Nobody said it was going to be easy. After Sept. 11 exposed huge holes in the country’s public safety communications capabilities, Congress passed a law on Feb. 22, 2012, creating the First Responder Network Authority (better known as FirstNet) to build a nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety and emergency response. The nation’s 5.4 million first responders would no longer have to rely on commercial carriers to communicate and transmit critical information during major emergencies.
It didn’t work out so well.
To fund the project, the Federal Communications Commission auctioned off some of the surplus radio frequencies currently held by TV broadcasters to cover the estimated $7 billion in startup costs. Ongoing operations of FirstNet are funded by fees charged to the public safety agencies expected to use the network. While FirstNet is considered an independent agency with its own board of directors that consists of 10 members from public safety and private industry, it's actually part of the National Technology and Information Agency (NTIA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and is subject to all federal personnel and procurement regulations, including competitive bidding for consulting contracts.
The board’s first chair, Samuel Ginn, a long-time industry executive with experience at Vodofone and AirTouch Communications, faced two problems: First, how to staff FirstNet with enough expertise to build a reliable nationwide wireless broadband network using the latest technology; and second: how to do it fast.
The project has been a problem from the start. Ginn’s troubles highlight a major concern of those trying to integrate technology into government: It’s hard for public and private stakeholders to work together well. The needs of tech innovators -- to quickly staff up with high-quality workers and then demand round-the-clock work from them -- rapidly run into problems with government staffing, which is traditionally a drawn-out, rule-based process to secure dedicated, long-term workers.
Ginn, who hadn't worked in government before, did what many in industry do: He turned to people he knew in wireless communications, including his associate on the board, Craig Farrill. With the board's permission, Farrill bypassed the competitive bidding process and quickly hired 35 technical consultants under sole source contracts with huge salaries -- as much as $300 per hour, with annual compensation topping out at $600,000. Almost all of the contract staff were former acquaintances and co-workers of Ginn and Farrill, according to a blog by Bill Schrier, former Seattle CIO and a senior policy advisor in Washington state’s CIO office.
In April 2013, a FirstNet board member, Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald criticized the consulting contracts and raised the possibility of “conflicts of interest” in the hiring process. In September of this year, an investigative article by Greg Gordon of McClatchy News Service raised serious questions about FirstNet’s hiring process and whether or not the authority broke rules or violated laws. One thing was clear: In the board’s rush to find technical expertise, it ignored the most important constituency: the EMTs, firefighters and police who were actually supposed to use the system.
Fitzgerald -- who has since left the board -- decried the lack of consultation between the board and the Public Safety Advisory Committee during the hiring process, suggesting that industry members of the board had sidelined the public safety members in their rush to try to put together a good team of consultants.
What’s unclear is why Ginn and his associates didn't consult more with the public safety members. Corporate culture, where Ginn was used to making decisions and having them carried out, is a far cry from the give and take and consensus-building that often occurs among public safety officials. Perhaps Ginn’s lack of experience with government played a role. At the very least, the public safety community wasn’t happy with being left out of the picture.
“Police, fire, first responders and mayors are used to being consulted, being active participants,” said Schrier. “When Ginn and Farrill didn’t consult with the members of the committee, it led to a significant amount of opposition among public safety officials. In other words, the potential customers of FirstNet weren’t happy.”
That’s important because public safety agencies aren’t mandated to use the network. “Once the network is stood up, there’s no requirement in the law that any public safety agency has to use it,” said Schrier. "If FirstNet doesn’t consult with its anchor customers at the beginning, it’s going to be harder to market later on.” And if too few public safety agencies use the network, it becomes less effective and more costly to run.
Today, FirstNet appears to be moving in a new direction. Several members of the original team, including Ginn and Farrill, have resigned. The project is now under the direction of Acting General Manager T.J. Kennedy, a former cop and firefighter.
Since Kennedy took over as GM, according to Schrier, he has continued to build up FirstNet’s staff, hiring competent and experienced workers who have the technical background to design a wireless network. Harlin McEwen, a former Ithaca, N.Y., police chief, who is chair of the Public Safety Advisory Committee, said that after a slow start, FirstNet has gotten better about consulting agencies.
“FirstNet promises to be a more reliable and secure network than what we have now,” said McEwen. Once the network is operational, “public safety will be in charge of bandwidth and able to manage priority access in accordance to its needs. Right now, we can’t get that [level of priority access] from commercial carriers.”
Since 9/11, the ability of public safety officials to communicate across jurisdictions during emergencies has been tested several times by events like Hurricane Sandy, the Boston Marathon bombing and the Washington Navy Yard shooting. Public safety needs a strong wireless broadband network to respond to these complicated, fast-moving events. But it will take involvement from all parties -- public and private, state and local -- in order to succeed. For that to happen, FirstNet needs good leadership. That didn’t happen during its critical early stages. But with any luck, FirstNet has learned from the mistakes its early leadership made because it can’t afford to fail again.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article named Ed Fitzgerald as a former FirstNet board member when it should have read Paul Fitzgerald.