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...


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...


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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.