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100 Days at the FirstNet Authority: reflections, observations and discoveries

This is the first in a 2-part series by Joe Wassel, First Responder Network Authority Executive Director and CEO, on his thoughts, insights, and vision for the future of public safety communications.

During my first 100 days leading the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority), I went coast-to-coast to hear directly from first responders. I wanted to better understand their experiences and needs with the FirstNet network.

These engagements connected me with public safety officials across the disciplines, from all levels of government, and in all parts of the country – both rural and urban. I had the opportunity to engage with emergency telecommunicators in Virginia, elected officials in rural Missouri, fire chiefs from metropolitan areas, and a variety of stakeholders that work on public safety communications at the 5x5 summit in California, hosted by the FirstNet Authority and National Institute of Standards and Technology.

These conversations resonated with me. They showed me the challenges first responders face and the ways that broadband technologies can make a real impact on responders’ lives. One story especially stuck with me—a first responder from the Midwest told me that with FirstNet, public safety finally has a communications system built for their unique mission, not one that has been retrofitted from commercial or military purposes. For the longest time, she told me, we’ve needed a network built for us, and one that we can depend on.

This conversation reminded me of why FirstNet was created in the first place. The September 11 terrorist attacks shone a light on the communications challenges our first responders faced. The FirstNet Authority was created to deliver a reliable nationwide network that public safety can count on every day and in every situation.

Even with FirstNet, the nation’s public safety network, being fully operational today, our work will never be done. We can never lose sight of the importance of improving and evolving the network based on what public safety needs.

A network for public safety

But it’s important to remember—FirstNet is more than a network, and the FirstNet Authority is a unique government agency. Our strategic partnership with AT&T brings together the best of the public and private sectors, all for the benefit of public safety.

At the FirstNet Authority, we have a special role as the government agency responsible for the overall stewardship of the nationwide public safety broadband network. We take this responsibility very seriously and our talented team of experts—including former and active-duty public safety personnel—are laser-focused on creating the best possible communications network for public safety. 

The FirstNet Authority Board also plays a significant role in ensuring the network is working for public safety. Made up of public safety and technology experts; network and finance leaders; local government officials; and leadership from the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, and Office of Management and Budget, the Board helps guide the agency’s vision and network evolution. I'm so thankful for the knowledge, expertise, and wisdom of our Board—their impact is felt in our work every day.

Further, the FirstNet Authority is fortunate to have the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC), which is made up of more than 40 organizations and associations representing the full spectrum of public safety interests. In fact, the PSAC associations’ combined membership reaches about six million public safety personnel nationwide. The PSAC is a vital source of feedback and advice to ensure that public safety’s needs, requirements, and operational capabilities are addressed by the network.

Through this collective expertise, the FirstNet Authority oversees a 25-year contract with AT&T to build, maintain, operate, and upgrade the network. We also identify areas to improve the network for public safety, and then we work with AT&T to implement such enhancements. This is a unique arrangement, one in which user feedback can lead to direct improvements to the network. The FirstNet Authority funds network investments through a self-sustaining business model to make those improvements to FirstNet. This benefits both the nation’s first responders and the communities they serve.

Overseeing a nationwide network for public safety

Network oversight is a critical component of the work we do at the FirstNet Authority. As such, the FirstNet Authority has developed and implemented a robust oversight program to ensure that AT&T meets measurable public safety targets and performance measures.

Our oversight is built upon extensive contract deliverables, as well as standardized program management tools and processes with dedicated staffing resources and expertise. These functions come together to track and evaluate all activities associated with the FirstNet network contract and program. It also holds the network contractor accountable by instituting penalties and corrective actions when contract requirements are not met.

What does this mean for public safety? For starters we have set the bar high to ensure AT&T continues to deliver on the promise to public safety throughout our 25-year contract. Our oversight program has enabled us to keep the buildout on track and on budget, ensure that network coverage reaches rural communities, and ensure that FirstNet users have been validated as serving a public safety need.  These are just a few of the many tangible benefits for public safety that we have delivered through our oversight functions.

Supporting public safety, always

The FirstNet Authority works every day to minimize and mitigate risk through robust oversight and program management. We also keep an eye on the future, engaging with public safety to understand their communications needs and working with industry leaders to scope out solutions. Our goal is to always push the needle forward for public safety—to make sure that public safety always comes first.  

I believe this is a mindset everyone in the public safety marketplace can get behind—whether a network carrier, device manufacturer, app developer, or cybersecurity specialist. We must evolve, advance, and expand technologies to address public safety’s needs. We must drive innovation and demand excellence on behalf of public safety. That all starts with strong governance, strict oversight, and stakeholder engagement. I’m proud to say here at the FirstNet Authority, we are leaders in all three.

Our first responders are heroes who show up and bring their best to any emergency. We must do the same for them.  

Click here to see the second part of this 2-part series by Joe Wassel, First Responder Network Authority Executive Director and CEO, on his thoughts, insights, and vision for the future of public safety communications.

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