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A Plan for Fire Service Communications in the 21st Century

The shared vision of public-safety practitioners is a nationwide public-safety broadband network—a powerful 4G network that would give the fire service the very same enormous data and video capability that many Americans have today on their Androids and iPhones.

Just imagine a device that would deliver building diagrams, hydrant locations, maps and highway information. Imagine video to provide instantaneous situational awareness of major fire and hazmat incidents in real time to incident command. Also imagine, in emergency-medical operations, the ability for digital imaging, portable EKGs and ultrasounds, field blood work and video of an accident scene—all transmitted to an emergency department and a physician many miles away.

To build such a nationwide public-safety broadband network, three key elements must be in place:

  • Sufficient Capacity
  • Under public-safety control
  • Mission-critical at the outset

The Network Must Have Sufficient Capacity

To achieve connectivity coast to coast and border to border, 10 MHz of D Block spectrum currently slated for FCC auction must be added to 10 MHz of spectrum already licensed to public safety. This would provide the 20 MHz network that’s needed to maximize the available technology. As you will see on the spectrum chart below, the currently licensed public-safety spectrum abuts the D Block and is perfect for public safety.

Only with this configuration—not with any other—can public safety be assured that it will have the ability to build the network it needs for now and the future.

The Network Must Be Under Public-Safety Control

Local control by public-safety agencies is critical. A single licensee utilizing a single technology with sufficient spectral capacity will ensure nationwide interoperability and allow us to effectively manage both day-to-day operations and major incidents. We can’t have commercial providers deciding what is or isn’t an emergency or what our priority is. Public-safety transmissions must speed through without delay. A no-service signal is unthinkable.

Public safety anticipates entry into public-private partnerships. We’ll work with state, county and local governmental agencies; federal partners; electric and gas utilities; and others such as highway and water agencies that also respond to emergencies. However, public safety must have control over the operation of the network in real time with certainty that it will have full, immediate, preemptive priority over its spectrum on a when-needed basis. This is a public-safety imperative.

The Network Must Be Mission Critical at the Outset

Initially, this system will handle only data and video. At some future time—years from now—there’ll be a transition to mission-critical voice, which means starting with sufficient spectrum. This will occur when the technology becomes available, when public safety has confidence in it and when it’s affordable.

The network must:

  • Be hardened to public-safety requirements. Towers in hurricane-prone areas and tornado alleys must be designed to withstand forces that could disable them. Back-up electrical power must be available 24/7. Redundancy is necessary.
  • Have the ability to broadcast and receive one-to-one and one-to-many. It must also have the ability to broadcast and receive when the network infrastructure is inoperative. This is the talk-around mode—a command and control absolute and the very essence of public-safety communications.
  • Have back up capabilities in the event of network loss. We envision the use of satellites when a tower is disabled or some other crippling malfunction occurs. Satellites also cover remote areas that are without terrestrial broadcast facilities. Our mission is geography-oriented, whereas commercial carriers are population-oriented.

This essential nationwide broadband network is possible only if Congress acts soon to give public safety the targeted slice of radio spectrum:  the D Block. Two years ago, nine national public-safety organizations, including the IAFC, created the Public Safety Alliance. Its single purpose is to lobby Congress to pass a law directing the FCC to allocate the D Block of spectrum to public safety and assist with funding a public-safety broadband network. Because of intense efforts, there are results.

Legislation supported by the IAFC has been introduced to enact this public-safety vision: S. 28 by Sen. Rockefeller (D-WV) and H.R. 607 by Reps. King (R-NY) and Thompson (D-MS). A hearing on S. 28 was held in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in February; the bill is moving toward full Senate action. In March, a hearing on H.R. 607 was held in the House Homeland Security Committee; we soon expect the House Energy & Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction, to hold a hearing on H.R. 607 in its Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

Earlier this year, the Obama Administration came out in support of allocating the D Block directly to public safety and providing funding. All the elements are in place for success; now, we must capitalize on the previous hard work and drive this effort to completion.

The D Block issue will hit a fever pitch during the summer. We urge you to contact your senators and member of Congress to ask that they cosponsor the D Block legislation. Even if they aren’t on the committee of jurisdiction, nationwide support is essential to ensure passage. Your elected representatives must know their fire chiefs support this broadband network.

This is an all-hands issue—please use your influence to help direct the outcome. We need every IAFC member on scene.

Alan Caldwell is senior advisor to the IAFC’s government relations department and liaison to the IAFC’s Communications Committee.

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