An officer in Atlantic City uses a portable tablet on duty. FirstNet, a new broadband network created for police, fire and paramedics will give first responders priority access to cell towers and enable different departments to talk to each other. (FirstNet)

At a recent national gathering of police commanders and telecommunications executives, one executive lamented: “What company sends its employees into the field without a smartphone? Cops do. They give them to commanders, detectives, supervisors, but not officers.”

Many police officers, firefighters and paramedics carry their own smartphones to do the things their department-issued equipment can’t. But now, 16 years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, exposed the inability of American first responders to talk to each other, a nationwide cellular network called “FirstNet” is launching to give public safety employees the ability to send data, video and text to each other. When a crisis hits and cell towers are overwhelmed, calls from first responders will preempt calls made by the public. FirstNet is expected to be operational by March.

Congress established the First Responder Network Authority after reports that firefighters and police officers were unable to communicate at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon after the Sept. 11 attacks. But the idea of placing all public safety agencies on one interoperable broadband network took off after AT&T was awarded a wireless spectrum that will provide the bandwidth for the project and then committed to spending $40 billion to build new facilities and provide security for it.

Each state, territory and the District of Columbia must opt in to the project individually so that their public service agencies can obtain the phones or sim cards and wireless plans needed to access FirstNet. Individual plans for each state were rolled out last month, and eight states — Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky, Iowa, New Jersey, New Mexico, West Virginia and Wyoming — have climbed on board, plus the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“At the Pentagon on 9/11,” said Fairfax County, Va., fire chief Richard Bowers, “the only way we could talk to the incident commander was face-to-face. That was a lot of time wasted.” Bowers said that having priority over civilian calls during an emergency is “huge. I’m able to talk to whoever I need to in order to provide critical operational information and direction.”

The LTE cell network is not meant to replace the radio-dispatch systems long used by police and fire departments. “It’s not a nirvana,” said Andrew Seybold, a wireless communications consultant who helped advise law enforcement on the legislation that established FirstNet. “It’s another tool that’s used in conjunction with land-based networks to give public safety tools they haven’t had before.”

There remains serious skepticism in some quarters of law enforcement, in part because of the cost. Many police and fire departments would have to purchase phones for their line officers and firefighters — FirstNet estimates roughly 70 percent of police officers don’t have department phones — and the departments will also have to pay for wireless subscription plans. AT&T has not yet released figures on how much it will charge agencies to access the network.

But TJ Kennedy, the FirstNet president, said jurisdictions have always had to budget for communications expenses, and FirstNet should eliminate some costs for departments that have to maintain their own wireless systems.

“For FirstNet, AT&T is building an entirely new communications network,” said Chris Sambar, a senior vice president for AT&T. “We want this to be the most secure network on Earth. We’ll make sure it’s as close to bulletproof as possible,” with dedicated security centers monitoring it exclusively.

The possibilities for the new bandwidth get first responders excited. Paramedics in the back of an ambulance can send video ahead to an emergency room. Firefighters arriving on the scene of a critical incident can stream video to their commanders. Officers who aren’t near a computer can access criminal record databases. The system will also allow dispatchers and commanders to pinpoint the location of all their officers, paramedics and firefighters.

“I will have the ability to run criminal histories on individuals,” said former Salt Lake City police chief Chris Burbank. “I will now be able to see photos, to figure out if this guy is wanted — all this over a secure network, with priority and preemption, and have access even during a large-scale event.” Burbank equipped every Salt Lake City officer with a smartphone and was moving city officials toward creating its own LTE network until FirstNet was created.

“There’s high hopes in law enforcement,” said Sheriff Richard Stanek of Hennepin County, Minn. “We need something like this, there’s no question.”

Stanek said one of his deputies recently stopped a car with five people inside who couldn’t provide straight answers to the deputy’s questions. The deputy used his personal smartphone to snap a photo of the driver and then texted it to a detective at headquarters, who ran it through facial recognition software and determined the man was wanted on a federal warrant for terrorism.

“Before this,” Stanek said, “deputy would’ve interviewed him, and he would’ve been gone.”

“I think these tools are going to change the way we do police work for the better,” FirstNet’s Kennedy said. He noted that in a weather emergency, real-time damage information will locate trouble spots and provide better routing information for emergency vehicles. “Today all that information has to be transferred by voice,” Kennedy said.

FirstNet will provide sim cards that enable existing smartphones to access its network. But it plans to develop special phones that are flame-retardant and water- and impact-resistant, AT&T’s Sambar said.

For now, first responders use walkie talkies. “Those are mission-critical devices,” Sambar said. “Our goal is to get the departments to start providing FirstNet-ready smartphones,” though the hope is to one day have LTE technology replace walkie-talkie technology.

The smartphones will need specific apps. Developers have not rushed to create public safety apps in part because the total user population may be less than 4 million people, Sambar said. There also wasn’t a dedicated device or network for them until this year when FirstNet announced AT&T as its partner in March. With FirstNet established and public safety agencies signing on, app developers should soon follow, Sambar said.

Some public service agencies have expressed hesi­ta­tion because, in the five years since the FirstNet agency was launched, they have bought wireless services from AT&T rivals such as Verizon and are hesitant to switch. Barry Fraser, who is the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors’ liaison to FirstNet, said AT&T’s role with FirstNet may spur Verizon and other competitors to create similar services, including first-priority and preemption capability for first responders, and some agencies may wait to join FirstNet. Verizon recently asked the Federal Communications Commission if states could opt out and create their own networks, Radio Resource International reported last week.

Costs will be a concern for many agencies, and Fraser said he has heard some grumbling that AT&T has not yet released its pricing for its wireless plans. That will give agencies more incentive to watch early adopters and see how costly FirstNet will be, again hoping that competition will lower prices, Fraser said. And even if states opt in, individual agencies still can decide whether they want to connect to FirstNet or stay with their current provider, Fraser said, and there will still be interoperability.

In addition, as part of the 2012 legislation that created FirstNet, Congress demanded that public safety agencies give up part of the radio spectrum they use now: the T-band, a set of frequencies used by police and fire departments in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and seven other cities comprising about 90 million people. Five years later, those cities have not found alternative frequencies, while facing a deadline of 2022 to vacate the T-band. That technology, used for land mobile radios, does not affect the FirstNet LTE technology.

FirstNet has set a series of deadlines for states beginning Friday, which is the cutoff to provide comments or ask questions. In mid-September, FirstNet will start a 90-day timer for states that haven’t made a decision, and mid-December is the deadline for states to opt in or out. AT&T expects to have the core network built by next March.

Other countries are launching similar nationwide broadband networks for first responders, said John Rennie of technology consulting company NICE Public Safety, including England and Hong Kong. Rennie said the United States has created its own wrinkle by launching a federal program but delegating final decisions to the state.

FirstNet will be compatible with NextGen 911, a slowly developing program to improve 911 capacity beyond voice to text and data. Rennie said that when citizens can send video or data to emergency call-takers, that will create a whole new level of information to be handled by dispatch centers, which FirstNet can then route to officers, paramedics and firefighters in the field.

“These are fundamental changes in the way policing is handled,” Rennie said. “Think about our lives before smartphones, the huge difference it made,” and now first responders will use them, Rennie said. “This changes almost everything.”