Alaska latest state to access FirstNet for first responders

  • Anchorage police respond to the scene of a 2011 shooting at a local bar. An agreement between the State of Alaska and AT&T will allow first responders to access a new network called FirstNet that will prioritize public safety traffic through cell towers in case of emergencies or natural disasters in addition to other tools available at the click of an app. (Photo/Mark Thiessen/AP)

A deal worked out by AT&T and the State of Alaska will supply a new private network for the state’s emergency responders that work in times of natural disaster when many first responders are jammed into the same networks as everyone else.

Gov. Bill Walker gave the go-ahead Aug. 30 for the State of Alaska to opt in to FirstNet by AT&T, a system that prioritizes public safety in emergency cases over regular commercial cell phone users.

John Rockwell, the statewide 911 coordinator for the Alaska Department of Public Safety, gave an example to show the life-saving benefits soon to be at emergency responders’ fingertips.

“Let’s say there’s a major incident on the highway where we have 30,000 cars on it a day,” Rockwell said. “If we have a major incident and it’s in an isolated spot with one cell tower, and the public is trying to call home, that could preclude emergency responders from getting onto the same network.”

In that case, the public consumes most of the bandwidth.

“With FirstNet, they can move the standard commercial users over to a ‘slow lane,’ or if needed, kick them off,” Rockwell said. “Think of the communication system as a three-lane highway and as many people are on it as the highway can withstand. We can move commercial users to the middle lane or to the slow lane.

“If more public safety uses are needed, then all are moved to the slow lane so public safety can use two lanes. They won’t have to worry about not being able to continue their job.”

Alaska State Troopers and all police departments in the state still use three-way radio dispatch. The new system will give them data at their fingertips on where equipment is located that could be accessed, so the call or information isn’t routed through a dispatch center.

It gives them video of a fire before they get there, so firefighters know what to expect. A whole host of public safety-specific tools will be an app click away.

The First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, came about as a recommendation from the 9/11 Commission after the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. in 2001.

Now it is an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce that was chartered in 2012. The mission is to ensure the building, deployment, and operation of the nationwide, broadband network that equips first responders to save lives and protect U.S. communities.

Alaska became the 16th state to opt in to FirstNet. Since 2014, AT&T has worked with Alaskan officials to put the new system in place that gives emergency responders a network all their own. Rockwell played a major role.

AT&T, which spent about $150 million from 2014-16 upgrading its Alaska network, was selected by FirstNet to build out the nationwide system.

Ironically, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was preparing to opt into the FirstNet system before Hurricane Harvey struck and brought devastating floods, Rockwell said.

Rockwell wears another hat as the Alaska statewide inter-operability coordinator. He has 49 other state counterparts, and receives communications data from around the nation.

In Texas, he found that only 5.1 percent of the towers went out in Houston, while 7 out of 10 cell tours were knocked out in the other hardest hit Texas counties. Still, 75,000 calls were completed between Friday night and Monday morning through Houston’s call center.

Texas 911 also accepts texts; that’s a tool Alaska doesn’t have yet.

“Almost everyone believes you can text 911 if you’re in an emergency. Unfortunately, that’s been slow to roll out. You can’t write a text in Alaska and have it go to a public safety point,” Rockwell said.

This relates to the FirstNet issue only in that texts take up far less bandwidth than a phone call, and can be placed in many parts of Alaska. Texting is particularly important in an abduction or domestic violence matter when victims can’t or shouldn’t talk on the phone.

“We’re working on getting that ability,” Rockwell said.

Walker’s decision enables FirstNet and AT&T to begin creating the entirely new wireless ecosystem for Alaska’s public safety communications, Walker said in a news release. He’s excited about the possibilities. Alaska’s first responder subscribers will have immediate access to AT&T LTE network.

The infrastructure buildout won’t incur costs for the state because the investment is from AT&T, in a public-private partnership with FirstNet. They will build, operate and maintain the wireless broadband communications network for Alaska’s public safety community at no cost to the state. The FirstNet network also will create an entire system of modernized devices, apps and tools for first responders.

But the costs for new phones and subscriber plans will be a state expense, said Rockwell. He is tasked with examining various plans to come up with cost estimates.

Nothing has yet been signed off, but so far, the costs are fairly reasonable. A plan for 75 devices and 500 gigabytes of data works out to about $27 per month per officer, Rockwell said.

The entire network will be up and running by year-end, yet as of the time of the governor’s signature, a limited use is already in effect, Rockwell added.

The network won’t only be available to Alaska State Troopers and police departments across the state. It will also be accessible for firefighters, utility workers who need to turn off power in case of an earthquake or other disaster, emergency road crews, Department of Transportation workers and any number of borough or city-level emergency responders, Rockwell said.

Here’s some examples for what it can do:

• Connect first responder subscribers to the critical information they need in a highly secure manner when handling day-to-day operations, responding to emergencies and supporting large-scale events, like the Alaska State Fair in Palmer or the Iditarod Sled Dog Race that stretches from Anchorage to Nome.

• Create efficient communications for public safety personnel in agencies and jurisdictions across the state during natural disasters. This includes events like the 2014 Keystone Canyon avalanche, the 2011 Bering Sea “super storm” that impacted coastal Alaska, and the 2015 summer wildfires that raged across many parts of the state.

• Enhance network coverage throughout the state’s rural areas.

• Drive infrastructure investments and create jobs across the state.

• Usher in a new wave of dependable innovations for first responders. This will create an ever-evolving set of life-saving tools for public safety, including public safety apps, specialized devices and Internet of Things technologies. It also carries the potential for future integration with NextGen 911 networks and Smart Cities’ infrastructure.

Rockwell sees another application as well. It takes Alaska out of isolation and puts it in touch with a dedicated nationwide system, allowing Alaskan responders to speak to Texan responders or a California team in cases of manhunts, storms or abductions. Even Canada has plans to join.

“All states are connected to this public safety ecosystem – written for them on a nationwide scale,” Rockwell said. “Looking at it from a nationwide perspective, it will remove the silos.”

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Naomi Klouda can be reached at naomi.klouda@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
09/08/2017 - 1:35pm

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