Definition of a First ResponderSunday, October 26, 2008
According to the FCC, the only people who will be classified as first responders when it comes to being able to use the 700-MHz public safety broadband network (PSBN) are the approximately 3 million people in the United States who carry guns, wear fire boots, or carry a first-aid kit on the job. A number of organizations are unhappy with the FCC’s definition of first responders and want it broadened to include other support groups.
Suppose police, fire, and paramedics respond to a car accident. When they get there, they find the car has cut a power pole in half, there are wires lying in the street and on the car, and there are two people trapped inside. Are electric company personnel that have to take care of the live wires before the rescue can take place first responders? In my book, they are. Take this same incident, move it to a major highway, add a fully closed freeway and several other cars in the same accident. Who helps first responders access the scene, divert or manage traffic, and clean up the mess so traffic can flow freely again? Usually, it is the state departments of transportation that arrive on the scene who, by the way, cross train with first responders for all types of emergencies—yet they are not considered by the FCC to be first responders. What about a tow truck that is needed to move a vehicle out of the road for the safety of the other cars and the first responders?
The American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials’ (AASHTO) board of directors unanimously approved a resolution this past week asking the FCC to reconsider its access plan for the Public Safety Broadband Network. These are the people who work with first responders on our roadways, and many of the tower sites that cover the highway system sit on their right-of-ways. It would be odd, to say the least, if they were not permitted to use this network during times of emergencies. And during evacuations of areas threatened by fires and hurricanes, the DOT’s network and personnel play an integral role in managing the flow of residents out of the area and emergency responders into the area.
I hope more people will submit a comment on who the FCC deems is a first responder that can use this network. I have expressed my views in my official comments to this point and in many articles since Katarina, including a Commentary I wrote that was reprinted in the APCO (Associated Public Safety Officials) publication. The point I have made is that while everyone was complaining about failed communications in New Orleans and surrounding areas, those who could have restored these communications systems were kept out of the city by the agencies in charge.
Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint’s equipment they had staged including COWs (cells on wheels), generators, antennas, and pieces and parts needed to reestablish their networks were kept out of the area. Even the city communications workers were kept out of the city. The very people who could have delivered battery chargers to the police, put some police and fire systems back on the air, and shortened the lapse in communications by weeks were kept sitting in parking lots surrounding New Orleans.
The AASHTO is right to question the FCC’s overly restrictive definition of what a first responder really is, and I hope that its action, along with the comments of others, will help the FCC recognize its error. Yes, police, fire, and paramedics are first responders, and they need this public safety network now, not 15 years from now. But so do others. In each emergency situation, a number of other agencies need to be considered as first responders according to the specific circumstances. Perhaps the definition of a first responder should be broadened to agencies that cross train with police, fire, and paramedics for disasters and major incidents.
But that may still be too restrictive a definition. Snow plows are first responders when emergency vehicles cannot get through and bulldozers are first responders when there is a fire. It all depends on the circumstances, and I don’t expect each and every type of potential first responder to use the PSBN on a daily basis, even though many of them are constrained just like the first responders when it comes to radio channels. The general public is probably not aware that many departments, agencies, and others using narrowband communications have to wait years for another radio channel to be assigned to them and, in the meantime, they have to suffer with channel overcrowding.
This is something most citizens don’t realize since they can purchase a wireless phone and start making calls. They might experience a dropped call now and then, but there is not congestion on a channel such that they have to wait to be able to place a call (except perhaps during an emergency when everyone is trying to make a call). However, many of the narrowband communications channels used by police, fire, and EMS people are so busy, especially on a Friday or Saturday night, that calls are delayed, perhaps turning a routine call into an emergency call.
Today’s public safety networks are not like our cellular systems where we each get to use our own “channel.” On a public safety network, a number of vehicles are all listening to the same channel so they know what is happening, but if two try to talk at once, or if one is trying to talk over the dispatcher, typically, no one will hear and time is lost. The new 700-MHz public safety network will not make all of the voice issues go away, but moving some of the command-and-control information and some of the data to the new 700-MHz system could reduce congestion and improve the situation.
In this attempt at providing first responders with some level of interoperability, not only do we need to establish a network in a timely manner, we need to understand who makes up the first responder community and that it is more than police, fire, and EMS. I hope the FCC gets this message in time and opens up appropriate access to the PSBN network!
Andrew M. Seybold