In the latter half of my career—while serving as sheriff of Los Angeles County—I was honored to support efforts to champion a dedicated and nationwide public safety communications system. After the public safety communications failures in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, law enforcement as a profession rallied together to bring about much needed change. Ultimately, a dedicated communications network for public safety was created by Congress in 2012 and became operational just five years ago. FirstNet is that critical network.
The integrity of this dedicated wireless broadband network is essential to first responders’ ability to serve. In Los Angeles, command staff at the largest agencies have chosen FirstNet because it addresses the communication challenges that had long hampered emergency response. Its priority and preemption feature and heightened level of security provide a vital and mission critical tool to help fulfill our responsibility to protect and serve our communities.
As FirstNet continues to evolve, the legislative and regulatory oversight required by federal law has continued. The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) recent renewal of FirstNet’s Band 14 spectrum license is a milestone that allows for the continued, uninterrupted operation of this network for the next decade.
At the House’s recent FCC Oversight Hearing, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel highlighted this accomplishment, saying "effective public safety communications are needed by everyone, everywhere." This regulatory action also underscored key achievements thanks to FirstNet and set the record straight on misleading claims peddled by some of its critics.
The FCC action reaffirmed the fact that FirstNet is fully interoperable. This means that emergency response agencies can exchange voice and data with other FirstNet users and those on commercial wireless networks. FirstNet serves as the common, nationwide platform for public safety. Before FirstNet, our community struggled to communicate across agencies and relied upon a patchwork of radio networks that are operated by state and local jurisdictions across the country.
Interoperability is critical during natural disasters, which are becoming all too routine. As wildfires, hurricanes and other weather events increase in frequency and intensity, it’s critical that emergency responders can coordinate effectively during large-scale efforts, which can involve hundreds of agencies. In California, for example, we’ve seen significant progress as we communicate seamlessly with our firefighters and EMS partners in providing safe passage for residential evacuation. During these evacuations, gaps in communication can have tragic consequences.
The FCC also confirmed FirstNet eligibility is vetted and controlled to serve public safety…it’s public safety’s network. The renewal of Band 14 preserves this dedicated spectrum for exclusive use by public safety and is not accessible by just anyone. Why? It’s necessary for law enforcement to coordinate with those in critical support functions such as a highway department clearing a crash site. While those supporting emergency response can use FirstNet, there is multi-tier priority that preserves heightened priority for first responders.
Finally, the FCC determined that FirstNet has fulfilled the obligation set forth by Congress to integrate with 911. FirstNet is distinct from the 911 systems managed by local jurisdictions across the country, but 911 Centers also stand to benefit from FirstNet. Today, 911 Call Takers can use FirstNet to share photos and videos with public safety personnel in the field. Additionally, 911 Centers, including rollouts across entire states, are now using FirstNet as a backup connection. When a primary internet line is cut off, the center can keep taking calls using FirstNet.
With this important FCC milestone behind us, the time is now for Congress to reauthorize the FirstNet Authority, public safety’s federal partner that enables our community to continue guiding the evolution of FirstNet. Without action, this independent agency will sunset in 2027.
Public safety fought long and hard to create FirstNet, and we deserve to keep a seat at the table. I urge you to contact your Member of Congress and encourage support for public safety by preserving its role advancing this critical federal program.
James McDonnell is the former sheriff of Los Angeles County, serving from 2014 to 2018. He serves with a team of retired senior executive public safety leaders as an advisor to the FirstNet Program at AT&T on a variety of public safety issues.