Across the United States, the need for accurate information and reliable communications between first responders from different agencies, and often, different states, could not be clearer. From recent, deliberate attacks on civilians and law enforcement in Baton Rouge, Dallas, and right here in Orlando, police, paramedics and firefighters from different jurisdictions often find themselves working together to save lives and restore order. Natural disasters, too, like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, are classic examples of large-scale emergencies that require inter-agency and often inter-state communications networks to work.
The September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001 highlighted this fact perhaps better than any other incident, when scores of police officers and firefighters were forced to make life-and-death decisions based on communications breakdowns. Recognizing the problem, Congress passed a law in 2012 authorizing the creation of FirstNet.
Just as the internet allows interoperability between computers, phones, printers, televisions and other devices, regardless of who manufactures those devices, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) operates within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and seeks to provide a similar experience for law enforcement and first responder communications between local, state and federal agencies.
Billions of dollars in federal funding has already been allocated for this ambitious project, and every state will eventually benefit. Once FirstNet is built, law enforcement and first responders will be better equipped, better informed, and more situationally-aware than ever before. Both the technology and broadband radio spectrum already exist.
But getting all 50 states on the same page, at roughly the same time, is perhaps the biggest challenge. The federal government estimates that across the country, there exists an incompatible patchwork of approximately 10,000 different broadband wireless networks in operation.
Florida, like every other state, must decide its own path on how to build out this cutting edge communications network.
Will we build our own FirstNet compatible network, or allow FirstNet to handle the construction? The answer depends heavily on the current state of law enforcement and first responder communications in the Sunshine State. And there is a hefty bill that could be foist upon state taxpayers if state leaders and decision makers go down the wrong path.
Currently, state law enforcement and emergency response agencies use the State Law Enforcement Radio System (SLERS), under a procurement and maintenance contract managed by Harris Corporation. Under the existing contract, SLERS will remain as Florida’s primary law enforcement communications system through 2021.
In the meantime, FirstNet is already making progress. It has released a request for proposal, received multiple bids, and is on track to select a vendor by November of this year. Its current implementation schedule has it on track to begin providing service Florida by November of 2021. This will be a major shift in technology for Florida’s law enforcement agencies and the state will need to carefully coordinate its requirements between SLERS and FirstNet since there is the potential for overlap and rapid changes in technology over the next several years.
If not approached carefully, Florida’s taxpayers will get stuck with the tab for what could amount to a limited, or even temporary solution if the system Florida starts to build doesn’t take full advantage of technological advancements and requirements within FirstNet.
DMS sought to mitigate this very problem in January 2015, when it released a business case study that concluded:
This solution should be mindful of future evolutions of technology, expansion and extensibility concerning interoperability with emerging FirstNet capabilities.
But building out a new network could, according to the state’s own business case study, cost taxpayers as much as $1 billion. The current SLERS contract is funded through existing licensing fees on vehicles and vessels. But this mechanism falls far short of the $941 million dollar estimate for a new system. And that money must come from somewhere.
And while Florida focuses on this stopgap solution, it is has fallen behind many other states in FirstNet implementation (see interactive implentation map, here). With FirstNet set for full scale deployment in November of 2021, many questions about the technology and how it will shape law enforcement communications and data networks are still unanswered.
FirstNet anticipates providing Florida with its state plan by April of next year. Taxpayers deserve to know why the state would move forward on a new system that may not be coordinated with FirstNet before officials determine what FirstNet in Florida will be.
A decision now to spend tens or even hundreds of millions on a new system could force the state into a pre-determined solution that may not be in the best interests of either law enforcement or taxpayers. It seems premature for DMS to focus on what amounts to an interim solution while unresolved questions about FirstNet still linger.
DMS communications director Maggie Mickler did not respond to a phone call and email from The Capitolist seeking comment for this story.
But knowing how Governor Scott takes a miserly view of spending tax dollars, and how he is adamantly opposed to raising taxes and fees, it’s difficult to see how DMS plans to navigate this interim procurement minefield without a full understanding of exactly what FirstNet can deliver for our first responders.