Urgent Matters

Some in-building policy coordination today could reap big communications benefits in the future


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If in-building efforts and reliability standards can be aligned effectively, the potential impact for both public-safety and commercial communications could be tremendous.

In less than two weeks, votes will be conducted to determine what standards should be included in the 2018 International Fire Code. Meanwhile, in Atlanta and San Francisco, tests are being conducted to identify the best technologies to accurately locate 911 callers, even those who use cell phones from inside a massive skyscraper. Both initiatives are very important, and they appear to be very separate, at first glance.

But these critical efforts are related in certain areas, although few people recognize it. If executed in individual silos, these initiatives certainly will benefit public-safety personnel and the citizens they protect and serve. However, if these efforts are coordinated properly, the result could have groundbreaking impacts on public safety, indoor wireless coverage and telecommunications policy.

From the moment consumers began using cellular technology, public safety has struggled to locate callers who dial 911.  Outdoors, GPS and network-based technologies have become increasingly accurate at delivering location information, but these solutions do not work well indoors—a problem that gets worse with the installation of energy-efficient windows that tend to block RF signals.

With this in mind, the FCC last year approved rules that require the development of location technologies that work indoors, providing not just XY location data, but also vertical Z-axis location in the form of a dispatchable location—the “Holy Grail” of location accuracy for 911 dispatchers.

By using location technologies that leverage managed Wi-Fi access points and Bluetooth beacons inside buildings, 911 caller location is expected to be much more accurate and not dependent upon RF signals from outdoors “leaking” through window to provide indoor location information.  

To support this effort, carriers are required to deploy tens of millions of access points and beacons. The total figure must be 25% of the population in a given market area, with the top 25 markets being covered in 2021 and the top 50 markets being addressed in 2023.

This sounds very promising, but there is a problem: Access points and beacons do not work without power. Of course, commercial power can be interrupted during many types of emergencies. In addition, when responding to a fire in a building, one of the first things firefighters do is turn off the power, so electrical wiring does not create additional sparks that can make the blaze worse.

In other words, locating a 911 caller under such circumstances could be very difficult. Meanwhile, this power reality has made the notion of using such technologies to track the location of firefighters within buildings—a longtime challenge for public safety—almost a non-starter, as public-safety practitioners Charles Werner and Eddie Reyes noted in a recent column.

But an exception to this power rule is any electrical device contained within watertight enclosures meeting the NEMA 4 fire-code standard. These electronics are allowed to continue running—using some sort of backup power—even if power in the rest of the building is turned off. However, it is difficult and expensive to put backup batteries and battery chargers in a NEMA 4 enclosure, because its airtight nature means that there is no place to ventilate the heat generated by the battery equipment.

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

Steve Statler (not verified)
on Oct 14, 2016

Glad to see the opportunity with Bluetooth beacons and 911 is being highlighted here. I believe phone carriers are current working on building a master database of beacons (and Wi-Fi hubs) for this purpose through a joint venture, NEAD LLC. Fortunately, the vast majority of Bluetooth beacons are powered using batteries so that makes them well suited for e911. Powered beacons tend to be used in small numbers to monitor and manage other beacons, so their loss when power is cut shouldn't be problematic. You do raise a good point for the next generation of beacons being integrated into Exit signs, lighting and power sockets for e911, they will need to have battery backup (along with the emergency signs).

Steve Statler - Author of Beacon Technologies: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Beacosystem

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.


Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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