Taking Public Safety Communications to the Next Level: FirstNet's Innovation and Test Lab
The Boulder, Colorado, lab tests FirstNet-compatible devices and applications before their deployment in the field.
Imagine a firefighter is battling a massive wildfire and she has to check in with her fellow firefighters regarding changing wind conditions. But when she attempts to contact them, the connection is virtually non-existent.
This scenario is, without a doubt, dangerous. It could also lead to life-threatening results.
That's why when the Boulder Mountain Fire Protection District (BMFPD) -- a volunteer department made up of about 60 firefighters -- visited the FirstNet Authority offices in Boulder, Colorado, their purpose was to not only prove the importance of clear communication but also expose the difficulties they sometimes face while ensuring crews’ safety on scene.
BMFPD firefighters walked the FirstNet Authority staff through what it's like to operate a radio while in full protective gear, the difficulties of understanding voice commands while wearing breathing masks, and more.
These issues, which are eye-opening for any organization, are what make FirstNet's duty to develop a nationwide broadband network for first responders even more mission-critical.
A Network for First Responders
The First Responder Network Authority, commonly known as FirstNet, was created after the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. Congress allocated $7 billion and 20 megahertz of radio spectrum to build a broadband network specifically designed for public safety personnel. In 2017, FirstNet selected AT&T to build and maintain the network.
But at the end of the day, the network does not belong to anyone but the first responders who fought for it.
This is theirs,” said Jeff Bratcher, chief technology and operations officer with FirstNet. “They fought for the spectrum. They fought for the funding. It took about 20 years to get it, so we're just here to continue to drive and innovate.”
Innovating Solutions in the Lab
Bratcher, who works out of the Boulder office, started working in telecommunications while in high school. He later graduated with an electrical engineering degree from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, and received his master’s degree in telecommunications from Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Throughout his career, Bratcher spent time developing the 2G cellular network for Motorola, helped deploy a new overlay system for Siemens Mobile, focused on public safety communications at the Institute for Telecommunication Sciences, and assisted in the development of language that went into the law that ultimately created FirstNet.
In 2013, he joined the FirstNet team and directed the effort to develop the FirstNet Innovation and Test Lab in Boulder.
The lab team, which is made up of around 50 to 60 staff members, is constantly working on device testing and certification.
We work closely with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to publish a list of certified devices,” Bratcher explained. “Our focus is really on those key public safety features; those are the capabilities we focus on for device testing and then working with NIST to get those on the list of devices.”
The genesis and reason for creating the lab, Bratcher said, was to test devices and applications before their deployment in the field. In the next couple of years, Bratcher hopes to expand the lab into an experience center.
“The experience center would be a place where public safety personnel could come in and get a feel for what's happening today and some of the things they’re going to need in the future on this network,” he said.
And while the team continues to innovate on how to deliver the best solution for public safety personnel, Bratcher says his biggest message to all responders is simple: FirstNet is real today.
“You don’t have to wait for the Band 14 build-out that’s in the contract over the next five years,” he clarified. “If you have coverage from AT&T with LTE, and you’re a first responder, then you can sign up for FirstNet service today. It's out there and it’s available.”
First Responder-Specific Apps
During the BMFPD’s demonstration to FirstNet, a volunteer firefighter showed staff members an app he created that he uses with his colleagues while on scene.
"There’s no one better to create an app like that than someone who relies on it to do their job, fight fires and save lives,” Bratcher said, adding that right now, FirstNet is in the process of getting the firefighter’s app into their catalog. "We want it on the network and available for use, not just for them, but for others who could use it as well."
The app process is open to any application developer and is set up as part of a developer program and portal.
“We’ve done a lot of outreach into the app-developer community. Everyone plays games and those apps are fine, but what if you could build an app that could be used to save lives?” Bratcher asked, noting that the apps are becoming more critical as the network continues to grow.
FirstNet's catalog currently includes over 40 apps with more on the way as the company continues to host hack-a-thons and workshops to develop first responder-specific apps.
The ones that we’re focusing on for the FirstNet application catalog are verified to work with some of the unique features of the network," Bratcher noted. "There's security built into it. Some of the things public safety relies on have a little more scrutiny to be listed and certified in our catalog."
Understanding first responders' needs, Bratcher said, is critical to creating apps they can use and rely on.
Listening to First Responders
During FirstNet's first few years, the staff consulted in all 56 states and territories with public safety personnel.
“That was key in our efforts to understand what was needed – hearing directly from the boots on the ground,” Bratcher said.
Bratcher added that right now, FirstNet, with AT&T’s help, is driving ahead some of the products and features that public safety personnel have asked for in the network.
The mission-critical push-to-talk, some of the location-based services – those are some of the big ones coming just over the horizon that we're gearing up in the lab and working on,” he said.
Additionally, part of the consultation FirstNet conducted with different disciplines of public safety was to bring the network with responders during fire disasters.
FirstNet recently accepted 72 dedicated Satellite Cell on Light Trucks (SatCOLTs), which are available to FirstNet subscribers at no cost.
“There's a process where firefighters can request those,” Bratcher explained. “Say there's an area during a wildland fire, and there's no coverage and there's never going to be a tower built there, but they need to bring that capability, then they can request a SatCOLT to have on-scene communications with all of their applications and other capabilities that they want to bring to the incident.”
The ability to provide the SatCOLTs, Bratcher said, was a specific ask from the firefighter community.
“Having those is also in addition to the 400-plus deployables that AT&T already has as part of their network disaster recovery teams. This is just on top of that, and again, is focused on those public safety users that need them," he said.
FirstNet also added three flying Cells on Wings (COWs) to the FirstNet deployable program. Each Flying COW is comprised of two tethered drones and a trailer for transport that is equipped with a satellite dish and fiber connections.
Another major success for FirstNet -- and win for all public safety personnel -- was the creation of FirstNet Ready devices. “We now have Band 14 support in all of the latest major Tier 1 smartphones, including Samsung, Apple, LG and Sonim,” Bratcher said.
Securing the band support for commercial smartphones, Bratcher said, was another direct ask from public safety personnel. “They want to be able to use commercial devices just like we all, as commercial users on the network, use them, but with the features to give them the connectivity when needed.”
Mike Worrell, senior fire service advisor with FirstNet, said introducing these devices will not only open the door to further emerging technologies, but will also heighten firefighters’ situational awareness.
“Public safety applications being developed will deliver information like environmental conditions (temperature, humidity), location, SCBA data, biometric data (heart rate, respirations) and thermal images with priority and preemption only available on FirstNet. Putting this mission-critical data in the hands of responding firefighters in real time saves time and saves lives.”