Via The Washington Post
Though it’s not a renowned high-tech hub, Brazos County, Tex., has become the showroom for what technology can do for police officers, paramedics and firefighters nationwide, through the newly created FirstNet wireless network. When Brazos sheriff’s deputies entered a standoff with an armed man inside his home, they positioned four cars around the building and streamed live video through FirstNet back to their command center from their phones. When firefighters launched a swiftwater rescue recently, they were able to show it in real time through FirstNet to their supervisors. When a man tried to fraudulently register a stolen car, a patrol lieutenant was able to patch into the government center cameras through FirstNet and watch the crime in progress.
“It’s given us some incredible communication,” said Brazos Sheriff Chris Kirk, “that we’ve been able to put to good use. It makes us much more efficient.”
The idea for FirstNet was long in gestation, beginning with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but has rapidly come to fruition in the year since AT&T won a contract to build it for the federal government. The idea was a dedicated wireless network exclusively for first responders, enabling them to communicate in emergencies on a secure system built to handle massive amounts of data.
Former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis witnessed two major problems of emergency communication firsthand. On 9/11, police helicopters flying over the World Trade Center could see the danger of building collapse but could not reach firefighters inside the towers, who were using a different radio system. And after the Boston Marathon bombing, cellular networks were overwhelmed with traffic, and police could not communicate with each other, Davis said. FirstNet addresses both problems.
Though most people have long used smartphones, public safety lagged behind. Walkie-talkies and land-based dispatch systems remain the dominant communication system for police and fire departments, and though many patrol cruisers and firetrucks have computers, they often cannot perform one-tenth the functions of a smartphone. Officers and firefighters were using their private phones to help them do their jobs, but departments that sign on to FirstNet will provide phones that can be used on the network and eventually will be outfitted with specialized apps.