Homeland Security and Public Safety

FirstNet Needs State Technology Chiefs to Play Vital Role

States have lots of questions about FirstNet; here’s why chief information officers are key to making it work.

Connecticut CIO Mark Raymond says governance is a crucial issue for FirstNet. Photo by Jane Shauck

Among the hottest topics at the NASCIO national conference in Philadelphia last fall was the First Responder Network Authority — the independent federal entity better known as FirstNet.

The new public safety broadband network’s goal is to get emergency responders on a common communications platform, eliminating situations in which police or fire agencies from different jurisdictions can’t talk to one another during emergencies. State CIOs are hungry for more information because there are still many unanswered questions about business plans, infrastructure and deployment of state assets, and the CIOs must play a central role in each state’s planning and implementation. Many of them are the point person for a federal grant program that is paying states to tally potential users and inventory radio towers and other gear that could be used by the network.

“We think CIOs need to be involved in reaching out to public safety organizations in their state at all levels,” said TJ Kennedy, deputy general manager of FirstNet. “Their experience with broadband at the state level will be beneficial. It will be a valuable asset to the statewide discussions.”

If anyone illustrates the capabilities a CIO can bring to this effort, it is Sonny Bhagowalia, CIO of Hawaii. He has a background in electrical engineering and telecommunications, having worked at Boeing and NASA. He also dealt with aspects of public safety communications while working for the FBI, and as CIO of the Department of the Interior and the Indian Affairs Bureau. “I have worked on telecom agreements about state and federal interoperability,” he said, “so I have some experience with innovation in this realm.” [Editor’s Note: At press time, Sonny Bhagowalia had just been named Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s chief adviser for technology and cybersecurity.]

Bhagowalia, co-chair of the Hawaii Wireless Interoperability Network Executive Committee, is the state’s point person on the federal planning grant. In explaining his role in FirstNet planning, he said, “the state CIO is more than head of IT. We are brokers between providers and consumers of telecom services. Our expertise is needed to make these projects work. I am already involved in Hawaii broadband and wireless initiatives, and in my view there is some urgency to get going on FirstNet.”

In fact, in 2011 Hawaii undertook a pilot project in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that involved demonstrations of multiple technology uses, including mobile-to-mobile video; mobile video collaboration with an emergency operations center; interagency collaboration; live high-definition video; and the integration of LTE clients with records management.

In 2013, Bhagowalia hired Victoria Garcia as statewide interoperability coordinator for Hawaii. Garcia previously served as general counsel for the New Mexico Department of Information Technology, where she led the effort to obtain an FCC 700 MHz waiver, and helped secure the state’s $55 million Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Another reason for Bhagowalia’s enthusiasm is the state’s unique geography. “We are a crossroads of the Pacific; we have a lot of DoD [Department of Defense] and national security issues here. We are isolated and have to be able to sustain ourselves, and we have issues of earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes. So we are very supportive of FirstNet and eager to get going on it.”

But not every state has named its CIO the point person for FirstNet planning.

Chuck Robinson, director of shared services for Charlotte, N.C., has been engaged in public safety broadband efforts for several years and is part of the statewide planning group for FirstNet in North Carolina, where the secretary of public safety, Kieran Shanahan, was named to lead the federal grant planning. (Shanahan resigned in July 2013 and was replaced by Frank Perry.) But that doesn’t diminish the significance of the state CIO’s office in the planning, Robinson said.

David Raths  |  Contributing Writer

David Raths is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.