LAS VEGAS — Municipalities increasingly are codifying in-building coverage requirements for first-responder communications. That trend likely will accelerate now that international and domestic codes, the latter created by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), were finalized earlier this year.

“If you don’t have a code today, you will in the future,” said in-building communications system expert Jack Daniel, who spoke on the topic this week at the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) annual conference.

Daniel said the codes can be adopted outright, or municipalities can use them as a blueprint for developing their own codes. In either event, the task of writing in-building coverage codes just got a lot easier, he said, and that should spark increased activity.

“It saves you from having to write your own code, which everyone has done over the past several years … this takes out a big chunk of that effort,” Daniel said. “If you refer to the national codes, you already have an authoritative source for your code.”
But he added that the codes “aren’t cast in stone” and can be modified to meet local requirements.

According to Daniel, the NFPA code requires, among other things, that:

  • 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.

Manchester, N.H.,–based Cellular Specialties has been developing in-building wireless systems for commercial operators for a decade and branched into enterprise-level installations about four years ago, many of which involved public-safety entities. The company introduced at APCO a digital repeater that operates in the 700 and 800 MHz bands and which features a software-defined filtering system to let users change frequencies over the air.

“You don’t need to do a forklift upgrade, and it will tie nicely into any DAS that is installed and bringing in coverage for the wireless service providers,” said Kelley Carr, CSI’s president.
One of the company’s installations was at Phoenix University Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., the home of the Arizona Cardinals professional football team. The company worked with a half dozen public-safety agencies on the project, which provided valuable experience.

“All of them had different frequencies they were operating on, so getting the interoperability of the system to work and provide coverage for each one of those entities was a challenge,” Carr said. “But we were able to do that. We had to work very closely with the manufacturers we were utilizing for the system architecture to make sure we put together a nice solution that met everybody’s needs.”

Targeting public-safety directly seemed like a natural leap, particularly given the codification trend, so the company recently hired a public-safety business development director, David Tuttle, who formerly was with Sprint Nextel and who worked directly with Sprint co-founder Morgan O’Brien. The company’s strategy will be to rely on manufacturers reps that have relationships with local radio dealers that in turn have existing relationships with the public-safety agencies in their areas, Carr said.

Educating everyone in the food chain — and the size of the food chain — has been another challenge.

“We’re not only dealing with the municipalities themselves, we’re also dealing with the real estate community, architects and general contractors. We’re educating them about the new mandates that have been written into the codes,” Carr said. “They might not be in force today, but they’re going to be more widely accepted and utilized … so getting people to understand that is a big part of the process.”

The building owner bears the burden — and expense — of complying with such codes and cost is the biggest stumbling block to such installations, Carr said.

“Some people think that this is like a cell phone or two-way radio, that they can spend 500 or 600 hundred bucks and cover the whole building,” he said. “They don’t understand that to make your building truly a wireless building, you have to first wire it from top to bottom.”

But Daniel doesn’t believe there will be any resistance from developers of new constructions. “When you look at the cost of these systems, compared with the cost of a new structure … it is absolutely minimal when you’re talking about a $20 million, $50 million, or $100 million building. It’s all relative.”