When Anchorage was hit by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake in 2018, the Anchorage Police Department had just signed up to use a new wireless service that would allow them to communicate when radio and cell phone lines are down. The new wireless service, FirstNet, allowed Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll to alert first responders to coordinate response efforts and establish an operations headquarters to deal with the aftermath of the natural disaster.
Doll and his colleagues were impressed by the network, as are many of its other users, and this has helped the program grow across the United States. There are, however, some skeptics.
The FirstNet network, run by the AT&T phone service, allows emergency services personnel to coordinate rescue and relief efforts in times when phone lines are down and cell service is weak.
Thousands of first responders have joined the service and are able to use it not only to communicate during emergencies, but also for connecting during the work day. The service helps departments set up routes for their officers to respond to scenes and can also allow departments to search for suspect information. There is even a push-to-talk option that turns officer cellphones into walkie-talkies.
The network was created in 2012 and was inspired by the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in New York City, when many first responders were unable to communicate with each other after phone lines and radio signals were down. The First Responder Network Authority, an independent federal entity, helps to run the system with service provider AT&T.
In Alaska, a massive state with many rural communities, the network has allowed first responders to connect back to their headquarters when out on a call in one of these remote locations. There is hope that FirstNet could majorly improve the internet connections in these areas.
While FirstNet seems to be the perfect tool for officers and other first responders, it is not without its critics. Journalists are concerned that FirstNet’s encrypted network that is shielded from the public could protect agencies from deserved scrutiny. As police radios become silenced to the public due to safety concerns, journalists and others worry that the freedom of information rights are being eroded.
J. Alex Tarquinio, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, is advocating for some aspects of FirstNet be made available to the media.
“The government has an obligation — because this is a public service — to find a way to provide that information to journalists, so journalists can continue to cover incidents and emergency response in a timely way,” Tarquinio said in an interview with the Associated Press.
FirstNet responded to concerns saying it was up to individual departments to allow members of the press or public access to aspects of the system.
Now that FirstNet is picking up steam in the United States, other countries like Canada, New Zealand, South Korea, and others are looking to implement a similar program for their first responders.
Competitor service provider Verizon has also created a network for emergency personnel though the company would not divulge how many departments are currently using the service. AT&T has said that over 7,250 agencies are currently using FirstNet.
“I would say it’s the most important network in our country because it’s serving our first responders who are taking care of us every day,” said Chris Sambar, AT&T’s senior vice president for FirstNet in an interview with the Associated Press.
This article was informed by information gathered by the Associated Press and the journalist Rachel D’Oro.