5 Things Early FirstNet Adopters Want Other Public Safety Agencies to Know

Public safety leaders praised their FirstNet transformations, citing reliability, redundancy, cost savings and improved field operations at APCO 2019.


Whether it’s increasing reliability for communications in the mountains, planning for a large event like a Superbowl in a metropolis or reducing data costs by thousands in a small beach town, FirstNet adopters were proof positive during “FirstNet in Action” at the 85th Annual APCO Conference in Baltimore.

The session, moderated by Ray Lehr of Lafayette Group, Inc., featured Jim Millsap of Fulton County Emergency Services in Georgia, Chief John Cueto of Duck Police Department in North Carolina and Troy Kennedy of the Signal Mountain Police Department in Tennessee.

According to Lehr, about 65% of band 14 was already deployed by AT&T as part of their 5G deployment efforts. With it public safety is going to frontline technology, he said.

You either grab hold of the technology that’s coming, or you’re going to get left behind,” said Millsap.

Below are five things these early FirstNet adopters want public agencies to know.

#1 FirstNet Helps Gets Squad Cars Where They Need to Be

Radio drop outs are a challenge in Signal Mountain, said Kennedy, who procured FirstNet for public safety vehicles.

Now when county units request help from Signal Mountain, back-up happens even where signals, and officer locations, are unavailable.

In one instance, a child received lifesaving CPR faster because of the dedicated bandwidth, he said. When the volunteer fire department “can’t dial 911 from their cellphones, we watch that.”

While FirstNet procurement was based on vehicle connectivity needs, Kennedy said he is trying to get more public safety communications moved over. All the fiber lines to 911 were cut yesterday in his county, he said, and all calls were off for 8 hours. It’s the second time this has happened.

Signal Mountain is scheduled for a new antenna, and the communities outside the jurisdiction will benefit, said Kennedy.

#2 FirstNet Doesn’t Blow the Data Budget

For Cueto, the amount of devices in Duck’s police vehicles – from MDT, to bodycams, in-car camera systems and then license plate readers – enterprise-level routers were becoming overwhelmed.

The auto license plate reader system – purchased with grant funding and a benefit in a town flooded with beach tourists every year – generated data service bills of $3,000 per month.

“And it was throttled,” he said.

Cueto said he couldn’t negotiate the price with the carrier. “I was met with no.” Initially, he switched the license readers to cable modem as elected officials balked at data costs.

Now, everything is on FirstNet – even lifeguard radios.

By going to FirstNet – a safe, effective and reliable option for $49 per month -- “I actually saved my job.” And -- no data throttling.

Watch a FirstNet video on Duck’s implementation:

#3 FirstNet Can Create a Backup 911 Center in Hours

Millsap said he prefers to have a third back-up. “A failure plan is a plan to fail,” he said.

When Fulton County was planning for Superbowl LIII held in Atlanta’s Merecedes Benz Stadium, and both the county 911 and Atlanta 911 centers were in the “hot zone,” the county established the state of Georgia’s first back-up 911 center about 15 minutes away.

They went with FirstNet for obvious reasons -- “cause county networks are never going down,” said Millsap. Fulton County established their back up 911 center in six hours. The “whole system mirrored what we had downtown,” he said.

When Millsap checked the download speed, it was 110 mb/second. He uses his FirstNet phone to get on Internet because it’s faster than cable.

Four million people came into town for the Superbowl. “We had to have priority,” so they needed enhanced push-to-talk.

“It proved to be an invaluable service to us,” he said.

Atlanta has a trunking radio system. Two months before the Superbowl, the system went down and the city used Fulton County’s 911 system as back-up.

#4 Push-to-Talk on a Dedicated Network is Everything

Duck is in process of implementing access to Band 14 and are currently using COWS. While Hurricane Florence was a near miss for the North Carolina town, “it was all about the preparation.” Duck was under mandatory evacuation with one fuel station.

The FirstNet COWS were up and running -- “without having to go to a secondary system.”

Cueto said that after 9/11, when cell service went down, he and other officers in Bridgeport, Connecticut, had access to push-to-talk radios and it made a strong impression on him.

Fast forward to today and with Cueto leading the FirstNet charge, all of town of Duck’s staff is on the network. While some jurisdictions are reluctant to get on the developing national network, the chief is eager to share with peers the success stories of day-to-day functionality.

Even with 800MHz, there are dead spots, he said. An IT person will advise an officer to push an “emergency button,” but without service there is no way to locate that officer by radio.

With push-to-talk, officer locations are mapped.

I don’t know how you put a price on how you locate an injured officer,” said Cueto.

Millsap agreed. “This thing finds your employee during the distress. It can do a whole lot more.”

#5 FirstNet Provides Fast Service

Kennedy said nearby counties are asking Spring Mountain about how the system can be configured so that all agencies can talk to each other.

Cueto said that while Duck was aware there was a potential for dropped calls and network issues with the developing FirstNet -- “there’s an app for that.”

Millsap said, “You get into the hills and valleys and you know you are going to run into those.” In one instance, he said he sent one email to FirstNet, and had a COW within three hours. Fulton County management was very impressed.

“That kind of response in service is icing on the cake,” said Millsap.

When peers say they like their carriers, Cueto said he notes, “you don’t have the backing of a government public safety network.”

Editor’s Note: August 18, 2019. An earlier version specified 800MHz LTE as having dead spots, according to the session speaker, but what was meant was radio service. That reference has been corrected.

Andrea Fox is Editor of Gov1.com and Senior Editor at Lexipol. She is based in Massachusetts.