CHDS Alums Provide Public Safety Experience, Leadership to FirstNet AT&T

Two Center for Homeland Defense and Security Master’s Program alums are playing key roles in the ongoing development and growth of FirstNet, the nation’s only interoperable communications network dedicated to public safety. This public-private partnership between the FirstNet Authority and AT&T is bringing broad public sector experience to private industry working to help law enforcement, fire, and others save lives and protect communities across the U.S.  

AT&T’s Director of FirstNet Strategy and Development Ryan Burchnell (Master’s cohort 0701/0702) and AT&T’s FirstNet Response Operations Group Deputy Commander Ryan Fields-Spack (Master’s cohort 1305/1306) said public sector experience is critical to the effort to deliver dedicated communications services to public safety.  

Master’s Alums Ryan Fields-Spack (left) and Ryan Burchnell (right)

Burchnell and Fields-Spack say their CHDS education provided them with the tools to make the public-to-private transition a success.  

“It’s very important for private industry to have people with public sector experience,” Burchnell said, describing the FirstNet Program as a “highly unique public-private partnership” that requires leveraging experience from both sides. “You need frontline homeland security and public safety/law enforcement experience or the [partnership] model doesn’t work. We [at AT&T’s FirstNet Program] wouldn’t be as effective in serving public safety without that experience.”  

FirstNet was born when Congress established the First Responder Network Authority via legislation in 2012 in the wake of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation to set up a single, interoperable, reliable, and secure nationwide broadband network for public safety in an effort to avoid the communications challenges that took place during 9/11.  

Exclusively for first responders and those who support their efforts, FirstNet serves law enforcement; fire protection services; emergency (911) call dispatching and government Public Safety Answering Points; emergency planning and management offices; and emergency medical services throughout the U.S., including every state, territory, and tribal land.  

Burchnell worked for more than three decades in public service before joining the FirstNet Program at AT&T, where he oversees the firm’s strategy and strategic policy activities for all federal, state, and local public safety initiatives, and serves as its principal representative to public safety and industry trade associations, and strategic business partners.  

He previously served as the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (State Police) Executive Director after retiring as Florida Highway Patrol Chief. Burchnell led the FirstNet initiatives for both the states of Alabama and Florida.  

After starting his law enforcement career with the Leon County, FL, Sheriff’s Office, Burchnell moved to the Florida Highway Patrol where he served in a series of executive staff positions ranging from troop commander to chief investigator before taking on the role of chief intelligence officer where he created an intelligence program including the acquisition of intel-gathering technology.  

It was while he was serving as a Florida Highway Patrol lieutenant that Burchnell first discovered the CHDS Master’s Program and said he was interested in expanding his law enforcement agency’s homeland security capacity, so he applied for the program and was accepted.  

“It’s very important for private industry to have people with public sector experience … You need frontline homeland security and public safety/law enforcement experience or the [partnership] model doesn’t work.”

– Ryan Burchnell

During longtime CHDS instructor and Director of Educational Programs Chris Bellavita’s introductory session, Burchnell said he made the case for establishing a formal intelligence organization at the Florida Highway Patrol, and his proposal was eventually implemented at the agency.  

Burchnell would end up taking over as the Florida Department of Public Safety’s Chief Technology Officer and leading the state’s initial FirstNet efforts, including data collection from agencies across the state. He said he would eventually take the lead on national FirstNet implementation efforts, which in turn enabled him to form relationships that would lead to him joining the FirstNet Program at AT&T.

Burchnell said that without his CHDS experience and knowledge, he’s not sure he would have been in such a position or cared about communications, intelligence, and technology.  

When he joined AT&T’s Team, Burchnell reached out to CHDS Director of Strategic Communications Heather Hollingsworth Issvoran for recommendations when he had an open position, and she recommended Fields-Spack who would end up taking the job. Burchnell said FirstNet offers many opportunities for CHDS alumni, who he said are particularly well-suited for such work as a result of their public sector experience and CHDS education.  

Fields-Spack, a member of AT&T’s FirstNet command staff responsible for managing the Response Operations Group and chosen for their public safety experience, is charged with advocating for the needs of all public safety agencies and line-level personnel as FirstNet continues its efforts across the nation.  

He joined AT&T after a decade with the City of Aurora, CO, Fire Department where he rose to the rank of captain after serving as a paramedic, lieutenant, and coordinator for the Aurora Office of Emergency Management.   

Fields-Spack, who also served as an Affiliate Professor teaching for the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education degree program at Metropolitan State University in Denver, CO, started as a line-level firefighter/paramedic and worked at Mile High Stadium, Pepsi Center, and the University of Colorado events.  

“A lot of us came from the public safety space,” Fields-Spack said, noting that CHDS faculty tell students the educational programs are the “fastest track to a different job.”  

“The education you get at CHDS translates across the private sector. Having the honor of attending the CHDS Master’s Program was a big benefit for my career. It allowed me to consider high-level problems and solutions and developed my analytical and problem-solving skills.”  

Fields-Spack said the FirstNet Program at AT&T is always looking to hire more CHDS alums, adding, “If we can expand the relationship between FirstNet and CHDS, the better off we’ll be.” 

Meanwhile, Burchnell said FirstNet is dedicated to supporting CHDS in a variety of ways, including through sponsoring CHDS Alumni Association activities during the annual Alumni Professional Exchange (APEX) Continuing Education Workshop event, noting that CHDS alumni “played a prominent role” in implementing the FirstNet AT&T network, and Burchnell even made a presentation at the APEX 2020 event. 

“We continually try to give back to the [CHDS] alumni network,” he said. “Learning to think collaboratively [at CHDS] helped make the transition from the public to private sector. It’s always important to take into consideration other people’s views and experiences.”

INQUIRIES: Heather Hollingsworth Issvoran, Communications and Recruitment |, 831-402-4672 (PST)

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