Rear Admiral (ret.) James Arden ("Jamie") Barnett Jr. is the chief of the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. He oversees FCC activities pertaining to public safety, homeland security, emergency management and disaster preparedness, and represents the Commission on these issues before federal, state and industry organizations. Barnett served 32 years in the U.S. Navy and Navy Reserve, retiring in 2008. His last active-duty assignments were deputy commander, Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, and director, Naval Education and Training in the Pentagon. Before coming to the FCC, Barnett was a Senior Research Fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank focusing on science and technology issues of importance to the nation, including cyber conflict and cyber security. From 1984 to 2001, he was a senior partner at Mitchell, McNutt and Sams, PA in Tupelo, MS, representing municipalities, counties, law enforcement agencies, schools and local government officials.
FIREHOUSE: You have had a distinguished career that includes military service. Can you tell us what you see as similarities in your new leadership role with the FCC, and what you foresee as some of the biggest challenges?
BARNETT: There are similarities between working with armed forces and working with the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. I believe the greatest one is the 'sense of mission' in the people here at the FCC, just like the men and women of the uniformed services. I really feel that they are supporting America's first responders and we need to make sure that we get it right in the area of public safety. It gives a great sense of purpose and we want to make sure that we are advancing policies and initiatives for firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians by giving them the best support possible within the Commission.
FIREHOUSE: What differences are there between roles?
BARNETT: The Department of Defense seems to have a good deal more money than the FCC. We must find a way to make that up through a strong sense of dedication to the public we serve because we are a regulatory body, not an executive agency with grant-funding authority. Therefore, we have to work more closely with our public safety groups to make sure we understand what their needs are; to make sure we are covering all the bases and advancing the policies that work for them. We have to do a little more footwork in this area as a result. When I first arrived at the FCC, Chairman (Julius) Genachowski directed our bureau to make sure that we reached out and strengthened relationships with FEMA, DHS, NTIA, DOJ, HHS and other federal agencies. This responsibility fills up more of my calendar than I might have imagined coming into the job and, yet, we have begun to see real benefits and rewards from those renewed partnerships. We are at our best when we are working closely with our federal partners.
FIREHOUSE: What interested you in the role of the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau chief?
BARNETT: Really, it was the importance of the FCC's work in this area. My goal is to make sure that the Commission is doing all it can to ensure that our nation's first responders have the tools they need to do their potentially life-saving jobs day in and day out, while protecting themselves from harm's way.
FIREHOUSE: What are the major FCC initiatives that are important to public safety?
BARNETT: Without a doubt, the one issue that is front and center is the national public safety mobile broadband network, which will be an important part of the FCC's overall National Broadband Plan. As most of your readers may know, the President and Congress directed the FCC to deliver a national broadband plan to them by Feb. 17, 2010, which actually did not provide the Commission much time because it covers so many different aspects. We do, however, recognize the importance of this responsibility and expect to meet the deadline.
The part that the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau is working on is the section on 'national purposes.' Given what I know, I am absolutely convinced that we must have a national interoperable mobile broadband network for public safety. This is not inevitable and it won't happen automatically. Broadband is here to stay and there are some jurisdictions that are already contracting for commercial services to build out broadband networks. Yet, there is no mandate for interoperability over these broadband networks and there is no way that is going to happen at this point, so we have to have a concrete and purposeful plan going forward and we need to do so quickly.
We are currently looking at the best ways to put the plan together. I am of the belief that the best way to achieve interoperability is through some type of public-private partnership that gives a great deal of control to the local jurisdictions. I am also mindful of the fact that there will need to be some type of funding mechanism to make sure that the network is a national network, truly interoperable and provides robust coverage everywhere — meaning operability inside buildings in the largest metropolis, as well as in the most rural areas of America.
Another initiative is the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) that will someday provide consumers with emergency alerts to their cell phones and other mobile devices anywhere, anytime on the go. FEMA announced in December that they are moving forward with the creation of a gateway interface which represents a major milestone in FEMA's process of CMAS and the FCC certainly supports that. Wireless carriers will have until early 2012 to build, test and deploy their systems so that they can receive emergency alerts from FEMA's gateway and send them on to consumers. I believe that most Americans will expect at some point that the mobile devices they carry will alert them to dangers in their area. This shows real progress toward that goal.
