With so many advances in technology, , people would expect our nation’s capital to have the best tools available to the thousands of public safety officials who serve and protect Washington, DC and the National Capital region. When I was Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC on 9/11, I experienced the failure of radio and cellular communication within public safety agencies during this emergency. Today, I believe effective communication is still the greatest obstacle that our nation’s first responders face. Thankfully, we are one step closer to overcoming that obstacle.
After hearing from those on the front lines of protecting our communities, the 9/11 Commission concluded that our nation needed a system that allowed public safety officials to communicate with one another without fear of commercial network congestion. As a result, in 2012 President Obama signed a law creating FirstNet – the first, nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to America’s first responders during times of emergencies. After more than 4 years of meeting with public safety leaders and experts nationwide to gather their input, our first responders will have access to a network that is interoperable, allowing them to communicate vital information seamlessly and immediately.
Today most public safety agencies are using commercial cellular networks to communicate – which can be a challenge when there is an overworked network or an emergency. This happens when a large number of people are congregated in one area – like during events on the National Mall or at major sporting events – and are trying to use the network. It also can occur when there is an emergency and people are trying to contact their friends and families, causing a network jam. Obviously, we do not want our first responders in this situation because they rely on effective communication to protect property and save lives.
This is why FirstNet and its partner, AT&T, will utilize FirstNet’s issued dedicated wireless spectrum to create the nationwide interoperable network, allowing emergency responders first priority when network traffic is high.
However, the benefits do not just stop at priority communication, which will be available to first responders in the District immediately upon opting in to the network. FirstNet also allows public safety officials to communicate with one another across jurisdictions – an issue that the District currently faces with a patchwork of local, state, and federal agencies. The District’s neighbors, Maryland and Virginia, have recognized the benefit of FirstNet and have already chosen to “opt-in” to the program. If the District opts in, a vital link in the communications chain will be added, allowing public safety officials throughout the Mid-Atlantic to share vital information and stay up to date with one another effortlessly.
More importantly, opting in to FirstNet would come with no financial risk to the District. After a competitive bidding process, FirstNet selected AT&T as its partner. The company is under contract to build and maintain the network for 25 years – a financial obligation that the District and its taxpayers would have to take on if it were to opt-out. Washington has other priorities, including education, housing and other services that require substantial taxpayer support. The District also cannot afford the years of deployment delay that comes with opting-out. Already the area has to collaborate with more agencies than other states and territories. The deployment delays that come with opting-out would be costly to taxpayers. And, above all, delays can put lives and property at risk.
To date, 41 states and territories have chosen to take advantage of the interoperable network to better connect the men and women who risk their lives to protect us. The sooner the District opts into this dedicated public safety network, the sooner our first responders will have access to new life-saving tools.
Charles H. Ramsey served in law enforcement for nearly 50 years. He is the former chief of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC; former commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department; and former deputy superintendent of the Chicago Police Department.