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Jeff Johnson says 9/11 shed light on the flaws in communications systems used by the nation's first responders.

COURTESY - Former TVF&R Chief Jeff Johnson

When Jeff Johnson watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center on live television from his office at the Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue in Aloha 20 years ago, he wondered if it was going to be another Pearl Harbor.

"Like so many of us in America, I just got out of my chair and said, 'That's no accident. Someone intended to do that,'" the former TVF&R chief said.

One month later, Johnson was called to New York City to help with the process of replacing the 343 firefighters lost in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It is not uncommon for TVF&R personnel to be called to respond to national disasters like this.

When Johnson arrived, he was struck by how empty the city was. He also remembers how the community treated surrounding fire stations like shrines, with lost crew members' belongings remaining untouched, just as they were the day they left the station on that tragic day.

"The chairs were still unmoved, the plates were unmoved," Johnson said. "The jacket hanging on the chair was there. They had decided they were not going to change a thing 'til that person was recovered."

He remembers being so moved, he didn't take a single photo while he was there.

"There was just something uncomfortable about thinking about taking a picture of it — it was so hollow," Johnson said.

Johnson would later learn during his time in New York that the tragedies of 9/11 illuminated some of the flaws in communications infrastructure used by first responders. Phone lines were overwhelmed from the high volume of calls in the area, and radios used by first responders did not operate well across different agencies, causing a communication disaster.

"The last standing recommendation to the 9/11 Commission was the recommendation to solve the communications problems," Johnson said.

Solving this problem would soon define the next decade of Johnson's life.

Birth of FirstNet

In the next few years, Johnson and three other public safety advocates led a group to Washington, D.C., to lobby for fixing the nation's public safety communication system.

The "four horsemen" of this effort were Johnson, former San Jose Police Chief Chris Moore, former APCO International President Dick Mirgon and former New York Police Department Chief Chuck Dowd.

COURTESY - The 'four horsemen' who lead the public safety group in Washington DC to pass legislation creating FirstNet. From left:  Former San Jose Police Chief Chris Moore, Johnson, former APCO International President Dick Mirgon and former New York Police Department Chief Chuck Dowd.

At the time, Johnson was serving as president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs while also spending much of his time at Capitol Hill trying to convince congress that first responders needed to modernize the way they approached disasters.

"We were meeting with then-Vice President Joe Biden. He heard our message, and he told us, and I quote, 'Don't you worry, I will get this done for you.' And he kept his word," Johnson said.

It was the first time in Johnson's career where he saw every public safety discipline not only agree on something, but fight for it.

In 2012, Congress passed legislation that led to the creation of the First Responder Network Authority, a national wireless broadband network for first responders deployed through a partnership between the federal government and AT&T. Through the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, Congress allocated $7 billion and 20 megahertz of broadband spectrum to establish the network.

This public-private partnership was the first of its kind, Johnson said. He went on to serve as vice president of the agency.

"I saw it from the first graph paper to over 2 million subscribers on the nationwide network," Johnson said.

Modernized public safety

Because FirstNet has a completely separate broadband infrastructure from other commercial networks, users are able to communicate without interruption, essentially cutting through network congestion.

"What you hear is endless stories about how the FirstNet networks worked when consumer networks didn't," Johnson said.

Since the creation of FirstNet, Johnson said he's seen an entire commercial ecosystem of applications, software hardware that is designed specifically for public safety.

A commercial-grade GPS for example, wouldn't cut it for most public safety situations, Johnson said. It may not be waterproof, nor able to handle the day-to-day demands of responding to emergencies quickly without malfunctioning.

"There's been a lot of work going into how the commercial segment hardens, and recognizes their product for public safety," Johnson said. "And that is one of the last, longest-running, enduring things about FirstNet … it inspired an entire worldwide network of hardware applications and approaches."

Still, Johnson says there's still a lot that needs to be improved for responding to a major disaster — like something on the scale of the 9/11 attacks — including establishing what is known as a "common operational picture."

"In the military, that's known as a TAC," he said. "It's where all your digital tools and intel fly into one spot. Public safety does not yet have a common operating picture that law enforcement, fire and EMS all share. So that is in the works, but it isn't here today."

Other things he hopes to see improvements on in the future is in-building coverage, as well as adding more towers and mobile resources to where there isn't enough coverage.

Having better broadband connection isn't just crucial for first responders, but the average civilian as well, Johnson said.

"If we're making it better for public safety, then that means you have cell service where you didn't before," he said. "And you may have broadband service to your community, where you didn't before.

As a career firefighter, the concept of technology being so intrinsically part of his world came as a surprise to Johnson.

"It kind of snuck up on me, and I think it kind of snuck up on public safety in general," he said, "just the speed at which technology was going to revolutionize our profession."


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