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Only 22 years, but FirstNet finally backs up 9‑1‑1, in one state of the Union

Firstnet person on stretcher.jpg

More than two decades after the idea started, one of the 50 states of the US has integrated its emergency call centres with FirstNet, the US public safety network run by AT&T.

The first state to integrate FirstNet with its 9‑1‑1 emergency call centres is Tennessee, AT&T announced last night. All 118 primary public safety answering points (PSAPs) in the state will now use FirstNet as a backup.

Jim Bugel, president of the FirstNet programme at AT&T, and Curtis Sutton, executive director of the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board, wrote in a blog: “This is a major step forward for public safety as Tennessee leads the way to become the first state in the nation to implement full wireless backup through FirstNet.”

9‑1‑1 is the North American emergency services number, similar to 112 in Europe, 999 in the UK and 000 in Australia.

The idea of FirstNet began after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, when first responders and other public safety agencies found they had incompatible radio systems.

The US government finally confirmed in March 2017 – six years ago – that AT&T had won the 25-year contract, worth $46.5 billion, to build and operate FirstNet. Later that year the state of Virginia said it would be the first to opt into FirstNet.

But now, say Bugel and Sutton, wireless backup, in Tennessee at least, “means that even during the toughest strains and worst-case scenarios, network connectivity will be available so that every Tennessean can know that 9‑1‑1 telecommunicators [sic] will answer their call”.

If AT&T detects a disruption to the primary 9‑1‑1 call centre connections, it will automatically re-route calls over the FirstNet network, ensuring they are answered.

Tennessee’s Knox County, with a population of 478,000, became the first to activate its FirstNet backup in November 2022. Brad Anders, director of the Knox County Emergency Communications District, said: “Beginning with the first steps of project management all the way through implementation, the AT&T team worked well with our internal team to upgrade our connections.”

AT&T said it plans to continue to work together to continue to evolve 9‑1‑1 call centres in Tennessee. Every Tennessee PSAP will operate with FirstNet as its wireless backup by June 2023, said the company.