Is In-Building Cellular Coverage an Essential Part of Public Safety?

Reading Time: 3 minutes If first responder radio coverage is a vital phase of emergency response, then any cellular call that dials 911 is also a critical first phase.

I have been involved in countless ERRCS/Public Safety DAS deployments over the past decade. Most commonly, we are working with building owners/operators, construction teams, or electrical contractors to help provide a critical code-required system to ensure first responders can communicate inside the building. 

Depending on how many system deployments the customer has been involved in, they may have a deep understanding of the code and how it is enforced, or they may only have a surface level understanding and be relying on us to fill in the gaps. 

What is ERRCS or Public Safety DAS?

ERRCS or Public Safety DAS is best explained as having a system in place to ensure first responder two-way radios can operate inside the building. I often will compare the system to a cell phone and help the customer understand that the same way your cell phone needs signal inside a building to operate, first responder radios need minimum signal levels to provide clear communication inside of a building. 

Should Cell Phone Coverage Also Be Mandatory in Public Buildings?

Recently, the question started to circulate of whether or not cellular coverage would ever be mandated in buildings the same way that first responder radio signal is mandated in (a vast majority of) buildings. In short, the likely answer is no. A lot of this conversation is driven by the proliferation of in-building emergencies where communication is compromised, and it takes days to unravel what happened/what went wrong during the response. Especially in k-12 schools and universities, it has become a heavily debated topic to discuss the role of cellular signal in allowing students and faculty to communicate during an emergency

An argument has been made that if first responder radio coverage is a vital phase of first response, then any cellular call that dials 911 is also a critical first phase of an emergency.

While there is certainly basis for the argument, we do not see a current roadmap or path to roll out cellular coverage requirements in the same way that buildings have first responder radio minimum signal requirements. Instead, it will remain up to the schools, building owners, local government, etc. to determine the critical nature of cellular signal in an emergency. 

Some buildings owners, school districts, hotels, and hospitals are already rolling out cellular enhancement as a risk mitigation effort but are still dealing with the realities of their budget. 

When properly planned at the beginning stages of construction and development on a building, it is easier to budget and accommodate systems for both ERRCS + Cellular Enhancement. However, late in development or after the building has already been operating, it can be more difficult to find budget for previously unplanned systems. 

What’s the Most Cost-Effective Way to Provide Both ERRCS and Cellular Coverage?

One of the most effective cost saving measures, is to deploy these systems as a single converged system. Meaning, a system that is capable of delivering both ERRCS + Cellular coverage through a single network. 

Converged systems will offer a range of savings based on the size of the building, building layout, and system technology. In many cases, overall cost savings of 30% are possible. 

So why aren’t converged systems just deployed everywhere?

There are a few key reasons that converged systems are less common than their cost savings would initially indicate. 

  • The purchase of Cell DAS + ERRCS is a distinct process with poor visibility. ERRCS is often in the initial bid and cell DAS might be added after the fact. If a different team is handling each system, it’s nearly impossible to find cost efficiencies.
  • Fire Marshalls + AHJs may not allow for converged systems in their jurisdiction. Fire Marshalls could have concerns about improperly built systems causing network issues. We are seeing more Fire Marshalls begin to accept Converged Systems when we can demonstrate the complete 100% network safety. 
  • The building owner may not see cellular as critical yet. Even though there are massive cost savings with converged solutions, if a building owner does not see value in cellular connectivity, it can be difficult to justify any price tag associated with cellular enhancement.   Multifamily housing studies show that residents consider reliable cell service to be the #1 most important amenity when choosing a place to live, but some building owners have been reluctant to accept its significance.
  • Building owner/operators don’t know it exists. Building construction does not evolve quickly, as teams largely want to stick with what works. While converged systems present a great opportunity, they are still a disruptive change. 

I anticipate that we will see an increase of converged systems as cellular enhancement continues to grow not only as a need for connectivity, but also as a risk mitigation. While there is an extremely slim chance of it being regulated in similar ways to first responder radio coverage, forward thinking building owners are still looking for better ways to plan.