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Florida joins FirstNet to improve communication for emergency responders

Posted at 5:32 PM, Jan 05, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-05 19:31:31-05

Saturday will mark one year since a man opened fire at the baggage carousel at the Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport.

Five died that afternoon and the event created a panic among thousands of passengers.

During that time, authorities and people had a hard time communicating on cellphones and radios due to an overload on the cellular network, which can happen when too many people are cramming the connections.

There is hope a new program will prevent that from happening during a terrorist attack or a natural disaster and Florida is already on board.

Last week, Governor Rick Scott signed up the state of Florida up for the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, a mobile broadband network built exclusively for public safety agencies.

The program is set to launch in March.

We reached out to local law enforcement agencies for their thoughts on the program, including Martin County Sheriff William Snyder. He said with Florida being a target for hurricanes, FirstNet can be a game changer in protecting people.

“The lifeblood of law enforcement is communication," he said. “It’s not impossible for us in an emergency like a hurricane to actually lose our radios."

With just hours to spare before the deadline on Dec. 28, Gov.Scott added Florida to FirstNet helping to bring the total to all 50 states that are now signed up for the first responder broadband network. California was the final state to join this week.

Last March, the Commerce Department picked cellphone carrier AT&T to build, operate and maintain the network. The federal government will pay about $6 billion over the first five years of the contract.

Sheriff Snyder told me while it's up to each agency to take part, having a back up through smartphones is encouraging.

“To think now, that we can fall back on cellphones with our own dedicated bandwidth is very comforting for us," he said. “We never know in the public safety world what tomorrow holds. What five minutes from now holds."

FirstNet was created to address communication failures experienced by first responders during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. During disasters, multiple agencies using different networks can clash with each other and compete with civilians for bandwidth.

The idea for the program was a result of the recommendations from the 9/11 Commission.

“Even if we never see anything like that in Florida -- and I pray we don’t -- we have hurricanes, we have major police operations. We have the president of the United States visiting just a few miles south of the county line,” Sheriff Snyder pointed out. "This would give us the ability to communicate with fellow sheriff’s offices and police departments."

Sheriff Snyder said he knows at the end of the day, citizens will wonder if the cost is worth it.

“I think a very big question that the taxpayers will have, is it worth it? As I understand, for the federal government, it’s into the billions on this system. The state will have to pay. I think there will be an end-user fee, but I‘m very hopeful it will help us keep Florida and the Treasure Coast a safer place to live," he said.

The system will also improve communication between first responders during large, densely populated events when cellphone networks are overloaded.

FirstNet will be run by the First Responder Network Authority, a federal agency under the Commerce Department.

Click here to learn more about FirstNet.