From novice to NIST: a non-technical journey into public safety comms


By Brianna Huettel
Friday, 12 January, 2024


From novice to NIST: a non-technical journey into public safety comms

My first day working on the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) campus fell on the anniversary of 9/11 — a day, annually, that carries with it the heavy-hearted reminder of tragedy in American history. Though purely coincidental, my happenstance start date was an underscore of the important mission I was joining. The Public Safety Communications Research Division (PSCR) within NIST came about in direct response to the first responder fatalities on that horrific day in 2001 and still today serves as the primary US federal laboratory conducting research and development to advance future public safety communications technology.

I came to PSCR with a background in program management and my initial role was to provide contract support to the division as a management consultant. I managed a team responsible for general program support, strategic communications and stakeholder engagement. Though I had little to no technical acumen at the time, the significance of the research I was supporting was palpable.

To do this job well, I wanted to speak the same language as the scientists I engaged with and truly comprehend their specific research goals. I became committed to learning the technical subject matter behind communications technology through independent study, observation and conversation with the experts. I asked as many questions as I could and paid close attention to the challenges they were encountering. I knew I wasn’t going to become an engineer or data scientist, but if I could understand the rudimentary concepts behind each project, I could bring something equally as powerful to this program — an ability to translate. At PSCR, we work with stakeholders across sectors, and it’s crucial that we can deliver updates and exchange information with non-scientific audiences — from the general public to policymakers to the commercial industry and, most importantly, to boots-on-the-ground first responders.

The more I learned, the more I was hooked, so when an opportunity arose to join PSCR’s federal team, I applied without hesitation. Now, as the Strategy and Operations Lead at PSCR, I bring the skillsets I honed as a consultant to apply strategic thinking, partner engagement, process development and organisation to the setting of a government research laboratory.

One of my favourite efforts from this past year has been developing an international engagement strategy. Advancing communications for first responders is a worldwide challenge, so it’s essential that we partner to exchange knowledge and demonstrate the critical mass of the global public safety market. At PSCR, we’ve developed strong relationships throughout North America, Europe and Australasia and have already begun collaborating with international governments on research efforts, engagement opportunities and programmatic resources. I’m grateful for the opportunity to bear witness to various approaches and advancements in public safety technology around the globe and to connect with a diverse group of leaders all passionate about the same cause I am.

PSCR brings together pioneering innovation with government standards and exacting science. I could not have found a career path more perfect for my creative but punctilious personality. I hope more people with a non-technical background consider a career in research and development because so much more than the technical research itself makes a laboratory successful. Moreover, we need a diversity of opinions engaged in this industry, people of all backgrounds with all sorts of experiences, because that’s who public safety is for: it impacts all of us.

As for me, I imagine a future where the technology we are researching today — augmented reality heads-up displays, indoor location tracking, device-to-device communications on LTE, 3D mapping drones and everything else — feels as obvious as oxygen. Someday it will be difficult to remember a time before our first responders had these capabilities, and that’s a promise that keeps me showing up.

Brianna Huettel is the Strategy and Operations Lead for the Public Safety Communications (PSCR) Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the United States, having been with PSCR since 2017. Utilising her subject matter expertise in current public safety technology challenges and the horizon of broadband technology, Brianna implements programmatic strategic planning and stakeholder and partner engagement to augment PSCR’s mission of advancing communications technology capabilities for first responders.

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