Emergency Responder Radio Coverage

The problem — Firefighters enter a building responding to a fire. While for this column the type of fire is not important, the fact that personnel are inside the building is important. As firefighters approach the fire area, they realize the situation is beyond their capabilities. They need additional assistance and equipment to handle the emergency. The firefighters radio their dispatch center, requesting additional personnel and equipment. They wait for the dispatch center to reply, but there is no reply. Then they try to radio other responding engines on the street right outside the building. Again, there is no reply. They try both methods again and get no reply. The firefighters know they cannot handle the incident without assistance, so they decide to make their way back outdoors to communicate with anyone outside of the building.

The result — Precious time is lost while trying to find a location where radio communications are possible. In many cases, firefighters need to travel completely outside of the building to make use of their radios. In the worst case, firefighters inside the building are trapped or injured, and they cannot make contact with anyone to provide their status or location.

The solution — This situation can be mitigated by providing Emergency Responder Radio Coverage (ERRC) inside the building. This will allow the use of a fire department's existing handheld radios inside buildings, so firefighters or other emergency personnel inside the building can communicate with personnel outside the building, on the roof or at the dispatch center. The intent of the Emergency Responder Radio Coverage system is to provide a tool for emergency responders to maintain radio communications during an incident, and a higher level of protection and safety for firefighters while inside buildings. The ERRC system improves operational effectiveness by allowing the use of the existing communications system and equipment and by avoiding the need to use special radio frequencies or systems, intercoms or mobile repeaters in stressful emergency situations.

The 2009 edition of the International Fire Code (IFC) includes new requirements for in-building ERRC. The IFC contains performance levels for the radio communications inside buildings and maintenance criteria to ensure the system will be available when needed.

The requirements in IFC Section 510 state that all buildings must be capable of meeting the radio performance criteria. This requirement is applicable to all new construction. In the real world, radio communications can be affected by the type of construction, size of the building, basement levels, metal storage racks in warehouses and even the radio frequency.

Typical buildings where communications are a problem are masonry, steel and concrete, or all-steel construction. The size of the building also can impact signal strength. A hospital could present a problem with small rooms, resulting in many walls and many floor levels that the radio signal needs to penetrate.

If adequate signal strength is available within a new building, then the building is in compliance with the requirements. However, if the radio signal does not meet or exceed the performance levels, then the radio communications system must be augmented or enhanced in order to comply. This requirement is specific to each building, and is not to be used to enhance or improve the infrastructure of the radio system within the city or jurisdiction. The IFC requirement cannot be used to require the radio system infrastructure to be modified to provide an adequate signal at the street level. The radio signal outside the building is the responsibility of the jurisdiction, not the building owner. The conveyance of that radio signal inside and throughout the building is the responsibility of the owner.

There are situations where a new building may meet the approved level of radio coverage, but as the building ages, it goes through tenant improvements, remodels and additions. All of these activities can affect the radio signal available within the building. The IFC would apply to those existing buildings and require a retrofit of some type of system to boost the signal or retransmit the signal within the building.

Appendix J in the 2009 IFC provides guidance on the installation of the ERRC system and includes specific test methodology to determine whether the building has adequate radio coverage. This test method is appropriate for use in new construction and existing buildings to determine if the radio signal is adequate, and after a remodel or addition to determine if new construction has affected the radio coverage in the building.

Is it possible to determine whether a specific building will need some type of radio signal system prior to construction? Maybe, but because of several variables, it will be a guess or estimation most of the time. Since many variables will affect the ability of radio signals to penetrate the building, the designer and owner have several options. They can:

  • Install a radio signal system into the building during construction (full expense up front); or
  • Install only the cables and wiring, wait until the building is built, test the signal strength, and if needed, install components to complete the radio signal system in the building (partial expense up front); or
  • Wait until the building is built, test the signal strength and, if needed, install the entire radio signal system (expenses at the end of the project, but a retrofit into the completed building will result in additional costs)

The most troublesome situation may be when the owner has opted to install nothing during construction and waits for a radio test after the building is completed. This radio test would have to be completed prior to the final inspection and issuance of a certificate of occupancy by the building code official. The International Building Code requires all new buildings to comply with the IFC with regard to the need for an ERRC system. Therefore, the building permit cannot be signed off until the building complies. The radio signal test must be performed when the building is complete. At this same time, the owner will be anxious to move in and start using the building. This scenario can manifest itself in pressure, stress and finger-pointing as the owner waits for the certificate of occupancy. The best approach to heading off this scenario is to ensure the owner is aware of the testing requirements before the building is ready for final inspection.

The IFC does not specify how to design and construct the radio signal system, but it does provide performance criteria that the radio system must meet. Several devices and methods can be employed to provide adequate radio coverage within a building. Methods such as signal boosters, leaky coax, repeaters or radiating cable systems can be used to provide the needed level of coverage. Each system has its advantages and limitations. Again, the choice of which method to use is up to the owner, as long as it meets the radio signal strength requirements.

As with any system, the ERRC system must be maintained. It typically will not be used frequently. The IFC requires the system be maintained functional at all times and tested annually. Records of annual testing would be maintained at the facility which the inspector can request at time of inspection. Through the application of this requirement in the 2009 IFC, safety will be increased and operational effectiveness will be increased for firefighters and emergency responders.

KEVIN H. SCOTT, International Code Council Fire Services Senior Regional Manager, was the California Building Officials 2005 Fire Official of the Year. He has served as a fire safety instructor across the nation, is former Deputy Chief of the Kern County (CA) Fire Department and an instructor for the California State Fire Marshal's Office. He is long-time member of the California Fire Chiefs Association, Western Fire Chiefs Association and the International Association of Fire Chiefs.