Overcoming Signal Barriers
Enabling wireless communications devices inside high-rise buildings moved to the top of first responder agendas following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — when first responders inside and outside of the building could not communicate with each other.
It was the second time the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) had encountered a communications breakdown during a major rescue and recovery operation. In 1993, after the first terrorist bombing attack on the World Trade Center, FDNY’s radios failed to work properly inside the building.
A year after the first World Trade Center attack, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which managed the twin towers in those years, installed a repeater system to prevent a recurrence of the problem. On Sept. 11, however, the system was improperly activated and provided only limited communications.
Buddy Hyde, executive director of the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP), notes that radio communications are not only important during major events but also during the fire, medical and law enforcement emergencies that occur regularly in buildings within every local jurisdiction. “It isn’t just an issue in high-rise buildings, either,” Hyde says. “Communications breakdowns can occur in large warehouse facilities and big box style stores located anywhere.”
Deputy Chief Jeffrey Coffman of the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department, says that communications breakdowns may contribute to more than half of the traumatic injuries leading to fatalities among firefighters responding to fires or other emergencies. “That’s unacceptable,” he says.
The solution lies in the installation of specialized equipment inside public and commercial buildings that will facilitate wireless communications. A number of local jurisdictions across the country have taken up the issue and adopted ordinances integrating this equipment into building codes. Some of the ordinances date back to the early 1990s.
Last year, the states began considering the issue as well. In 2003, for example, the Virginia General Assembly ordered the VDFP and the Virginia Board of Housing and Community Development to integrate first responder communications equipment into Virginia’s Uniform State Building Code, a minimum code that local jurisdictions must at least meet and may strengthen.
While Virginia’s regulators have turned their attention to the communications problems faced by first responders, most are sensitive to imposing large costs on owners and developers.
At the same time, however, tenants have begun lobbying building developers, landlords and technology providers for equipment that will enable the use of cell phones, PDAs, beepers, WiFi and other wireless communications devices inside commercial buildings. Owner interest in the technology is growing out of competitive desires to satisfy the needs of tenants and their customers. In the end, it may be possible to include first responders in systems set up to deal with tenant needs.
For example, InnerWireless Inc. of Richardson, Texas, has developed a technology that can enable buildings to accommodate nearly a dozen kinds of wireless communications devices — from cell phones through WiFi to first responder radios.
“The reason wireless devices don’t work well in buildings is that construction components absorb, distort and misdirect wireless signals,” says Ed Jungerman, senior vice president of marketing and product management for InnerWireless.
The InnerWireless solution is a wireless distribution system that enables wireless signals to travel through buildings on wires. A wireless portal installed in the basement of a building offers connections for base stations provided by wireless service providers such as Cingular-ATT, Sprint and Verizon. The base stations connect to companion base stations and antennas outside. The system allows wireless signals to move into and out of the building.
Inside the building, the InnerWireless portal sends a run of coaxial cable up through the cabling conduit in the central core of the building. On each floor, a patented cable tap connects the central coaxial line to a special cable that radiates incoming signals throughout the floor and transmits outgoing signals back to the core cable run, the wireless portal and the base stations below.
InnerWireless describes its technology as a broadband wireless distribution system. Broadband encompasses a full range of frequencies.
First responders can connect to the system through the installation of a base station at the wireless portal. “More likely, we would use an antenna placed outside of the building to pick up signals,” Jungerman says.
Enabling the system for first responders would carry a cost for landlords. But for landlords that enable their buildings for wireless services required by tenants, the addition of a first responder system would carry only an incremental cost, making it more economical.