Municipalities finally have the tools to push in-building public-safety communications throughout the country, but cost and complexity threaten to slow the process
The importance of first responders being able to communicate deep within a building during an emergency was highlighted when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center eight years ago. Firefighters lost communication with each other in the high-rise buildings. The problem is all too common across the nation, prompting local governments to pass ordinances or other laws that require building owners to ensure access to public-safety wireless networks inside their buildings.
The detailed ordinances needed to accommodatepublic-safety communications are expected to proliferate now that international and domestic fire codes, the latter created by the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), were finalized this year. The codes offer a framework for individual governments to follow when drafting their own in-building codes.
“A national code cuts the task down considerably for local governments,” said in-building communications expert Jack Daniel. “It's a painful process to have to develop the code and all of the technical requirements yourself. When it's national, that part is handed to you.”
Rick Swiers, vice president of business development with in-building integrator TriPower, estimates that some 150 local governments are enforcing some type of in-building public-safety ordinance for buildings of larger sizes and occupancies. But that doesn't mean building owners are required to deploy in-building systems. Rather, they must demonstrate to have a certain amount of coverage of public-safety signals, which can be accomplished by penetrating the building from outside, said Matt Melester, an in-building communications expert and group president of the wireless innovations group with Andrew Solutions.
Nevertheless, the wave is coming, Melester said. “We've seen the front-end of the wave, but we expect it to increase in the next two to three years.”
Las Vegas is a particular hotbed, as casinos and their windowless worlds essentially keep wireless signals from penetrating their walls. Orange County, Calif., and in particular the city of Irvine, has been one of the more aggressive regions of the country when it comes to in-building communications mandates in light of a building boom, Daniel said.
“Most ordinances refer to new buildings and anything that is a major modification of that structure — basically anything that would cause a building owner to go back and apply for a building permit would be a trigger for compliance,” Daniel said. “In most cases, existing structures don't have to, unless the fire marshal demands it.”
Swiers believes hospitals and hotels in many areas of the country will be the first targets of these stricter coverage requirements because of their high density of occupants.
But the proliferation of in-building public-safety communications systems may very well move as slowly as in-building sprinklers, which took about 20 years as building owners balked at the cost, Melester said.
“The real challenge is how to fund these systems,” Melester said. “I liken it a lot to when they required sprinklers in buildings. First it was in all new buildings and then it was required for existing structures, and no one wanted to spend that money at the beginning. But everyone wants one when there is a fire. Public-safety communications will be the same way. It's an additional expense, an insurance policy that you feel like you are spending money for nothing until an event happens when you need it.”
Indeed, Daniel said many building owners are experiencing sticker shock when they find out the price tag of a distributed antenna system (DAS) with accompanying-approved signal boosters, a stipulation that is specified in the NFPA code.
“Their first reaction is: ‘I'm not going to spend $100,000. I'm going to pick up my building and move to another town,’” Daniel said.
Daniel said industry estimates put public-safety in-building communications at $0.50 to $0.75 per square foot. Many businesses would prefer to include public-safety and commercial communications together, but the price tag shoots up to about $1.50 per square foot, according to estimates from the Building Owners and Managers Association.
Much of that cost has to do with the inherent complexity of the DAS, which requires expensive equipment, engineering and testing. Moreover, cities want certified equipment and certified installers to be used and a building owner has to find a certified system designer as well. However, no uniform certification process exists, and requirements very based on locality; indeed, just one nationally recognized organization, Global Educational Services, certifies installers, creating a shortage of qualified people. Consequently, Daniel is developing his own certification program.
Chris Baker, a captain with the Roseville, Calif., Fire Department, also believes the lack of a factory-certified signal booster is a glaring need. Roseville has had an in-building public-safety communications ordinance since 2003. Despite the fact that signal boosters and amplifiers must be FCC type-accepted, there still aren't officially certified products that building developers can trust to meet the in-building public-safety communications standards. Some local governments provide a list of preferred equipment, while others offer no guidance at all, Baker said. Often, the in-building integrator must meet with local governments to determine exactly what is needed.
The NFPA code has some other stipulations on in-building systems that contribute to the expense. Among other things, the NFPA code requires:
- Backup batteries that provide 12 hours of 100% operation;
- Signal boosters housed in NEMA Type-4 enclosures, with batteries housed in NEMA Type-4 waterproof enclosures;
- Systems that provide 99% coverage in critical areas as designated by the local fire department, and 90% coverage in general-use areas;
- Systems that are capable of transmitting on all local public-safety frequencies; one agency in a particular area might transmit on the 800 MHz band, while another remains on the VHF or UHF band; and
- System components that all are compatible with local public-safety radio systems. (See graphic on page 34 for more requirements.)
For a city like Roseville, Calif., where a 2003 city ordinance mandates in-building public-safety communications for all new buildings that are 10,000 square feet above grade and 50,000 square feet below grade, building owners face a $50,000 price tag at a minimum, Baker said.
