First Responders: We Can’t Wait for FirstNet

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Officials from first responder groups said they need better communication apps.

Plans for a broadband network exclusively for first responders are progressing, but not fast enough, some say. FirstNet, the public-private partnership running the effort, is collecting proposals now and could take years to stand up the network.

“There are real needs out there today,” Jay English, a director at APCO International, a nonprofit dedicated to public safety communications, said during a panel in Washington on Tuesday. “Officers are responding -- firefighters, medics responding -- without information.”

There currently isn’t an app that seamlessly transmits information from 911 centers to police, fire departments or emergency medical services, English said. And first responders can’t wait for FirstNet or Next Generation 911, an IP-based emergency reporting system, added English, who spoke at the AFCEA Bethesda's Law Enforcement IT Day. 

But most apps require Internet connections as well as police, fire department and EMS resources, including a specific person to oversee the app, he said.

First responders also need a system that helps them aggregate information on specific cases from other jurisdictions, levels of government, and the public, said Mike Boxler, a special agent at the Washington Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

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“When you roll up on an incident, if you’ve preplanned (a response), you’ve got the benefit of that local jurisdiction having some idea of what’s going on in there,” Boxler said. “What we lack in most incidents is that global picture of what else might be impacting that incident.”

It’s more than 911 call information, Boxler added.

“It’s the person that hears about the incident, and they know something," he said. "How do they upload that (so it’s) accessible to the command staff of the investigation, so you can get a broader picture?”

Apps developed for first responders need to account for the fact that those professionals are often under pressure, said Don McGarrry, a director at tech consulting firm Ardent MC and part of the Loudoun County Virginia Volunteer Rescue Squad.

“To get access to the secure system, I need two-factor login," he said. "That kind of stuff works well for the guy writing at the desk. Doesn’t really work well for me in the field.”

Law enforcement groups are “a little more sensitive to protecting their information, but emergency response needs “something that works reliably and in an an ambulance with only one other guy,” he added. 

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