Incentives needed to bolster in-building communications for first responders
One of the biggest challenges in public safety concerns the ability to communicate when network radio signals are impeded by structures such as buildings, tunnels and basements. The topic has been—and remains—such a problem that in-building communications has been the subject of sessions annually in the conference programs at IWCE and other industry trade shows.
Many of these educational sessions were led by the late Jack Daniel, who advocated the adoption of local codes mandating systems in buildings that would support public-safety communications when first responders were within the confines of the structure. Today, that message continues to spread, largely through the efforts of Seth Buechley, the president of SOLiD Technologies and founder of the Safer Buildings Coalition.
Buechley is a staunch proponent of distributed antenna systems (DAS) that provide in-building coverage to both cellular carriers and public safety, as has been mandated in codes adopted in Bellevue, Wash. This approach makes a lot of sense, because market demands—primarily mobile users’ never-ending desire to be connected to the Internet—mean that landlords need to ensure that their buildings provide connectivity in order to maximize their value. So, installing an in-building system that supports cellular users almost represents table stakes for building owners in today’s environment.
Further supporting public-safety communications in these structures is not that difficult technologically or financially, because modern DAS solutions are versatile enough to support UHF, VHF and cellular signals, according to Buechley. In terms of coverage, public-safety officials want it extended to areas that some building owners would not want to cover for cellular carriers today—stairwells and parking garages are prime examples—but even that is not a major financial burden for new constructions.
As a result, rules mandating in-building support for public-safety communications for new construction have not met much resistance from building owners that are able to plan for the requirement from the beginning. In fact, many building owners have recognized that installing fiber-based DAS can generate revenue streams from carriers and goodwill among building occupants.
Given these circumstances, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) should be applauded for including in-building communications support in its codes.
But the NFPA codes—and most municipal codes—allow for existing structures to be “grandfathered” and not subject to the rule, which makes political sense. After all, the last thing a landlord—for instance, a restaurant owner—needs is to meet another unfunded mandate during these difficult economic times. On the other hand, most structures were built long before in-building codes were implemented, which means they will continue to be quite problematic first responders if grandfathering is allowed to continue.
Consequently, in-building support for first-responder communications should be required for existing buildings, as well as new constructions. But this should not be a simple mandate; rather, any such rules should include incentives to spur existing building owners to take such action, such as tax credits and/or insurance breaks. Frankly, it is surprising that a structure that does not support public-safety communications would pay the same insurance rates as one that does, but that apparently is the case today, according to several sources.
Having in-building systems that support first-responder communications throughout the nation would be a boon to public safety, because it would be easier to develop, practice and execute standard operating procedures when there is a similar communication environment in all locations. Given the relatively low cost associated with adding public-safety support to the cellular support that the market demands, now is an opportune time to implement the changes needed to make this happen nationwide.