More than 350,000 people attended Seattle's SeaFair 2019 festival last August, and for the first time the Seattle Fire Department didn't battle the typical network congestion issues that occur when a large number of people are gathered in one location. The reason behind the smooth sailing is that the Seattle Fire Department is now using FirstNet, the dedicated nationwide public safety network that AT&T is building in conjunction with the First Network Responder (FirstNet) Authority.
Chris Lombard, the deputy chief of the Seattle Fire Department, said that Seattle typically has about five to seven key events every year (like SeaFair) where network congestion is a big problem. But now it's no longer an issue. "With FirstNet we were not hindered by bandwidth constraints," he says.
"It's about getting more information when you need it," Lombard explained, adding that 911 calls are dispatched differently so emergency responses aren't impacted by network congestion.
Lombard says that the Seattle Fire Department has about 300 smartphones on the FirstNet network so far. It started migrating its smartphones to FirstNet about a year ago and has more to convert. It also has upgraded its fire trucks, ambulances and ladder trucks to FirstNet but is still waiting to upgrade its vehicles that are outfitted with computers. Those take longer to migrate because the equipment in vehicles doesn't get replaced as often.
Nevertheless, Lombard says that the department is already looking ahead to more advanced capabilities that FirstNet will offer. For example, he envisions being able to use FirstNet to transmit information to hospitals using sensors that can track information about patients in the field.
The FirstNet Authority is the federal authority that was created to solve network congestion problems that occur during emergencies or large events when heavy public use of wireless networks makes them overloaded and inaccessible.
In March 2017 FirstNet signed a $6.5 billion deal with AT&T to build a dedicated network for first responders. AT&T has been working on that network and in August announced that it had about 9,000 public safety agencies and organizations signed up to use FirstNet. During AT&T's second quarter earnings call with investors in July, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said that the company has so far built about 60% of the FirstNet network and expects to hit the 70% milestone by year-end.
Jeff Bratcher, chief technology and operations officer with the FirstNet Authority, says that AT&T is ahead of schedule with the network and at last count FirstNet had more than 750,000 connections on the network. "We are seeing a lot of uptake," he says.
Bratcher said that Seattle is just one of several large public safety agencies using the network. "We are seeing a lot of agencies using the network and leveraging the benefits."
Among those benefits is that FirstNet gives public safety agencies priority access and pre-emption when the cell sites get overloaded. "Before FirstNet, we couldn't rely on this," Bratcher says.
But now that FirstNet members are seeing the benefits of the network, they are starting to think of other applications. Bratcher says that at the FirstNet technical validation lab in Boulder, Colorado, FirstNet is starting to develop the next iteration of applications and services that can help public safety agencies.
For example, augmented reality and virtual reality could be used to train firefighters. Location-based services could be used to help locate an injured firefighter in a multi-story building. "We are seeing all kinds of advanced thinking now that public safety agencies can trust the network," Bratcher says.
— Sue Marek, special to Light Reading. Follow her @suemarek.