Challenges at All Levels for the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network

February 25, 2013

Saturday, February 23, 2013, by Samantha Surles
The 9/11 Commission pushed the idea of a nationwide interoperable public safety network after several communication failures between first responders during the attacks. A decade later, the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act created the First Responders Network Authority (FirstNet). FirstNet is tasked with planning, building, and maintaining a nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network for emergency responders and emergency management. In 2012, FirstNet elected a Board of Directors, put together a state and local implementation program, and opened the comment period for government and private entities to weigh-in on possible network architecture, cost, and management plans.  Ironically, the deadline for comments was extended due to communication interruptions from Hurricane Sandy. Of the 133 comments filed, only 29 came from local and state government entities (the ones setting up, using, and maintaining the network). Texas, Mississippi, and Florida were the only southern states to file comments, speaking for the region most in danger of severe thunderstorms and hurricanes. Hurricanes, incidentally, were responsible for eight of the ten most expensive and destructive disasters in U.S. history. It was also notable that somewhere in between acquiring a Board and holding its first meeting, FirstNet had already decided the basic structure of the network.
The decision was informed by the Technical Advisory Board, which was temporarily created by the Middle Class Tax Relief Act, to report on recommended minimum technical requirements to ensure interoperability for the network. According to the minimum requirements, and the comments of interested participants, the greatest concerns are the security and reliability of the network. Current plans depend on existing infrastructure , most of which was built for commercial use and is notoriously susceptible to damage from natural disasters. State and local public safety personnel and emergency responders will be the users and consumers of the network. To illustrate the difficulty of user security, there are around 230,000 EMS technicians in the U.S., and around 43% belong to privately owned ambulance services with a turnover rate of 20%, and this accounts for a tiny margin of those who will have access to the system. Regulatory challenges in building the public safety broadband network stand to create issues on the legal front, as the originating statute made specific provisions for “ensuring the safety, security and resiliency” of the network and “managing and overseeing the implementation and execution of … agreements with non-Federal entities to build, operate, and maintain the network.”
Private companies pointed out that this initial comment period on network architecture would produce no helpful discussion on costs and security, as no criteria were provided for choosing the network model or the extent to which possible models comply with minimum requirements.  The states who did manage to weigh-in all complained of a lack of vertical input. The complaints of the state governments (not to mention the total silence from the vast majority of them), to whom Congress is directly responsible, may indicate that the congressional intent of state and local consultation is not being carried out. Whether or not their actions thus far have been in compliance with congressional intent and will eventually produce a secure system, interested parties hope that the establishment of the Public Safety Advisory Committee in conjunction with DHS will help give the users of the system a voice in its design.