First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) Chairwoman Sue Swenson and Vice Chairman Jeff Johnson resigned from the FirstNet board today, as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross prepares to appoint a new board chair. Ms. Swenson and Mr. Johnson, who were inaugural board members who sat on the board since FirstNet was created in 2012, had one year remaining until they would have been forced to leave the board due to term limits.
Ms. Swenson’s tenure leading the board ended today, as she was term-limited from continuing after having served two, two-year terms as chairwoman. The board chair names the vice chair. Mr. Johnson had served as vice chairman since 2014, replacing Ms. Swenson in that position after she was promoted to chairwoman.
“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve public safety over the past six years. Having accomplished what Chief Johnson and I set out to do back in 2012 with the deployment of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) across all 56 states and territories with AT&T, it seems like the right time to transition,” Ms. Swenson said in a statement. “We remain committed to the FirstNet mission and will seek ways to continue our support of FirstNet in the years following our service.”
“It was a privilege to serve with Sue and represent the fire service community on the FirstNet board,” Mr. Johnson said. “I am confident that FirstNet will continue to succeed as it pursues its mission of providing a dedicated broadband network for every first responder in the country.”
“Secretary Ross and I are grateful for the leadership that Sue Swenson and Jeff Johnson demonstrated in leading FirstNet from a true startup to nationwide deployment,” said National Telecommunications and Information Administration head David J. Redl. “We are deeply appreciative of their commitment to public safety and service to their country. The Department and FirstNet have identified talented, experienced candidates for the FirstNet board that will carry on Sue and Jeff’s good work. We look forward to announcing those appointments later this year.”
In response to a question about whether the resignations of Ms. Swenson and Mr. Johnson would delay an announcement of new board appointments, a spokesman said NTIA believes Mr. Ross can fill the seven vacancies from the current list of candidates that NTIA has forwarded to Commerce and that Mr. Ross is expected to make his decisions on the appointments in the very near future.
At last week’s FirstNet board meeting, Marsha MacBride, associate administrator of NTIA’s Office of Public Safety Communications, provided an update on the selection of candidates for the FirstNet board (TR Daily, Aug. 13).
“We did receive 18 applications for the new board slots,” she said. “We have done an initial review and sent a recommendation of a slate of potential candidates to Secretary Ross for his review, and we are waiting his final decisions and expect them shortly.”
“We thank Sue and Jeff for their leadership of the FirstNet Board and for their commitment to public safety during a critical time in the history of FirstNet,” FirstNet Chief Executive Officer Mike Poth said. “From the strategic program roadmap to the nationwide deployment today, the Board has worked with the FirstNet team to set a clear path for public safety’s network and as a result, we are well positioned for continued success now and in the future.”
“I’m deeply honored to have had the privilege of working alongside Sue Swenson and Chief Jeff Johnson as we formed our public-private partnership with the First Responder Network Authority and moved quickly to bring first responders the nationwide communications platform they spent years fighting for,” said Chris Sambar, senior vice president-FirstNet for AT&T, Inc., which is FirstNet’s network partner. “FirstNet is here, and I’m confident that we wouldn’t have gotten to this point without Sue and Chief Johnson’s tireless efforts. Their unwavering vision, dedication to serving public safety and great leadership has set FirstNet on a course for success. First responders can be confident that FirstNet will deliver for them today and for decades to come, supporting them in ways that only their network platform can.”
Ms. Swenson, a retired wireless industry veteran, and Mr. Johnson, CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association, notified Mr. Redl of their resignations today, and sent formal letters to Mr. Ross. But Ms. Swenson told TR Daily that she and Mr. Johnson had “some conversations” with Mr. Redl “a couple of months ago” and he asked them to remain on the board until the department was closer to announcing new board members. As result, Ms. Swenson said, Commerce and NTIA were aware that of the need to make a total of seven board appointments: replacing she and Mr. Johnson as well as naming appointments for four seats that become vacant this month and one that has been vacant since December 2016.
“We tried to be as transparent as we could and as cooperative, you know, as we could … to make it a smooth transition for everybody,” Ms. Swenson said.
Board members who are not reappointed and whose seats expire this month can stay until their successor is appointed or through the end of the calendar year, whichever comes first. Of the board members whose seats expire this month, only Kevin McGinnis, a leader in the EMS community, must leave because he has served the limit of two three-year terms.
Public safety advocates said today that they were sorry to see Ms. Swenson and Mr. Johnson depart, and some expressed concern about the loss of public safety and FirstNet institutional knowledge with the departures of Ms. Swenson, Mr. Johnson and Mr. McGinnis.
“I am concerned, not only that we are losing 3 of the most important board members but that both Kevin and Jeff have the ‘before FirstNet’ history which kept them focused on public safety,” said Andy Seybold, a wireless industry consultant and public safety advocate. “I hope that this does not impact the project. FirstNet Authority is needed and it needs to have strong management and directors in order to be able to assure that FirstNet continues down the road to success.”
“It is concerning to lose good people who have made a remarkable contribution to public safety through their efforts on the FirstNet Board,” said Ray Lehr, a FirstNet consultant and former public safety official in Maryland. “I guess we all wish the full group of leadership could stay on board forever but change is something that always happens.”
A public safety official told TR Daily that he was concerned with the departures of Messrs. Johnson and McGinnis, “but my sense is they will bring in folks in [the] fire service and EMS to take their places. But the loss of experience will take time.”
