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Moving Fire and Emergency Service Communications Efforts Forward

Two key communication issues dominate the attention of fire chiefs:

  • Creating a nationwide, broadband system
  • Narrowbanding UHF and VHF radios by Jan. 1, 2013

This article explains what the new broadband law entails and what to do if you can’t meet the narrowbanding deadline.

D Block Goes to Public Safety

The president signed into law Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act (P.L. 112-96) on February 22. While there are many provisions in Title VI of the new law, the three key provisions are the assignment of the D block to public safety, $7 billion to help construct the network and a governance structure to manage it.

The law takes the 10 MHz of spectrum in the D Block from the FCC auction authority and allocates it directly to public safety. It further reallocates the 10 MHz of broadband spectrum already licensed to the Public Safety Spectrum Trust to the new governance body.

With this, public safety now can construct a new mission-critical 20 MHz nationwide broadband network. This network will operate a single technology—4th generation Long Term Evolution (LTE)—on a single nationwide license.


The new law requires the establishment of incentive spectrum auctions and the proceeds from them, up to $7 billion, to fund a newly created public-safety trust fund. Borrowing up to $2 billion from the U.S. Treasury is authorized so public safety doesn’t have to wait for the availability of auction proceeds to begin construction. A state and local implementation fund of $135 million is also created for grants to assist state, local and tribal governments with the build-out.


The legislation establishes the First Responder Network Authority within the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The 15-member FirstNet board will consist of the secretary of Homeland Security, the attorney general, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and 12 members appointed by the secretary of Commerce.

No fewer than three members of the board shall have served as public-safety professionals and three representing the collective interests of states, localities, tribes and territories. The others must have technical expertise, network experience and financial expertise.

Spectrum Giveback

There is also a requirement that public safety must give back its spectrum currently in use in the T band, which impacts eleven markets—all large metropolitan areas. The law gives nine years for compliance, with provisions for relocation assistance.

How It Happened

The administration, led by the president and vice president, working closely with public safety, were instrumental in developing the structure for the D Block allocation. Members of Congress, on a bipartisan basis, were convinced that action for public safety had to be taken.

Public safety was supported by national organizations representing state and local government as well as the major carriers and manufacturers of telecommunications equipment.

But the key goes to constituent advocacy. IAFC members across the country wrote their federal elected officials, met with them in their districts and in Washington, attended hearings in uniform, and acted when needed the most. Chief Jeff Johnson led the great effort for America’s fire and emergency service, working with other public-safety leaders.

Narrowbanding Mandate

When you read this, there will be fewer than 260 days to comply with the FCC’s narrowbanding mandate.

This FCC order requires those wireless radio systems operating on frequencies below 512 MHz (on UHF and VHF channels) to reduce their broadcast bandwidth from 25 kHz to 12.5 kHz by January 1, 2013. Many jurisdictions have made the conversion, but records at the FCC show that many have not.

The FCC has made it abundantly clear that there will be no modification of the compliance deadline. The IAFC and other public-safety organizations are on the record in support of the January 2013 deadline.

For those departments that have yet to narrowband their systems, we recommend material on the IAFC website that will be helpful:

  • FCC Narrowbanding Mandate: A Public Safety Guide for Compliance – Published jointly in 2006 by the IAFC and the International Municipal Signal Association. 
  • FCC Public Notices DA 12-246 (Jul. 13, 2011) and DA 12-246 (Feb. 21, 2012) – The FCC is holding out the possibility of issuing waivers to some jurisdictions that can’t comply by the deadline. The required information to accompany the waiver request is set out in detail.

The underlying message is that you must have a plan. Departments that aren’t in compliance and haven’t been issued waivers will likely have their licenses turned over to the FCC Enforcement Bureau for action. Please contact the IAFC’s Government Relations department if you have questions.

Alan Caldwell is senior advisor to the IAFC’s government relations department.

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