When emergency responders enter a building, they rely on radio equipment to communicate with one another and dispatchers, but within certain buildings, standard radio signals become impaired and stop working altogether. When time is most critical, first responders can be cut off from receiving further instructions, coordinating with one another, or requesting additional resources and equipment.
Various building structures and architectural materials can negatively impact the transmission of radio signals and prevent them from working. Standard radio signals have always had this problem, putting emergency responders and those needing rescue at risk, but fire codes weren’t really updated to require minimum performance requirements for emergency radio coverage until inadequate radio communication was determined to be a contributing factor in the death of 343 firefighters during 9/11. Both the National Fire Protection Act (NFPA 72) and the International Fire Code (IFC 510) updated their requirements to include Emergency Responder Radio Coverage (ERRC).
The updated codes require minimum performance criteria of radio communication inside commercial buildings on all virtually new construction. The solutions include the installation and maintenance of ERRC systems, which bolster and extend radio signals throughout buildings where radio signals might not otherwise reach without the additional hardware. The goal is to allow responders to use existing equipment and systems to maintain radio communication during emergencies, which improves safety and operational effectiveness.
Challenges with ERRC Compliance
But while codes were updated many years ago, very few buildings across the country are fully ERRC compliant. Fire and life safety code adoption and enforcement is left to local organizations or offices, and until recently, many Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) have either not at all or only partially enforced the regulations. Others may technically administer the codes, but allow for such broad exclusions and exceptions that no meaningful change has taken place. Meanwhile, the problem continues to intensify as some newer building technologies, such as low emissivity glass, further impair radio signal communication.
Since the ERRC codes were written more than a decade ago and would clearly improve public safety, why has so little been done? It appears that there are a few contributing factors
Equipment has been evolving. One of the goals of the regulation is to allow responders to use existing equipment during emergencies, and so ERRC systems must have a certain level of standardization and compatibility. But as technology has evolved, so have the communication systems that response crews use. While public safety professionals historically used radios that operate on VHF/UHF frequencies, more and more are now using 700/800 MHz band radios. ERRC systems would need to work across a range of technologies.
Not many companies can install systems properly. ERRC systems can be quite complicated, and not only require extensive product and service knowledge, but special licensing. Installers must be very familiar with RF and Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) and building wiring networks. The FCC also requires General Radio Operators License (GROL), so many areas are left with a shortage of experienced installers.
It can be expensive. Ultimately, this is likely what the lack of adoption has come down to. The complexity of the hardware and installation can make ERRC systems very expensive in some building types, even when they are put in during construction. As local governments have not wanted to stifle construction and growth both during and since the Great Recession, there has been no pressure for a requirement that would increase project costs.
Regulatory Enforcement of ERRC Increasing
The last couple of years have seen a significant change in attitude toward ERRC. Several areas around the country – most notably in California and Florida – have begun enforcing the regulation and eliminating exclusions that effectively allowed areas to skirt the code. It is a trend that is continuing on to many major cities across the country. One of the factors that is contributing to the movement in enforcement is an evolution in regulation. Newer codes are far more specific than the original, giving AHJs a much clearer idea on what needs to be done and how they should handle enforcement.
Interestingly, some municipalities, such as in Metro Atlanta, are even broadening the ERRC scope and now requiring it on some existing buildings. Given this dramatic shift, we will surely see more widespread adoption in the coming months and years.
To find out your local area’s stance on ERRC systems, contact your local AHJ. Even if they are not mandatory now, you can help prepare your building to improve safety future requirements.