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Why first responders need to hang on to their land mobile radios (at least for now)

14 Jun 2017 3:15 PM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Gary Teeler, Chief of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, IPSA Emerging Technologies Committee Member

Even though a contract between FirstNet and AT&T was recently signed and the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network is almost here, first responders shouldn’t be quick to get rid of their land mobile radios. I’ll explain why, but first let me explain the concept of the NPSBN.

If you have ever experienced a high-volume event where service was congested, you likely could not get your pictures or videos to post, or texts to send. Currently, the public safety community shares that same experience, although the information that needs to be transmitted is likely to be more critical and life-saving.

The NPSBN will be very much like a data service that you might purchase through several commercial carriers. The goal of the NPSBN is to provide dedicated bandwidth so all first responders can effectively communicate during mission critical situations, such as emergencies, disasters and events, without getting bogged down in congestion or being kicked off the network (something we’ve all experienced). 

Ability to actually communicate 

You have heard the phrases such as “knowledge is power” or a “picture is worth a thousand words.” The NPSBN will allow first responders to quickly harness information, transmit data, stream live video, provide situational awareness and be more efficient on communicating, which is a most critical function in this line of work. The missing piece is voice communications, and this is being addressed.

The question that is often asked is, "How does my agency get FirstNet?" Each State and Territory must-opt in or opt-out of the network that will be stood up by FirstNet. 

If they opt out, they must build their own. Also, the network itself, requires special “Band Class 14” devices. 

The selection is limited, and they are costly. The network on which this system will operate does not yet fully exist. 

LMR for now

Land mobile radio has been the go-to communication method for public safety for many years. It is reliable in emergency and disaster situations, easy to use and is a familiar piece of equipment to most first responders. A recent trend experienced by many agencies is users communicating more frequently by smartphone. When networks get overloaded or fail, then responders fall back to LMR. 

The message to push up to management is that the NPSBN will be a great tool for public safety, but it will not replace LMR right away.

Funding mechanisms must be put in place to fund both broadband public safety and LMR. The two systems may converge in the future, but at this point neither is the complete solution. 

Those of you reading this that have been involved since from the beginning and when FirstNet was being conceptualized will likely recall comments like “not in my lifetime” or “it will never happen” being commonplace. I hope the naysayers are watching, as many remain dear friends, because the NPSBN is coming to fruition soon. In fact, it is a reality in five parts of the U.S. right now.

About the Author
Gary Teeler has 21 years of service in public safety and currently serves as the Chief of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Gary has a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice Leadership and Management from Sam Houston State University, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice Law Enforcement from Texas State University. He is a certified Texas Peace Officer, Certified Emergency Manager (CEM), and a graduate of the 256th Session of the FBI National Academy. Gary serves on the IPSA Emerging Technologies Committee and as an adjunct professor at South University in Austin.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IPSA or any agency of the government.

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