The International Association of Fire Chiefs, which Mr. Johnson once led as president, said that Mr. Johnson and Ms. Swenson “have both been advocates for the fire service and for the FirstNet system.” The group also noted Mr. Johnson’s role in helping convince Congress to establish an entity to deploy a nationwide public safety broadband network.
In separate interviews with TR Daily today, Ms. Swenson and Mr. Johnson stressed that their departures at this time made sense given where FirstNet is now and the fact that Commerce is announcing appointments soon, including a new chair. Mr. Johnson also noted that, like Ms. Swenson, he only had one year left on the board.
“Jeff and I accomplished what we set out to do,” said Ms. Swenson, who chaired the board’s Governance and Personnel Committee. “We feel great about what we’ve done, you know. We accomplished the impossible.”
Bringing new board members in “sooner rather than later is actually a good thing,” she added. “It was just a matter of, you know, a good time to transition.” She added that there is “a little break in the action, so to speak” at FirstNet as AT&T builds out the network.
“I think this gives us an opportunity to go and do some things that maybe we couldn’t do as board members,” Ms. Swenson added, “with the insight that we’ve gained over the last six years.”
She said people have asked her what she planned to do in the future and have suggested opportunities, but that she did not discuss them with those people during her board tenure.
Ms. Swenson said she has no worries about whether FirstNet’s contract with AT&T will be successfully executed or whether public safety apps will be developed.
But she stressed that the public safety community must stay engaged as the network is being built to ensure the integration of systems and data occur. “Public safety needs to get in the driver’s seat and start driving this again,” she added.
As for her successes as board chair, Ms. Swenson drew widespread praise when she increased the transparency of FirstNet after she took over from Sam Ginn, including by allowing the public to attend board meetings. She also said she worked to match board members “with their interest and background” in terms of committees they led or sat on.
Ms. Swenson also said she feels good about the board’s relationship with its Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC). During Mr. Ginn’s tenure, many in the public safety community complained that the PSAC was marginalized.
“It was challenging in the beginning. We have a terrific relationship with the PSAC and the entire public safety community that actually emanates from that,” Ms. Swenson said.
As for early FirstNet speed bumps, especially when it had only a handful of staff members, Ms. Swenson noted that industry and public safety board members didn’t know each other well in the beginning. She noted that she did not know Mr. Johnson “from Adam” but said they had formed “a really strong team.”
“I think it was because of lack of understanding of what was expected,” Ms. Swenson said of early relationships among board members. “I think everybody was well-intentioned,” she added, “but I think it took a little while for people to really start to appreciate each other’s perspective.”
Ms. Swenson said she doesn’t have any inside information on any new members that will be named to the board, but she said “they have to be … as passionate and as intense about” the FirstNet mission as their predecessors. “I think we need people who are truly engaged,” she added. “The thing I worry about is complacency.”
She said with a laugh that some people “probably think I’m a little too intense, but I think some of that intensity paid off, frankly.”
On a personal level, Ms. Swenson, who has retired from a full-time paid job, said that “even with all the challenges we had,” she “wouldn’t trade the [FirstNet] experience for anything.”
The job is the “most rewarding” she has had in her career, she added. “Obviously, we built networks around the U.S. and around the world [in previous positions], but it wasn’t for something as purposeful as this,” she said.
Meanwhile, in an e-mail to friends and colleagues today, Mr. Johnson, who chaired the board’s Public Safety Advocacy Committee, said, “On a personal and professional level, I have completed my mission. I have proudly invested over a decade of continuous work into FirstNet beginning in the legislative phase and then directly onto the charter Board of Directors … and even served as one of the first 2 full-time employees as we stood up FirstNet within the government.”
“I just think it’s good timing,” he told TR Daily of his resignation. “The chair selects the vice chair, and I’ve been with Sue every day of her service. And I only had one year left on the board. … So it just seemed like the perfect time to allow the organization to make a reset and do a …. wholesale restructure.”
Mr. Johnson said he tends “to be a builder by nature,” adding, “With only one year to go on the board as a regular board member, it was just not going to be the highest and best use, and I want to make sure that I’m doing the best thing I can for FirstNet.”
He was asked if he knows what his future plans are, including whether he might join the board of Sonim Technologies, Inc.
Mr. Johnson joined the board of Sonim last summer, although the appointment was not announced until April, when Mr. Johnson resigned from the board (TR Daily, April 24). NTIA said that Mr. Johnson had “consulted with ethics officials before joining the board of Sonim, and received guidance on the proper recusals, Mr. Johnson determined that FirstNet’s mission would best be served by his resignation in order to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest” (TR Daily, April 23).
“I don’t have any plans yet. I want to get outside and see what’s next,” Mr. Johnson said today. “I am going to find some way to continue to help FirstNet achieve its mission.”
“There’s a lot to do at FirstNet,” he said. “We have got so much work to do in terms of listening to public safety” on issues such as apps and coverage, he said.
In response to a question about his legacy on the board, Mr. Johnson said, “Most of all, I feel … like I provided the public safety perspective to a group of incredible professionals that knew how to build networks, but they did not understand public safety.” He added that the public safety representatives on the board didn’t know how to build networks. “I’m proud of the fact that I was an effective bridge between those two skill sets.”
He also cited the huge task of consulting with 56 states and territories, especially in the early days before many staffers were hired, saying, “We went from ‘what is it’ to 56 opt-ins.”
Mr. Johnson also commended Ms. Swenson, saying, “She’s an incredible leader, extremely effective.”- Paul Kirby, firstname.lastname@example.org