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FirstNet: Unleashing the Potential of Telemedicine for First Responders Amid COVID

As the COVID-19 virus impacts communities across the world, America’s healthcare system is being challenged in ways we’ve never seen. This pandemic is shifting the paradigm for where our healthcare delivery takes place. For many of us working in EMS or other public safety disciplines, we are witnessing a dramatic rise in the use of telemedicine to combat this global pandemic.

FirstNet, the nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to America’s first responders, plays a critical role in connecting first responders and medical professionals through a reliable and secure network, with a particular ability to improve patient care through the use of telemedicine during times like these.

As a FirstNet Authority board member and longtime advocate for the EMS community, I work alongside local, state, and federal public safety officials to promote the use and explain the advantages of FirstNet to meet the growing and changing needs of public safety, including those for telemedicine.

FirstNet grew out of the tragedies surrounding 9/11, when first responders found themselves unable to communicate with each other. To avoid this problem, the original architects of FirstNet designed the network to have a dedicated public safety core. This physically separate, highly secure infrastructure helps ensure emergency communications and data are not compromised with commercial traffic and unsecure connections. FirstNet was also designed to run over public safety spectrum known as Band 14, which provides expanded coverage and capacity to give first responders unthrottled access to a network that supports telemedicine capabilities.

Today the FirstNet core and Band 14 deliver many critical capabilities and benefits public safety authorities depend on, such as prioritized and preemptive service, local control and incident management tools, planned delivery of mission-critical push-to-talk capabilities, and much more. Working together these advanced services hold the key to unlocking the full potential of telemedicine to confront the challenges presented by COVID-19.

Further, FirstNet’s end-to-end encryption provides added assurance by offering identification and credentialing solutions and around-the-clock monitoring to protect critical data, applications, and services running over the network.

Here are a few additional benefits of telemedicine:

Social Distancing

With COVID-19 we’re learning about the challenges healthcare providers face each day to reach and deliver care to patients without exposing themselves. Telemedicine makes it possible for caregivers to practice social distancing. This is one more option for care that protects both patients and frontline healthcare workers.

Improving Patient Care

During these challenging times seconds matter, and it is imperative that first responders can easily access patient data. With the FirstNet network, users can send and receive vital statistics and medical history via video, voice, and data, all through their FirstNet device.

Gathering such an abundance of data in one place increases situational awareness for hospitals and doctors. Situational awareness is key—it leads to a better diagnosis. These capabilities increase the likelihood the patient will receive the correct course of treatment without delay. For example, severely ill patients can be quickly referred to the appropriate healthcare facility or specialists to receive the advanced care they need, while patients with less-severe symptoms can be steered elsewhere to lessen the strain on hospitals and the health care system.

Medical professionals can also count on telemedicine to increase the number of patients that can be treated each day. As data comes in, they can watch the screen as they move to the next patient.

Connecting Rural America

In rural communities extending telemedicine services across distances and into remote areas is more crucial than ever to confront COVID-19.

Before FirstNet arrived I recall communicating with hospitals on unreliable over-the-air signals to treat patients in remote mountainous regions. By extending coverage and capacity into rural areas, FirstNet’s connection can reach into ambulances and homes. In turn this connection allows EMTs and paramedics to send patient data and vitals to larger hospitals to analyze and proscribe the correct treatment and care. This also allows patients to stay close to loved ones and in their communities while they receive the best treatment available—and that’s what telemedicine is all about.

Role of the FirstNet Authority

In the coming months the FirstNet Authority will redouble its efforts to ensure the network can better serve EMS users and their communities.

Building your network—FirstNet is all about building coverage and capacity. Part of this involves talking to and understanding the exact coverage and capacity needs of the public safety community. This increased understanding helps us build FirstNet out to cover those gaps and ensure that advanced technologies like telemedicine are available.

Earlier this year the FirstNet team held a user forum in Salt Lake City to gather public safety leaders and first responders to hear about what’s working with emergency communications—and, more important, what’s not—across the state. We pulled out state coverage maps to decide together where FirstNet should plan its next build-out stage. This type of direct communication ensures FirstNet is built with public safety input from the ground up.

Deployable network asset program—FirstNet is committed to building capacity and extending coverage to ensure Band 14 reaches every corner of the U.S. In response to COVID-19, the network has acted to ensure the medical community and first responders can communicate by bolstering coverage and capacity with a fleet of 76 deployable network assets. All FirstNet users have access to these assets at no extra cost during times of high use.

Depending on the need, these assets can be in the form of a satellite-connected cell site on a light truck (SatCOLT) or a cell mounted on a trailer or truck called a “cell on wheels” (COW), a cell attached to a tethered drone (flying COW), or now an aerostat to connect users. In the COVID-19 response effort, FirstNet deployables are currently being used to enhance connections during heavy use at emergency operation centers, hospitals, quarantine centers, and around cities under lockdown experiencing increased online use.

FirstNet application and devices—Part of the FirstNet experience also ensures users can communicate seamlessly and securely utilizing a collection of approved applications and devices. FirstNet subscribers can tap into apps designed to support telemedicine activities including asset management and location services to distribute and account for vital personnel and supplies like ventilators, masks, or hospital beds. A growing list of FirstNet-approved ruggedized devices is also available and a critical component of the COVID-19 response effort. These devices can mimic portable radios or serve as “in-the-pocket” push-to-talk accessories to support telemedicine capabilities.

Looking Ahead

With a global pandemic underway, FirstNet serves as the communication link to unleashing the promise and benefits of telemedicine. The network is ready to do what it was designed to do: equip our nation’s first responders, medical professionals, and public safety officials with the emergency communication tools they need to save lives while they confront this pandemic.

Paul Patrick is a board member for the First Responder Network Authority and division director for family health and preparedness with the Utah Department of Health.



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