Florida joined the rest of the country this week in opting into a cost-free plan that aims to reform the way first responders communicate with each other while in the line of duty.

Gov. Rick Scott gave his signature of approval for the FirstNet Radio Access Network (RAN) buildout plan on Thursday, the final day of the statutory 90-day decision period. The plan calls for the development of a “highly secure” wireless broadband communications network for Florida's public safety community at no cost to the state.

“...Florida has decided to participate in the deployment of the nationwide, interoperable broadband network as proposed in the FirstNet State Plan, as amended,” Scott said in a letter Thursday. “I believe this is in the best interest for Florida taxpayers.”

The FirstNet buildout plan involves AT&T, in partnership with the First Responder Network Authority, an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce, to create an “entire system of modernized devices, apps and tools for first responders.” AT&T will be responsible for deploying, maintaining and operating Florida's system for the next 25 years.

The plan has been touted as an opportunity to create jobs, modernize public safety communications and drive network infrastructure investments, especially in rural areas that are currently underserved.

Established via the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, the First Responder Network Authority says it has worked closely with officials and public safety personnel in each state and territory for the past five years to address unique communication needs. A customized, digital plan was sent out to each governor for approval.

“Governor Scott's decision to join FirstNet equips Florida's first responders with the ability to communicate with priority and preemption at all times to help keep the public safe and secure,” said Mike Poth, CEO of First Responder Network Authority. “FirstNet gives law enforcement, fire and EMS personnel the technologies and tools they need to communicate with each other and across the diverse terrains when responding to emergencies.”

As of Friday, all 50 states, Washington D.C., the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have elected to participate in this nationwide communication initiative. The remaining three U.S. territories – Guam, American Samoa and Northern Mariana Islands – have until March 12, 2018 to decide whether they want to opt-in to the plan.

Beginning in 2018, the First Responder Network Authority will start issuing work orders to deploy RANs across the country, therefore giving AT&T the go-ahead to expand its wireless network. The additional bandwidth will go towards providing more “mission-critical connections” to those on the FirstNet network.

First responder subscribers will have access to “ruthless preemption services,” a fast-lane feature that is said to give emergency personnel higher network priority. When communication lines at large events become crowded, non-emergency connections are transferred to another line, “freeing up space for first responders to easily get through,” according to FirstNet.

However, FirstNet has said emergency calls or texts to 911 will never be shifted from the network.

“First responders have been very clear about their immediate need for preemption,” said AT&T Senior Vice President Chris Sambar. “During the collaborative conversations that shaped our FirstNet plan, preemption continually topped the list of mission-critical tools first responders wanted to see first on the network.”

Furthermore, FirstNet will attempt to drive public safety innovation in 2018 by allowing public input. A mobile application developer program designed for the creation of public safety-focused apps was launched earlier this year.

The program is expected to bridge the gap between the developer community and first responders by providing a space were innovation and collaboration can flourish.

“The FirstNet app ecosystem is an important building block as we work to modernize public safety's communications tools and capabilities,” Sambar said.

The program will allow developers to build, test, deploy and maintain first responder applications. Once created, developers will have the ability to submit their apps to be included in the FirstNet application store.

AT&T will be responsible for evaluating the performance and effectiveness of each application before making them available to public safety personnel.

FirstNet has said application developers can focus on areas such as, situational awareness, in-building mapping, records management, wearable devices and forensic intelligence. For more information on how to get involved in the FirstNet Applications Developer Program, click here.

“I applaud these governors for their decision and congratulate public safety for its advocacy and partnership throughout the process,” Poth said. “With more than 50 states and territories participating in FirstNet, public safety is assured of an enduring, self-sufficient network to serve them for years to come.”