“It has been a development and a negotiation process,” Baker said of the city's ordinance and the reaction it has received from building owners. “You have to justify the fact and figures of what you are requiring of these people. … Developers have a presence in the community, and they can appeal things.”
Daniel has been advising building owners to analyze such costs as they would any business expense, and encouraging them to amortize their systems over a span of 10 years. “Now instead of $100,000, it's $10,000 per year,” Daniel said. “They have to amortize it like any capital investment.”
Daniel recently conducted an analysis of all office structures in the city of Los Angeles. Using realtor reports, and other metrics such as rental cost per square foot and occupancy rate, he determined that a building owner would have to add approximately $0.25 to each monthly rent over the amortization period to recoup the cost.
Daniel also advises building owners to market their buildings as having enhanced safety capabilities to potential tenants. “In-building coverage for public safety is a marketable item,” he said. Once building owners are educated, the resistance tends to subside, he said.
While experts believe the proliferation of in-building public-safety communications will move at a snail's pace, is there any way to speed up the process?
“The interesting question in my mind is: Will public-safety and commercial coverage converge? Right now you see projects where both are running on the same infrastructure,” Melester said. “Can they get the commercial carriers to pay for it?”
Indeed, most businesses are seeing a boom in mobile-phone usage, especially as work-friendly smartphones proliferate and operators begin to see a significant boost in mobile data usage. They are looking for ways to offload some of the traffic. Femtocells, also known as home, have been touted as a way to ease some of the traffic congestion while enabling commercial operators to penetrate further into a building, where commercial coverage, like public-safety coverage, often suffers. Femtocells, however, are still in their infancy. Could the industry see some type of combined system moving forward that operators are willing to subsidize?
Today, Daniel sees many commercial and public-safety in-building systems running side by side rather than combined into one system. “Interactions between public-safety and cellular is the reason,” he said. “There are a lot of technical things different about cellular and public safety. … What creates a problem is when you have a system designed for a handset putting out 0.1 watts but an officer walks in with a unit that puts up 5 watts. All of a sudden the cellular system sees something that it's not designed to handle.”
Increasingly, however, vendors are coming up with DAS solutions that incorporate a number of technologies and frequencies efficiently, but carry a higher price tag at this point.
TriPower, for instance, unveiled earlier this year a multi-carrier DAS manufactured by South Korea-based SOLiD Technologies. The system supports frequencies from 100 MHz — including support for VHF and UHF two-way systems, cellular and paging systems — to 2.5 GHz across one fiber backbone, and also includes support for the 700 MHz band, which public safety will use in the future. In addition, both WiMAX andcan be added as a slip-in module.
Cellular Specialties recently introduced a digital repeater that operates in the 700 and 800 MHz bands and features a software-defined filtering system to let users change frequencies over the air.
Meanwhile, Baker believes more local governments should be looking at ways to bolster the signals of their own systems, which could be done by levying impact fees, much like those imposed on businesses for everything from roads to 911 centers. The money, for instance, could be spent on building another site to bolster outdoor and indoor coverage of public-safety systems.
Of course, there will always be buildings that don't have adequate coverage, but for many, the in-building communications problem could be minimized. The city of Roseville already is imposing an impact fee for public-safety communications in one area the city recently annexed for new development because of a lack of coverage in that area for public-safety communications.
“In terms of the future, that really needs to be looked at in terms of in-building coverage,” Baker said.
HIGHLIGHTS OF NFPA'S IN-BUILDING PUBLIC-SAFETY COMMUNICATIONS CODE
- Backup batteries provide 12 hours of 100% operation;
- Signal boosters are housed in NEMA Type-4 enclosures, with batteries housed in NEMA 4 waterproof enclosures;
- Systems provide 99% coverage in critical areas as designated by the local fire department, and 90% coverage in general-use areas;
- Buildings use distributed antenna systems with FCC-approved signal boosters;
- Systems are capable of transmitting on all local public-safety frequencies;
- All system components be compatible with local public-safety radio systems;
- The system designer and operator are FCC-licensed; and
- Building owners are contracted with a service provider that can provide two-hour response after being notified of a system failure.
Source: Jack Daniel
Jack Daniel said industry estimates put public-safety in-building communications at $0.50 to $0.75 per square foot. Many businesses would prefer to include public-safety and commercial communications together, but the price tag shoots up to about $1.50 per square foot, according to estimates from the Building Owners and Managers Association.
IN-BUILDING COMMUNICATIONS COMPLEXITIES
- DAS requires expensive equipment, engineering and testing.
- Cities want certified equipment and installers to be used, but no uniform certification process exists.
- Just one nationally recognized organization, Global Educational Services, certifies installers, creating a shortage of qualified people.
- Despite the fact that signal boosters and amplifiers must be FCC type-accepted, there still aren't officially certified products that building developers can trust to meet the in-building public-safety communications standards.