Wireless Communication, For Safety’s Sake

The Safer Buildings Coalition focuses on the adoption of in-building communication capabilities for public safety. This article looks at the role this technology can play in senior living facilities.

This article is contributed by Jeff Hipchen, Board President of the Safer Buildings Coalition. Founded in 2012, this coalition has a mission that is concise, with a focus on public safety — to ensure that appropriate wireless communication technology is leveraged to help keep people safe.

By Jeff Hipchen

Uninterrupted in-building and external communications can be the literal difference between life and death during emergencies. First responders and other public safety personnel are called upon during emergencies to make certain that appropriate measures are taken to protect people inside buildings.

Mass notification can send messages to individuals or groups using lists or geographical coordinates and provide instantly delivered messages to a multitude of different devices. Everything from text to speech conversion in multiple languages to Short Message Service (SMS) messaging to social media alerts to other multi-modal delivery methods can be leveraged to communicate critically important messages.

A particularly vulnerable demographic in an emergency event is the elderly and frail population residing in a retirement home or similar convalescent facility.

Emergencies can come in any number of different scenarios: natural disasters like floods or fires; power grid failures; structural failures; and hostage situations or terrorist events like random shootings.

Each of these scenarios requires adequate wireless communications with affected citizens so that they can take necessary precautions. First responders must be informed of the nature of the emergency and identify the citizens who require safe passage or protection from a hazardous situation.

Take some particularly extreme examples into consideration. What if a rapidly spreading fire was engulfing a convalescent facility where the inhabitants were immobile and unable to leave without assistance? Mass notifications could help prepare for the evacuation of the immobile and give first responders a quick heads-up where their help is immediately required.

Combine that disaster with a failure to communicate among first responders attempting and you have the potential for multiplying the tragedy of the situation with an unnecessary and avoidable loss of life. Likewise in a rapidly rising flood situation like we experienced during hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Patients in hospitals and residents of nursing facilities are dependent upon the heroic life-saving efforts of the first responders. Efforts that must be conducted quickly and coordinated well to save as many lives as possible. And their success is exponentially more likely with a combination of mass notifications to the relevant facilities and effective communications with and between first responders during the emergency situation.

Wireless emergency communications can be problematic in large buildings. Many structures have dead spots where signal strength is less than ideal. Newer buildings which use low-emissivity (low-E) coating on the windows can obstruct radio signals. Older structures may have dead areas where wireless signals are impeded by building design and impermeable building materials.

Fortunately, there are technical solutions for these design challenges. Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) is a common approach that can be installed to eliminate dead spots and work as a complement with other wireless technologies. Instead of relying on a single, powerful antenna to provide a signal to an area, DAS utilizes multiple, low-power antennas to cover the same area but without penetration and fade depth issues. This approach provides a more consistent signal coverage and much greater capacity.

The Safer Buildings Coalition is dedicated to ensuring that various technologies that provide the required in-building communication capabilities for public safety are adopted. The Coalition focuses on three areas that are critical for the public safety of all citizens:

Fire code development: The Coalition collaborates with the International Code Council (ICC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to propose effective code development to support public safety communication within buildings.

Recent examples include responding to and recommending proposed changes to the International Fire Code. The SBC seeks to clarify “grey areas” in the code and strengthen public safety in-building communications by clarifying permit language; ensuring adequate radio and data signal strength; specifying system testing and monitoring and many other aspects designed to ensure public safety.

Model ordinances drafting: Safer Buildings Coalition develops model ordinances that help Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs) comply with new codes and support public safety in buildings. Examples include informing AHJs of relevant code legislation that define permits required for installing emergency responder radio coverage systems and other code amendments that are designed to keep them informed of the rapidly changing code and legislation environment.

Training and education. The Safer Buildings Coalition offers a “Public Safety In-Building Communications” course to gain an understanding of decision-making regulatory and organizational entities and to provide understanding of emerging technologies for Public Safety including 911 and location-based services.

When the public can use mobile phones to call for help, receive notifications when there is an emergency, and know that emergency personnel can communicate inside the building where an emergency is taking place, we will have fulfilled our mission.

Regardless of whether the facility uses DAS, small cell, Wi-Fi, or a combination of multiple types of access nodes — referred to as a “HetNet” or heterogeneous network — effective wireless communication is essential for all citizens confronted by an emergency situation. It is especially relevant for those least able to fend for themselves: the elderly, ill and those unable to relocate to a safe place without assistance.

wireless communicationHipchen is Board President of the Safer Buildings Coalition and Executive Vice President at RF Connect, a global company that designs, optimizes, and manages high performance wireless networks. With more than 20 years of experience as an executive and entrepreneur, Hipchen has a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering from Oakland University.