Other important initiatives and proceedings before the commission include the advent of next-generation technologies for 911 services and the nation's Emergency Alert System; as well as advances in Enhanced 911 services so that individuals who call 911 will receive the help they need quickly. We are also looking at ways we can support initiatives that will strengthen this nation's cyber security efforts and further enhance our emergency preparedness and response capabilities.
FIREHOUSE: Can you share some perspective on what broadband means to public safety and the benefits that it will bring to America's first responders and hospitals?
BARNETT: It has been fascinating to learn about all the new applications becoming available. We've gained a wealth of knowledge from public safety and the communications industry/manufacturers through the broadband workshops, forums, field hearings, as well as through various filings and information filed with the FCC. To see the applications that are currently available and that may be available soon is incredible. Today, firefighters are able to obtain the building plans for a structure on fire. It is so valuable to firefighters to know where the hazardous materials may be located within the building, to know what else might be going on that would be important to saving life inside the building. This information is critical to rescue efforts and helps protect the lives of firefighters who are involved in fighting the blaze. However, this is only possible through broadband. Broadband helps in crime fighting. For a police officer to know who is in a building, what warrants might have been served within the last 24 hours in a residence or building where an incident is unfolding is crucially important.
The area that really brought the value of broadband for public safety home to me was in emergency medical services. For instance, if someone collapses due to poor health, an emergency medical worker may be able to put a mobile CT scan on the victim and by sharing that information with a paramedic or doctor quickly determine whether that person needs to be taken to a trauma center for an aneurism or a trauma center for stroke. The difference between the two conditions is significant and the time that is saved during that golden hour may make the difference for that person going back to work within weeks or being disabled for the rest of his or her life. All of these capabilities can only be achieved through broadband. These are the types of capabilities that are available now.
The applications in the future may be much grander. This is why we need to have a nationwide, interoperable mobile broadband network for public safety to fulfill that incredible potential within emergency response.
FIREHOUSE: What do you see as the challenges with the 700 MHz "D" Block?
BARNETT: We are currently considering all of the options available to us. I can say that we are going to move ahead as quickly as possible to make a determination on what the best way to move forward is for the creation of a nationwide mobile broadband network for public safety. Obviously, there is a lot of work to be done in this area and it will be interesting to see; there have been proposals put forth by interested parties that the "D" Block needs to be converted to public safety, and public safety has argued strongly that it needs 20 MHz rather than 10 MHz of spectrum for public safety broadband use. Such a plan would require congressional action and is not something the FCC could act on independently. While we are looking at that, we are also considering what may happen if Congress does not take that action and it remains in the commercial space. We are going to try and have all the bases covered and move toward a decision in February 2010.
FIREHOUSE: What are the key points relevant to a successful public safety wireless broadband network?
BARNETT: Number one is it has to be national; something that has ubiquity, so that if we face another 9/11, there will be interoperability for all first responders from different disciplines and various regions of the country who arrive to help those in need. For this reason, we need to make sure the network is resilient, and that it has the reliability and geographic coverage that public safety needs, regardless of whether it is in rural areas or inside buildings in cities.
We also need to make sure the use of the network is affordable to public safety. This is why the creation of a public-private partnership in which we are able to capitalize on existing commercial networks would be so valuable. The network may use public safety's spectrum, but we might be able to leverage the commercial network infrastructure to bring the costs down. This is certainly one of our goals. We also hope that we could bring down the cost of the equipment and radios for public safety. Access nationally by first responders and interoperability within the system are key features we are seeking to achieve.
One of the ways that we might be able to ensure interoperability is to have some sort of "interoperability center" that would work with public safety and be part of the governance/advisory aspect that we are looking for to make sure that we are working through these important aspects; as well as testing and setting standards that make sense. How do you make sure that these new applications don't interfere with each other? How do we work with adjacent jurisdictions? These are questions that the center would address. So we are seriously looking at establishing some type of emergency response or public safety interoperability center.
FIREHOUSE: Regarding narrowbanding, many have asked if this mandate will be delayed. Can you tell us why it is so important for state and local emergency responders to make the transition from wideband to narrowband radio communications by Jan. 1, 2013?
BARNETT: I don't expect the FCC to delay the current deadline for public safety to make the narrowbanding transition in 2013. The Commission believes the transition from wideband to narrowband communications is a natural and important migration in radio communications for first responders and it is a necessary one to ensure that we are utilizing the spectrum to its maximum potential. The transition from wideband radio communications to narrowband communications by public safety will allow more users on the networks at one time and without causing significant interference. It is absolutely critical that public safety go forward and make this transition by the current deadline.
