able to communicate when a disaster strikes. The network equips first responders with priority and preemption across all of the network’s spectrum bands, including Band 14, which Congress dedicated specifically to public safety and no other platform has access to. The network core is built on physically separate hardware, ensuring that sensitive public safety communications are separate from consumer traffic and protected by end-to-end encryption. And importantly, FirstNet eliminates the risk of throttling that notoriously hampered firefighting efforts by the Santa Clara County Fire Department in last year’s Mendocino Complex Fire.

Additionally, FirstNet offers first-of-its-kind interoperability for coordinating city agencies and personnel. This means first responders can choose to raise the priority status of certain agencies during emergencies making communication and coordination seamless across departments.

In 2019 and going forward, Houston first responders and public employees need the best. Since there are many service provider options before us, we must make sure we’re evaluating them against the most robust, relevant, and up-to-date criteria. The State of Texas understood that, which is why, two years ago it decided to opt-in to the FirstNet state plan along with every other state in the union.

Houston is also not the first area in Texas to consider FirstNet. Last month, in an interview with StateTech Magazine, Brazos County Sheriff Chris Kirk raved about FirstNet and the network’s functionality. Spring Fire Department, 25 minutes north of downtown Houston, is an early adopter of the FirstNet platform as well.

Besides providing necessary features for first responders, the FirstNet network is being built and operated by AT&T Mobility, the union wireless carrier, which means higher job standards for workers and greater protections for consumers. Today, broadband connectivity is a matter of life and death. It is imperative that we have a well-trained and reliable workforce to restore our critical infrastructure as quickly and safely as possible.

We are hard at work engaging stakeholders throughout the community to ensure we have a platform that best serves the entire city of Houston. And we’re here to say to the City of Houston as well — do right by our local heroes, put safety first and invest in FirstNet.

Claude Cummings Jr. is CWA District 6 vice president representing workers in Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. He is also the second vice president of the Houston NAACP.