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Friday, May 7th, 2021

FirstNet agrees to fully explore tribal concerns, execute long-term staffing plan

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), which is charged with establishing a nationwide wireless broadband network for first responders, should more fully address the concerns voiced by tribal stakeholders and proactively develop a long-term staffing plan as the public-safety project continues, the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) recommended in a report released yesterday.

FirstNet said it will do so on both counts.

“Tribal stakeholders GAO contacted expressed concern that FirstNet has not fully engaged in effective communication with tribes,” writes Mark L. Goldstein, GAO’s director of physical infrastructure, in its report to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

Specifically, GAO called on FirstNet to enhance its outreach to tribal nations impacted by the deployment of the FirstNet system.

“FirstNet agrees with this recommendation and will work through the [Public Safety Advisory Committee’s] Working Group to fully explore tribal concerns and address those concerns,” wrote FirstNet CEO Mike Poth in response to the GAO report.

“FirstNet is consistently looking for ways to build strong relationships with the tribes,” Poth wrote, citing its establishment of the PSAC’s Tribal Working Group, as well as hiring a tribal outreach liaisons, identifying a tribal liaison among its board membership and consulting with the tribes through contacts appointed by the governors of each state and territory.

State officials GAO contacted were generally satisfied with FirstNet’s efforts to engage them, Goldstein writes in the GAO report, however, more needs to happen.

“Tribes noted that individuals with first-hand knowledge of tribes’ experiences are unable to represent tribal views directly among FirstNet’s key decision makers. Although FirstNet is required to consult with tribes through state points of contact, a key principle of effective tribal communication is to seek full understanding of tribal concerns and reach consensus where possible,” Goldstein writes.

According to stakeholders GAO contacted, FirstNet also faces various challenges to ensure the network’s reliability, security and interoperability.

For example, GAO reported that stakeholders raised concerns related to providing coverage to rural areas, in buildings or underground; ensuring the network’s overall resiliency and cybersecurity; and managing frameworks for user identity, credentialing of users, access management and prioritization of users on the network.

FirstNet is addressing these challenges, such as by opening a test lab to test public safety devices and applications before deploying them on the network, yet many stakeholders still noted “that much uncertainty remains about how the network will be implemented,” according to GAO’s report.

FirstNet has established offices to oversee its network contractor, AT&T, developed policies and procedures to guide contract administration—including management and oversight—and is receiving assistance from another federal agency with contract administration experience, although FirstNet plans to assume full responsibility in the future, GAO said.

For example, FirstNet established the Network Program Office to oversee AT&T’s performance and facilitate quality assurance of contract deliverables, among other things.

Although this office will perform essential contract-administration functions, as of April, the GAO said that FirstNet had not conducted long-term projections of staffing needs for the office.

“As a result, FirstNet lacks reasonable assurance that it will have sufficient resources to handle increases in its responsibilities over time. Planning for and assigning adequate resources, including people, and assessing resource needs is a key practice for planning and executing effective contract oversight,” Goldstein writes.

Poth said that FirstNet also agrees with this GAO recommendation and plans to “assess the long-term staffing needs in the Network Program Office prior to requesting to assume full responsibility for administering the network contract” from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In fact, Poth said the office in March completed an initial workforce analysis plan for this fiscal year (FY) and for FY 2018 and now has started conducting “a comprehensive, strategic assessment of its workforce beyond FY 2018 in an effort to complete and implement a long-term staffing plan.”