Our hope is that all public safety organizations and agencies will make a timely transition and we certainly are here to provide guidance and support to whomever needs help; particularly when it comes to the need for funding the transition to the narrowband at the state and local levels. I have been trying to provide first responders with support to the people who formulate their budgets. This has to be in their budgets now. This is real. Local governments are having a really hard time with funding right now but this is one that needs to be a priority.
FIREHOUSE: What about waiver requests for extensions past the 2013 deadline for narrowbanding?
BARNETT: Waiver requests are unique and fact-based by their very nature, so if a licensee were to seek a waiver past the deadline, it is difficult to say what the Commission might do with it, particularly in light of the 10-year lead-in and the significant spectrum efficiencies to be gained from narrowbanding. Any waiver requests we receive will be reviewed on an individual, case-by-case basis.
I would also expect any such waiver requests to be judged against a high standard. We would take into consideration the adverse impact on interoperability and the potential for significant interference caused by an agency not meeting the narrowbanding deadline to other agencies in the area that did comply with the requirement.
FIREHOUSE: Does the FCC provide guidance on narrowbanding and if so, where can this information be found?
BARNETT: There are a variety of forums in which bureau staff and I often share information on narrowbanding with the public safety community, including at conferences, as well as other speaking engagements and public events. In addition, the FCC's Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau outreach staff routinely provides guidance to public safety organizations and agencies seeking assistance and welcomes any inquiries. You may contact the bureau's main number for assistance at 202-418-1300 or you may also e-mail questions to the bureau at PSHSBinfo@fcc.gov. We also have posted frequently asked questions on the narrowbanding transition on the FCC website at http://www.fcc.gov/pshs/.
FIREHOUSE: Some public safety officials have voiced confusion about the 2011 deadlines for the narrowbanding transition. Can you clarify this?
BARNETT: Some public safety officials may be under the impression that no wideband equipment can be sold after January 2011 and that this will force jurisdictions and public safety organizations across the country to make the migration to narrowband sooner than they had anticipated. Actually, the rules still allow dual-band equipment to be sold so that jurisdictions and organizations making the transition can still operate in wideband until they make the full transition to the narrowband. The only equipment prohibited from use after January 2011 are those radios that operate on the wideband channels only.
FIREHOUSE: How is new media and social networking being used by the FCC and what are the benefits?
BARNETT: We want the FCC to be transparent and very interactive and the advent of new media is certainly changing the way government conducts its business. The FCC uses social networking vehicles such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to communicate information to and receive information from the public in real-time. Social networking sites allow the FCC to have more direct access to members of the public and to those it serves in a less static nature than a traditional website. The FCC currently has over 190,000 followers on Twitter. When you consider that number, and think that just a few years ago, Twitter didn't even exist, the possibilities are endless. It allows for an immediacy and interaction that was not possible before, including the opportunity to receive and send out vital emergency information.
In developing the National Broadband Plan (broadband.gov) and in another recently initiated proceeding (OpenInternet.gov), the agency has also been using blogs to solicit comments and feedback from the public in order to encourage a more open process. FCC officials get immediate feedback, answer questions and can be responsive in ways that were not possible before. We are just discovering the ways in which government agencies can effectively use new media to interact with the public, and I believe that the future will bring even more applications and uses for these technologies, and that our administrative process and the public will benefit greatly from these developments.
Specifically for public safety, the FCC hopes to develop the social media in such a way that they can specify or narrow the information that is pertinent to their needs.
FIREHOUSE: Any closing comments?
BARNETT: One of the things that Chairman Genachowski asked me when I came to the FCC really was to make sure that we had strong ties and that we were building even stronger relations with public safety and it has been very rewarding to work with the various public safety groups. The development of the national public safety broadband plan that we have right now and will be unveiled soon was absolutely influenced by public safety. I think public safety's interest and voice in this will be essential in making sure that this comes about. I look forward to working with public safety going forward.
CHARLES L. WERNER, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 34-year veteran of the fire service and chief of the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. He serves on the Virginia Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee, Virginia Secure Commonwealth Panel, National Public Safety Telecommunications Council Governing Board and IAFC Communications Committee. Werner is chair of the IAFC Technology Council, first vice president of the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association and chair of the DHS SAFECOM Executive Committee.