Tech And FM: In Case Of Emergency…

By Eric Toenjes
From the September/October 2015 Issue

For most people, in-building wireless communication is seen as a convenience for employees and guests of commercial facilities such as offices, retail, restaurants, or warehouses. But in a crisis, receiving notifications and communicating with emergency personnel is mission-critical. To achieve wireless coverage, many facilities choose to implement a Distributed Antenna System (DAS). DAS technology is designed to expand wireless coverage within and between structures, allowing cell phones, emergency radios, and facility radios to function regardless of position within the building. A DAS distributes cellular coverage through a system of amplifiers, breaking through structural obstacles and heavy-duty materials such as steel, concrete, and low-e glass.

Wireless connectivity and a well functioning DAS not only gives a facility a competitive advantage in terms of leasing space, but is also directly connected to safety in the facility. In the event of an emergency, first responders and the general public should have wireless coverage anywhere in the facility—whether they are in an office, common area, mechanical room, underground tunnel, or stairwell. Recent stats from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) show that more than 64% of 911 calls are made from a cell phone inside a facility. Enabling those calls saves time, which is critical in an emergency. And while most indoor cell calls do not show the caller’s location to the public safety answering point, calls placed on a DAS can be identified as being inside a particular base transmission station (BTS) coverage area, allowing first responders to approximate the individual’s location.

In addition to providing wireless coverage within a facility, DAS has become a popular option at multi-building sites like schools and universities. Not only do students expect their smartphones, laptops, and tablets to work anywhere on campus, but those same devices are critical in transmitting immediate emergency notifications. During an emergency, communication via text message can save lives, and if the power supply is compromised or cut off, cell phones and radio may be the only source of communication.

Required For Occupancy

More and more cities, counties, and municipalities are mandating a minimum level of robust public safety radio coverage in buildings as a prerequisite to obtaining—or retaining—an occupancy permit.

“Many of our SOLiD value-added resellers are seeing more building owners choose parallel DAS systems,” says Bob Murray, director, strategic accounts for SOLiD, which empowers capacity and coverage for both cellular and public safety services at larger venues such as malls and university campuses. “Parallel system means that the public safety network would be totally separate from the carrier network used by personal cell phones. The parallel systems require more fiber, cables, and equipment to be run in the facility, but the benefit is that if the carrier system goes down, first responders can still communicate with each other and between workgroups. That’s imperative to keep the public safety personnel safe, and will reduce the risk of liability for the building owner.”

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to achieving optimum wireless coverage in a facility. The events of 9/11 resulted in more rigorous national and local building codes and ordinances for heightened public safety radio coverage, as the requirements in local ordinances can vary. Most local building and fire codes include requirements for coverage, audio quality, survivability of the system, and auxiliary power backup. And since relevant codes are updated every three years, it’s important to stay informed. In most cases, the best first step is to contact the local fire marshal to learn more about the communication requirements for a facility. A value-added distributor can help to navigate this process.

“The industry—manufacturers, designers, installers, building owners, and public safety organizations—they all have to be at the table,” says Chief Alan Perdue, retired Fire Chief in Greensboro, NC and executive director of the Safer Buildings Coalition. “Our best chance to accomplish our collective goals will come from all of us working together. If every stakeholder is not involved and invested in the process, the results will continue to be all over the place. The resulting impact will be an unnecessary increased cost to in-building projects in the form of redo installations, systems that do not work as designed, and authority having jurisdictions (AHJs) denying a certificate of occupancy, which has a significant impact on the venue owners. It’s about being out front, engaged, and charting your own course.”

It’s important to think of a functioning DAS as a necessary piece of a facility’s public safety system—similar to emergency exits, sprinklers, or smoke alarms. Not only is public safety coverage required for an occupancy permit in most places, but a nonfunctioning system can mean a liability for the facility owner. “The discussion is not what it costs to install a DAS, but rather what’s the cost of not providing an in-building network to support public safety,” concludes Chief Perdue. “If you can’t call us, we can’t help you.”

distributed-antenna-systemToenjes is a business development manager at Graybar, a distributor of electrical, communications, and data networking products. Graybar specializes in related supply chain management and logistic services.

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