Building owners are required to exercise due diligence in providing a safe environment for tenants. This process begins by examining numerous checkpoints that must be carefully overseen to avoid potential liabilities. These include providing good signal coverage for the public safety network radios used by first responders when inside a building, as well as good cellular signal for occupants to make 911 calls.
Any building that has poor cell phone reception potentially will also have poor public safety communications signal. This is because construction materials or environmental obstructions block both cellular and public safety signal from penetrating into the building. For example, LEED or steel construction materials, nearby buildings, hilly terrain, or interference from multiple cellular towers in the area may impede the signals.
Of course, everyone hopes there will never be a fire or other life-threatening situation inside a building, but lives can be lost if cellular calls can’t be made to 911 or the first responder radio system is not working. This is the reason why public safety communications signal coverage inspections are done by a local Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) before issuing a Certificate of Occupancy on new construction, a newly purchased building, and in some jurisdictions when a building is renovated or augmented. Annual re-certifications are also required, often done by the fire marshal.
Important Features of a Public Safety Communications System
While regulations vary from one location to another, it is common for AHJs to require the installation of an Emergency Responder Radio Communication System (ERRCS) in large buildings. This was found to be the case when Powernet, an Ohio-based provider of public safety and telecommunications equipment and services, was brought in to provide a solution required by the local AHJ for two facilities, one 600,000 sq. ft. and the other 200,000 sq. ft.
“Powernet offers turn-key services for both public safety and commercial cellular booster solutions including design, testing, installation, and support. Our engineers do all the FCC registration, and we make sure everything is up and running, including doing all the testing with the AHJ,” says Penny Thurnau, Vice President of Channel and Strategic Alliances at Powernet.
To comply with the AHJ’s requirements for a Certificate of Occupancy, Powernet chose to install the Cel-Fi QUATRA RED ERRCS signal booster. It is the first ERRCS that is able to boost both Land Mobile Radio (LMR) signal, which is the standard for public safety radio communications, and FirstNet cellular signals. This integrated approach provides a future-proof solution as the FirstNet cellular public safety network rolls out across the nation and cellular becomes more prevalent for emergency communications. A single system covers up to 1,200,000 sq. ft. and, since all elements that are required to comply with regulations are optimized as an integrated solution, one system was installed by Powernet in each building.
Even though public safety communications systems are thankfully rarely used, a building owner must still ensure the system is working 24/7, 365 days a year. It is too late to find out the system is down when first responders need to use their radios to save someone’s life but can’t get a signal. To prevent this from ever occurring, Cel-Fi QUATRA RED has automatic built-in alarms that are sent as email or texts to the system integrator to alert on issues that could impede the operations of the system, such as Donor/server antenna disconnection or Monitor and Battery Backup Unit failure.
The Cel-Fi WAVE remote management cloud portal also allows the integrator to do diagnostics on the system in the cloud without a truck roll, which saves both time and expense. These diagnostics should be done regularly, and at the very least before each annual recertification inspection, as counties periodically make adjustments to their radio towers without notifying building owners, which can affect the signal coverage inside a facility.
Cel-Fi QUATRA RED is the only ERRCS that provides built-in automated alerts and remote cloud diagnostics and management. It is also the only solution that provides integrated tools for the system integrator to do uplink and downlink grid testing, which is the standard inspection done by AHJs to determine if the radio signal coverage in the building passes the requirements for a Certificate of Occupancy. In addition to ensuring safety standards, using these tools can eliminate costly repeat AHJ inspections.
Tenant Safety Also Depends on Cellular Reception
While a public safety system is essential for a Certificate of Occupancy and the safety of tenants, the availability of a good cell phone signal for occupants is equally as important. A cellular signal is vital when a person needs to call 911 or ask for help from others outside their immediate location in the building. Cellular coverage is also essential for emergency responders to find victims in need of rescue inside a large building.
Though Powernet was initially engaged to install an ERRCS system in the large buildings, they also found poor cellular coverage was an issue.
Regulations across the country prohibit the same systems from being used to amplify both public safety and general cellular communications signals. This meant a separate system had to be installed by Powernet to resolve the poor cellular coverage in the building.
“When we were about two-thirds through with installing the public safety system, it was clear that the cellular coverage gaps needed to be fixed right away. When the walls went up, they lost virtually all of their signal indoors,” says Jose Morales, System Engineer at Powernet. “They had a lot of glass and metal in the new construction that blocked signal. So we began installing Cel-Fi QUATRA while completing the public safety system installation.”
Installing Public Safety Communications and Cellular Systems in the Same Facility
Cel-Fi QUATRA is a hybrid active Distributed Antenna System (DAS) that is designed specifically to address the challenges of poor voice quality, dropped calls, and dead zones in large multi-unit or other commercial buildings under 1,000,000 sq. ft. The system delivers a cellular signal that is up to 1000x stronger for all major carriers simultaneously for 3G/4G/5G voice and data, offering a much larger coverage footprint.
When public safety and commercial cellular amplification solutions are installed in the same facility, issues frequently arise from interference caused by the signals from each system. This problem usually needs to be resolved by placing large cavity filters between the head end of the two systems and the remote units. These filters cost between $1,000 to $2,000 and many would be needed in facilities as large as these.
However, when Cel-Fi systems are installed in the same facilities to address both public safety and commercial cellular coverage, this problem is avoided as they are guaranteed unconditionally network safe, with no interference on the macro or other networks.
Achieving Faster Deployment and Lower Cost
“The deployment of the systems went great,” says Morales. “It took a four-person team about three weeks on and off to do the installation of both systems. Once the cabling was done, installing and commissioning took two days as the systems are self-configuring.” In comparison, a traditional DAS could have taken a year or longer to install as it requires contract negotiations with each carrier.
The inspection for the Certificate of Occupancy was passed on the initial AHJ inspection test, and there is now strong cellular reception throughout the facilities, providing 99% coverage where previously there was only 5% of the building with usable signal, according to Morales.
“We chose solutions from the Cel-Fi QUATRA family of products as we’ve installed them at other facilities. They have public safety and enterprise systems that we knew would deliver strong gain with excellent coverage, be fast and easy to install, and would cost less than a traditional DAS – all important factors for the client,” says Thurnau.
A Certificate of Occupancy and good cellular coverage are not optional for building owners. As can be seen in this example, there are several factors that need to be addressed to ensure the public safety and cellular amplification solutions can work together and comply with regulations. It is ideal for a building owner or construction contractor to engage a system integrator that is an expert in local public safety regulations and also familiar with solutions to amplify both public safety communications and cellular coverage within construction timelines and at an affordable budget.
For more details on the recent Powernet installation, see the case study here.
About the Author
Victor Mejia is a Product Manager at Nextivity, specializing in deployments of indoor commercial cellular and public safety networks. Over the past 20 years, he has led DAS and RF network engineering projects for Comba Telecom, Huawei, Ericsson, Motorola, Nextel, Telcel, AT&T, Verizon, and American Tower. Victor holds an MBA from the University of Oviedo in Spain. For more information, contact email@example.com or visit www.cel-fi-com.