Urgent Matters

Reappointment of Swenson to top spot on FirstNet board is great news for public safety

by Donny Jackson

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Aug 23, 2016

Sue Swenson's reappointment as chairwoman of FirstNet should be viewed as a big win for public safety, based on Swenson's contributions to date and her expertise in operating wireless networks.

Last week, U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker reappointed FirstNet Chairwoman Sue Swenson to another three-year term on the FirstNet board, including two years as the organization’s top official. Maintaining the status quo may not seem particularly newsworthy in most situations, but it is in this case—a credit to Swenson and her impact to date on FirstNet.

In early 2014, FirstNet had the same goal that it does today—building and operating a nationwide public-safety broadband network, despite being woefully underfunded to achieve this task, according to most analysts—but the organization appeared to be struggling.

Most media attention centered on allegations from FirstNet board member Paul Fitzgerald that board members with commercial-carrier industry backgrounds were ignoring input of the public-safety community, potentially in violation of conflict-of-interest rules. In addition to this episode, FirstNet was struggling mightily with the federal hiring process and lacked a sense of direction about how it would complete this massive engineering project.

This began to change in March 2014, when the FirstNet board approved roadmap that outline more than 40 steps that would have to be completed to make the network vision a reality—a document that FirstNet officials have acknowledged was created with a great deal of input from Swenson. The roadmap offered clear direction, but the number of steps and aggressive timelines caused many outsiders to wonder if it was practical approach.

It has proven to be very practical, and FirstNet has managed to achieve almost all of its steps within its stated timelines. Many insiders attribute much of that success to Swenson’s managerial approach, which features a high level of accountability.

“If you tell Sue you’re going to do something, you better get it done when you said you would,” according to one FirstNet official. “She doesn’t forget anything, and she doesn’t let things fall through the cracks.”

And Swenson has garnered favor within the first-responder community with her public-safety-centric approach, which has included a significantly more prominent role for the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) led by Harlin McEwen.

“She [Swenson] really is one of us,” multiple public-safety officials have said—high praise for someone like Swenson, whose background is in the commercial-wireless arena, not public safety.

Swenson also earned significant points politically during her appearances on Capitol Hill. Some of her no-nonsense statements grabbed headlines, but the fact that FirstNet has hit promised deadlines and—probably most important—has not asked for additional funding appealed to many federal lawmakers.

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