Industry Insights: Five Trends Show Challenges of In-Building Cellular Coverage for First Responders

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Industry Insights: Five Trends Show Challenges of In-Building Cellular Coverage for First Responders

By James Martin May 22, 2018

We usually think of being first as a good thing. First in line, first place, first kiss, first in class, first to market—all of these have a positive connotation and are common goals for which people strive.

But in some cases, being first means accepting and managing chaos, challenges, risk and danger—situations that the average person doesn’t face willingly. This is true of first responders, who risk their lives to protect others from harm and save them from injury or death.

First responders rely on a number of technologies and tools to do their jobs effectively and ensure safety, not least of which are mobile communication technologies that enable communication and real-time intelligence for firefighters, law enforcement, and EMS personnel.

This need to communicate in real time can’t be overstated—and yet first responders sometimes find themselves without reliable radio coverage and cellular connectivity when responding to issues inside buildings, which, at the very least, creates confusing and frustrating situations, and, in some cases, may impact life and safety.

A number of rising trends indicate the need for ironclad in-building mobile communications solutions for first responders.

Trend: Mobile (Cellular) Technologies Are Now Critical to Public Safety

This one may be obvious—one need only think of all the 9-1-1 calls placed from cell phones indoors—but the people seeking help aren’t the only ones who need coverage; first responders do, too.

While current fire codes focus on legacy first responder radio technology called Land Mobile Radio (LMR), the increased use of cellular technology by first responders and the public has created an imperative to improve in-building cellular coverage in addition to legacy LMR frequency bands.

Many first responders use their smartphones and other systems connected to cellular networks while on the job to be alerted to or to respond to emergency incidents, or while performing their duties during emergency incidents. A firefighter doesn’t use a smartphone to communicate with someone else while in the middle of a fire, but command personnel working on an incident often do.

Similarly, EMS personnel often have heart monitors hooked up to a mobile connection that’s feeding data back to the hospital from an incident. Law enforcement officers have laptops in their cars used to send and receive information, and those systems are often tied to a cellular connection.

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Public safety responders’ growing use of smartphones and similarly connected devices highlights the need for reliable connectivity, allowing first responders to send and receive crucial data while responding to emergencies.

Trend: Communication Failure is Not Uncommon

In a recent survey of first-responder organizations’ in-building connectivity experience, more than 65 percent of respondents said they had experienced some sort of communication failure within the past 24 months while inside a building or some other kind of structure while responding to an emergency. Many said they experienced a problem within the last year.

While some coalitions are undertaking the arduous task of fixing this problem, it could take some time before the situation gets better. Municipalities are adopting certain local amendments and International Fire Codes (IFC) that require the owners of new buildings to prove they have reliable public safety coverage, but few jurisdictions require coverage in existing buildings that weren’t subject to the code when the building was constructed. Groups like the Safer Buildings Coalition are helping to drive the industry in adopting fire codes that address the problem, but getting those codes adopted and enforced is a long-term effort. Until then, public safety responders will continue to face communication interruptions.

Trend: Keeping Track of Buildings with Poor Coverage for First Responders Isn’t Easy

Most emergency responders know there are buildings within their response area where poor coverage impacts their ability to use public safety radios—but in many municipalities, there is no way of tracking those buildings. This means, in most jurisdictions, first responders must go in blind, because there is no system in place that can tell them whether the building they’re going into has adequate communication coverage—a nerve-wracking situation.

Knowing which buildings have and don’t have reliable connectivity is becoming increasingly important for first responders, yet creating a formalized tracking system that shows which building does or does not have coverage is just now being explored by many jurisdictions. Municipalities that do track coverage problems often utilize Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) and Record Management Systems (RMS) for this purpose.

There are still challenges, however. For example, data collection about indoor coverage throughout a jurisdiction can be incomplete, because whether or not first responders ever enter a building is totally random—crises cannot be predicted ahead of time.

Trend: Enforcement of Fire Codes Requiring Booster Systems is Limited (But Growing)

Finding solutions to first responders’ in-building communications challenges is not an easy matter; it boils down to what realistically can be done, at what cost and by whom.

Many jurisdictions are currently enforcing or plan to enforce fire codes published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and International Code Council (ICC) that include ensuring good communication in buildings. However, putting codes in place and installing the equipment to comply with them becomes a resource issue of both time and money.

It can take years to get codes adopted and implemented, and once in place, budgeting becomes a challenge. Some agencies reported a lack of funding and training to support enforcement of codes they recognize as critical.

Often, building owners and developers are the ones who invest in funding for in-building wireless systems as they plan and construct new buildings or renovate older ones, and as codes are put in place, developers will be mandated to abide by them. This includes deploying the necessary systems that ensure both reliable indoor cellular connectivity and public safety technologies for first responders. New business and financial models are emerging as the in-building wireless and commercial real estate industries gain a better understanding of the requirements and opportunities to innovate.

Trend: Reliable In-Building Connectivity is Critical

According to the survey of first responders, 99 percent of respondents said reliable in-building communication coverage is important to them when performing their jobs during emergencies.

When firefighters go into burning buildings, when law enforcement officers respond to a crime scene and when EMS personnel must go indoors to answer an emergency call, they are armed with mobile devices. They need to be able to communicate with their fellow responders, with management outside the emergency area and with others at the 9-1-1 communications center or at the hospital. Unreliable coverage inside buildings can create life-and-death situations for both the responders and those they are trying to help.

Finding a Solution

To ensure communications during emergencies, a wireless communications system that can enhance and extend the frequency bands that are most commonly used by public safety providers is necessary. That includes frequencies in the 400MHz, 700MHz and 800MHz bands, as well as lower-band VHF and other tactical frequencies.

Additionally, with the increased reliance on smartphones and cellular bands to make 9-1-1 calls and respond to them, the best solution will also provide for multi-carrier cellular coverage, improving coverage for occupants as well as first responders. And with the deployment of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) by FirstNet (which uses cellular technology), reliance on cellular coverage for in-building public safety will dramatically increase. While the FCC allocated LTE spectrum in the 700 band specifically for FirstNet, AT&T (who was selected to deploy and operate FirstNet) announced they will initially use all of their cellular bands to provide the service.

As previously mentioned, the building owners and developers must bear the financial responsibility for bringing such solutions into buildings. More jurisdictions now are adopted and enforcing public safety booster system fire codes, and some jurisdictions have implemented retroactive requirements for existing buildings. A minimum public safety booster system solution should be code- compliant, easy to deploy, and should ensure that first responders will be able to communicate reliably as they answer the call to emergencies.

The best solutions will ensure that building owners will have a flexible, cost-effective, and a future-proof solution that provides the connectivity necessary to support both first responders and building occupants.

Boosting Safety—and Connectivity

In-building radio coverage wasn’t really recognized by many as a problem until the first responders during the 9/11 attacks in New York were unable to communicate. Interest in the issue of ensuring communication during emergencies came to the forefront out of that tragedy, but change takes time.

The need for reliable in-building connectivity will only grow in the coming years. First responders will continue to rely on wireless mobile devices while performing their duties, whether it’s entering a building that’s on fire, responding to a call for law enforcement help or assisting a person in need of medical attention.

Building owners, operators and managers have a responsibility now to ensure reliable communications for first responders, and soon will be required to have these systems in place. To get ahead of safety regulations, building owners, operators and managers should begin seeking a system now and planning for its installation—and as a bonus, the right system will not only enhance first responder communications, but also connectivity for all building tenants and/or residents.

James Martin is vice president of operations at Zinwave. James can be reached at james.martin@zinwave.com.

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