First Responder Network crucial for Iowa’s safety

I’ve served as a law enforcement official in Iowa for nearly 30 years. During that time, I’ve had vast experience with the kinds of circumstances first responders are called to respond to in our communities. This includes training on mass casualty incidents.

I also served in the Iowa Senate for two terms, helping to lead efforts to enhance connections across our state through the “Connect Every Acre” program and relieving burdensome bureaucracy for construction of new cell towers. I know the future of how we respond to emergencies rests in making sure we have a robust network in place.

On a normal day, the general public is already placing unprecedented demand on cellular networks to access the internet, stream videos and use social media or other apps. But during high-volume times — such as disasters or large public gatherings — usage spikes and commercial networks can reach capacity, just when first responders need it most for vital, life-saving communication.

This means many departments are not able to use advanced technologies to send valuable information to other first responders or gain access to the most up-to-date technology tools; instead, they have to compete with commercial users to get a signal on the network. In a time of crisis, this could delay much needed information to first responders.

An incompatible or outdated communications systems can impede emergency response coordination. This came to national attention after the Sept. 11 attacks and has also stymied Iowa’s first responders’ efforts for decades. Iowans are fortunate to have the services of dedicated public safety officials who serve on the Interoperability Board, who are working to address these issues.

More help is on the way for public safety communications in the state through an innovative public-private partnership between the First Responder Network Authority — called FirstNet — and AT&T. They are developing a dedicated network that will modernize first responders’ communications and deliver specialized features that are not available to them on commercial wireless networks today.

This means that soon, emergency response teams from around the state and country will, for the first time, be able to coordinate and connect their systems and devices on a single mobile broadband platform.

Moreover, in the event of a disaster that requires rapid mobilization of emergency officials, the FirstNet Network will enable incident commanders to quickly receive and analyze data from the front lines and then make decisions immediately. The overall benefits, particularly for the public’s safety, will be huge. With reliable broadband coverage, FirstNet will enable the use of live tracking via E911 online mapping tools that include satellite imagery, topography, and road and trail maps. This will allow incident commanders to quickly redirect resources and firefighters to stop the flames from causing more damage.

Iowa’s Interoperability Board studied this issue for nearly three years. They held community meetings in all 99 counties. In July, the board voted unanimously to recommend that Gov. Kim Reynolds opt-in to FirstNet, a secure, resilient and interoperable wireless broadband system.

In electing to do so, Gov. Reynolds opens the door for FirstNet and AT&T to immediately begin delivering services to Iowa’s first responders. Opting in will give emergency teams a better and certainly more affordable way to share crucial data during emergencies. States also stand to benefit from the network investment and job creation that is likely to follow. An added benefit of this opt-in decision is that the network is financially self-sustaining and will never require additional taxpayer dollars.

Unfortunately, we don’t need to imagine what happens when disasters strike. It’s exciting to see the federal government working alongside the private sector to deliver a superior communications network for first responders that will exceed anything that has been previously available. Iowa should be proud to be on the forefront of this opportunity to better protect its citizens.

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Steve Sodders is a Marshall County sheriff’s deputy and is a former state senator from State Center.