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How FirstNet Authority Focuses on Emergency Responders' Needs

A Short Recap of SFF Podcast’s first episode of our IAFC Technology Council Outreach Mini Series Episode 90: How FirstNet Authority Evolves for First Responders with Michael Varney

FRI 2021

Between July 28-30th, 2021, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) hosted their Fire Rescue International (FRI) Conference and Expo in Charlotte, North Carolina, an annual trade show in which fire service leaders learn about products from the manufacturers themselves. #FRI2021 gathered thousands of participants for three full days of programming, networking and exhibit hall solutions, all of which SFF joined to create our podcast’s IAFC Technology Council Outreach Mini Series via interviewing technology experts.

SFF Guest Michael Varney & FirstNet Authority

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Michael Varney stated, “just how we’re using the tools.” Varney is the Director of Stakeholder Collaboration at FirstNet Authority, a nationwide public safety data network based on LTE for public safety use. Back in 2012, Congress founded FirstNet and provided startup funds along with some frequency allocation (of band 14 specifically) that enabled the network. Eventually, the network began soliciting valuable feedback from emergency responders and the states which, about four years ago, led to FirstNet contracting AT&T to build and operate the network on their behalf based on their provided guidance. Considering this partnership is the largest public private one to ever exist, Varney clarified the common confusion about the network’s structure by breaking it down into three branches:

  1. FirstNet: the network

  2. FirstNet Authority: federal government supervision providing the direction and oversight to ensure the network meets the mission of operating the public safety network across the country based on public safety’s needs

  3. FirstNet by AT&T: partnership that operates, builds and maintains the network, provides the devices and services to operate this LTE network and assists in meeting the mission

The network is only growing, evident by its incredible amount of momentum in the last three years. FirstNet now has over two and a half million subscribing units with over 17,000 public safety entities as a part of the network, several hundreds of certified devices and over 160 different applications that have been through significant cyber security vetting and resiliency standards.

FirstNet Technologies

“We’re a very stakeholder driven organization...we're always listening, we're always seeking out feedback to help us drive our direction - whether that's got to do with situational awareness, with coverage, with specific services that we provide in our core or devices and applications. We're not just singularly focused on one thing or another; we're looking at whatever would help solve those problems.” Within the last year, FirstNet focused their efforts on specific technological developments, briefly described below.


  • High power user equipment through 18 TS mega range program: band 14 is allocated to FirstNet and is the only LTE band that can operate at a “high power” based on FCC’s various rules

    • Allows for equipment to output at a higher power than a standard LTE cell phone which offers improved throughput capacity on the fringe of the network

  • Deployable Program: free of charge service that allows any FirstNet subscriber to request a deployable asset (AKA a cell site on wheels) to go to any emergency where coverage has been hindered

    • If the emergency has no coverage in the first place, subscribers can request over a hundred deployables with different self-contained form factors

New Technologies:

  • Deployables: very compact, rapid footprint devices that can be attached to a vehicle and brought to the scene to provide a bubble of cellular coverage

    • Subscribers can request or purchase separately

If you are interested in providing your feedback to FirstNet, Varney suggested heading to FirstNet’s website to find the field staff member assigned to your location and simply reach out via the provided email. He also noted the option to take the website’s survey that provides the staff with initial information so they can reach out to you. “We absolutely will get back to you and do a deeper dive if that's what you want to do,” confirmed Varney. The site also hosts case studies, tips on how other people are leveraging FirstNet, information on how the network is evolving technology and updates on new products.

Priority & Preemption

No matter the technology or application the subscriber may be utilizing, FirstNet’s ability to grant priority, preemption and access to the network for all data sources is “really the impetus for having FirstNet” considering the AT&T partnership and the intentional absence of throttling in the core network (a physically separate core that FirstNet created). In other words, subscribers will receive precedence over all network resources of not just band 14 but of all the other bandwidth they have access to that AT&T hosts within their network, solving the problem of spotty connectivity due to network congestion (like when you’re at a ball game and your phone shows full bars but you can’t get through). Thanks to FirstNet’s priority and preemption, now “public safety can always get through, so they can communicate with whoever they need to with whatever type of application they need to to help solve the problem more efficiently.”

Calling All Developers

Looking back at the history of fire and emergency services, many of the technologies employed daily are derived from either the military, NASCAR or other industries that technology developers simply edited. Varney noted, “a lot of these technologies we leverage in the emergency services have come from some other vertical that may have nothing to do with emergency services but it's a way to move, collect or assimilate data in such a way that we can get value out of that information and help solve problems.” All sorts of assets are being adapted for public safety use - like virtual reality, future intelligence and artificial intelligence - which proves the bountiful funding and resources available to entrepreneurs and/or technologists looking to develop or apply tools for the first responder market. Entrepreneurs may view competitors as a limitation, however Varney believes that most of this industry’s competitors are searching for ways to collaborate with one another to achieve the end goal of helping emergency responders. “I would say to any entrepreneur,” commented Varney, “there's a huge market here and a huge interest that you just need to get engaged with. And there's plenty of people to help you find your way.” If you want to improve first responders’ operational needs, contact the IAFC, join the SFF community and reach out to FirstNet today!

Learn More from Michael Varney

If you want to hear more about how FirstNet is evolving to address first responders’ needs, take a listen to SFF Podcast’s IAFC Technology Council Outreach Mini Series Episode 90: How FirstNet Authority Evolves for First Responders with Michael Varney available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts from.


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