The territory will be getting a federally mandated high-speed public safety broadband network to help emergency service personnel communicate and send data, video, images and more, while on the go, Bureau of Information Technology Director Reuben Molloy told the V.I. Legislature on Wednesday.
The system will supplement and not replace the existing radio system police, fire and rescue personnel use now, he said, during a Committee on Public Safety hearing.
In 2012, a federal law created the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet, to bring about the network nationwide. It is building "a network designed to be reliable, functional, safe and secure, and provide optimal levels of operational capability at all times," he said.
It will be wireless broadband.
"In essence, FirstNet will provide a single nationwide interoperable platform dedicated to public safety for emergency and daily public safety communications for first responders built to public safety standards," Molloy said.
The territory got $516,000 to hire a team, which Molloy manages, to do initial planning, outreach and collect data. Former Gov. John deJongh Jr. issued an executive order in 2013 establishing the Communications Interoperability Governing Board with members from Health, the Police Department, Fire Service and other relevant agencies.
The federal FirstNet opened up bids in January and has to have a contractor or partner in place by November of this year. Between three to six months after that, they will present the V.I. governor with a plan for work in the USVI, along with every other state and territory, he said.
After a plan is presented, the governor has 90 days to officially opt out or else work will proceed. If the USVI opts out, then it has to come up with its own system that meets the federal guidelines and apply for federal grants to pay for it, according to Molloy.
An array of testifiers involved in emergency services, from the National Guard to police to the Fire Service, to the Health Department, testified to the value of such a system.
"First responders need a reliable, resilient broadband network to perform their life saving mission. Most teenagers today own smartphones that are more powerful communications devices than those typically used by the public safety community. In many cases, emergency responders have to bring their own smartphones to work to access applications, search databases and share videos," Acting Health Commissioner Michelle Davis said. But FirstNet will let first responders use "rugged, easy to use" portable equipment using this network, she said.
V.I. National Guard Adjutant General Deborah Howell said she "strongly recommend(s)" the V.I. government opt for the system proposed by FirstNet instead of opting out, arguing it would be less risky, simpler and the territory would not have to pay for it out of pocket and then hope for grants.
The one downside to the new network is, while it will be built at no cost to the territory, it will be sold to the territory’s first responders on a subscription base, Molloy said.
The committee also heard testimony on bills to mandate a hazardous materials unit in the V.I. Service to coordinate local response to chemical, fuel and other emergency situations involving hazardous materials.
And it took testimony on a bill tying the pay of V.I. National Guard personnel, when activated by the governor for local situations, to their federal pay. The bill would also make sure they have health insurance while on active duty for the territory. While covered when activated by the federal government, they are not fully covered when activated locally.
Both bills were held for amendment and more vetting.