Q&A with New SAFECOM Chair Kevin McGinnis

Kevin McGinnis is a featured speaker at EMS World Expo, September 8–12 in Las Vegas, NV. For more information, visit EMSWorldExpo.com.

After four years as SAFECOM Executive Committee Vice-Chair, EMS system builder and paramedic Kevin McGinnis was elected Chair during the November 2010 Executive Committee meeting. McGinnis has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Brown University and Cornell University in health care delivery systems and hospital administration and has held EMT, EMT-Intermediate and Paramedic licenses in New York and Maine. From 1986 through 1996 McGinnis was Maine's State EMS director. He has been a program advisor for the National Association of State EMS Officials (NASEMSO) and EMS consultant for the past 14 years, and is communications technology advisor for NASEMSO, NAEMSP, NAEMT, NAEMSE, and NEMSMA. He also serves on the editorial advisory board of EMS World's EMS On the Hill publication.

EMS World caught up with McGinnis recently, and found that his attention is very much focused on maximizing first responder communications:

EMS World: What is your take on the current state of public safety communications?

McGinnis: I think the No. 1 thing we have to bear in mind is that we've had reliable land mobile radio systems for the last 40-50 years. Even with all the changes taking place with the advent of broadband, it continues to be our backbone of communications among all first responders. And it works.

The downside is this very reliable narrowband technology is very slow when it comes to moving data. You know how slow today's 56 kbps dialup modems are that some still use to log onto the Internet? Data carried over a VHF/UHF land mobile radio system goes six times slower.

So land mobile radio (LMR) is good for voice, but not for broadband data. This is why we need to hold onto our VHF and UHF voice channels as 700 MHz and 4.9 GHz public safety broadband networks become more common. These new bands are great for broadband data, but they cannot match the propagation of VHF and UHF--especially inside buildings.

EMS World: How are we doing in achieving radio interoperability?

McGinnis: We've got to continue to move towards interoperability in narrowband LMR--our traditional VHF and UHF channels plus 700/800 MHz trunked systems. We saw the disaster that occurred on 9/11 when New York fire and police couldn't talk to each other. That was an absolute horror, and one of the reasons why we've made great strides towards interoperability in the past 10 years.

Still, there's much more that needs to be done. Take Project 25 (P25) radios. I am concerned that the current generation of product standards are very vendor-driven. I don't think the users are being heard when it comes to refining the P25 standards. We need to have a bigger say in the process.

EMS World: Do you think that public safety will get the total 20 MHz being sought for broadband in the 700 MHz band?

McGinnis: There is a lot of lobbying by the telecom companies to get the 10 MHz section of this spectrum known as the D Block. AT&T and Verizon gobbled up much of the available 700 MHz commercial spectrum when it was auctioned off by the FCC. T-Mobile, Sprint, and others got left out, and now they are desperate to get a stake in 700 MHz any way they can.

We have been making progress on Capitol Hill, explaining why first responders need 20 MHz to have effective broadband communications. But we and the Public Safety Alliance are up against a lot of opposition from the wireless carriers, who are dressing up their efforts to make it look as if their demands to get the D Block are somehow good for public safety and the public at large.

EMS World: Do you mean the lobby group Connect Public Safety Now?

McGinnis: Yes. Despite their name, this is a wireless industry lobby group whose members include T-Mobile and Sprint. Frankly, I consider their pretense at being 'pro-public safety' to be a total fraud. They are pressuring the FCC and Congress to put the D Block up for auction, on the grounds that money raised could be used to help public safety in its remaining 10 MHz. The trouble is that 10 MHz is not enough for public safety broadband.

EMS World: Are you surprised by how tough the 700 MHz fight has become?

McGinnis: Frankly, yes. I mean, when you're part of a group that is dedicated to enhancing public safety communications, which in turn enhances everyone's safety, you think you'e riding into Washington wearing a white hat. But there's an awful lot of money at stake in the wireless sector, and a lot of Congress people who get support from the industry.

As a result, I have found myself and other public safety communications leaders being investigated by two Congressional committees and an Inspector-General's office--exonerated on all counts! For the life of me, I can't figure out why this could be the case, but that's how things are done in Washington when money is at stake. It is very weird to be representing public safety, and yet be treated as if you are some kind of villain.

That said, I am determined to fight for first responders, and to do my best to get us the spectrum and support we and our patients need us to have. And make no mistake: SAFECOM has made great strides over the years in alliance with the Department of Homeland Security. So I am hopeful that we will prevail, no matter how tough the fight.

James Careless is a freelance writer with extensive experience covering computer technologies.

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