Cincinnati Fire highlights problems with in-building coverage, but are we missing something?

NFPA 72 provides the code language required to address in-building coverage systems for public safety. But there is a significant cost burden that comes when retrofitting structures to meet new code requirements, most municipalities grandfather existing structures.  In the case of sprinkler systems and radio coverage, old problems linger. The Honolulu high-rise fire shows what happens when property owners are not forced to install sprinklers in existing high-rise structures. Likewise, this recent news segment from TV station WCPO in Cincinnati highlights what happens when public safety radio coverage does not penetrate older buildings. In the report, Cincinnati's Fire Chief and IAFF Local 48 President provide good background on ramifications of poor in-building coverage.  

When it comes to improving radio coverage, the barriers to mandated retrofits for in-building coverage remain high. While efforts by Local 48 to highlight the issue are a good start towards educating the public, they are unlikely to shake the resistance of building owners that must fund the work.  

The pain of a retrofit, however, could be offset by coupling the public safety coverage extension with the addition of commercial cell signal expansion with a neutral host distributed antenna system (DAS). The broader benefit of improved cell service for building occupants can increase the value of a building by making it an attractive place to live, work or conduct business. Unfortunately, NFPA 72 does not help matters when it comes to this type of retrofit. The standard demands a hardened system with extra costs. Worse, local authorities are not comfortable with sharing public safety coverage with civilian cellular coverage expansion. This mismatch means property owners have little to gain by retrofitting an in-building system to bolster public safety operations. 

I believe we must remove barriers to co-hosting public safety and civilian cellular in-building infrastructure. The NFPA committees should take a hard look at its requirements and find ways to facilitate both types of functions in one cost-effective deployment. If embraced by local Authorities Having Jurisdiction, landlords may embrace proactively install distributed antenna systems in existing structures while new developments gain both bi-directional amplifier (BDA) systems for public safety and capable cellular coverage for occupants.  

Improved cellular service in a building has significant public safety benefits. First, citizens today frequently use mobile devices to call 9-1-1. With in-door pay telephones no longer available, the cell phone is a primary tool to summon help.  Secondly, in situations where citizens must shelter in place -- potentially with no access to a land line -- the cell phone is an essential tool to provide emergency responders with vital information on location and conditions.  For a citizen trapped in a building with an active shooter or raging fire, this information can be the difference between life and death.