The Importance of In-Building Wireless for the FirstNet Emergency Network

Summer 2020 Issue
By: Ted Hebron
The FirstNet public safety network is a dedicated wireless network for first responders. It was born in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. Getty Images

A dedicated digital network for first responders might require modifications to commercial properties.

Property owners desire optimal wireless connectivity in their buildings to better serve their tenants. However, these systems can play a far more urgent role in emergency situations by supporting communications with first responders.

The coronavirus crisis is forcing building owners to think deeply about the safety of occupants. The nationwide rollout of the FirstNet network, which is happening at a rapid pace, will give first responders far better connectivity via a dedicated wireless network. However, the success of this network depends on whether buildings provide adequate in-building signal support for firefighters, police and EMTs.

A Digital Public Safety Network

In 2004, the 9/11 Commission Report found that gaps in emergency communications and overburdened cell networks were major problems for first responders during the 2001 terror attacks. The commission recommended the development of a nationwide network for public safety communications that would use the LTE cellular protocol.

It took a long time for FirstNet to go from the drawing board to reality. But during the past two years, all 50 states and 14 territories have committed to its adoption, leading to a major build-out of standardized FirstNet infrastructure.

More than 9,000 first-responder agencies are moving forward with FirstNet connectivity projects, including upgrades to antennas on emergency vehicles and updates to the wireless systems they use. Thousands more public safety organizations nationwide are expected to move forward with their own FirstNet initiatives in the near future.

How does that affect property owners and operators? FirstNet must deliver a reliable signal where first responders need it, and the interiors of buildings are challenging environments for reliable cell signals. When a tenant’s call drops or the audio is unintelligible, that is an inconvenience. But for a team of firefighters navigating a smoke-filled office building, that connectivity can mean the difference between life and death.

Most properties currently do not provide first responders with adequate wireless support. This is either because they do not have indoor signal-boosting or because the indoor antenna systems are not FirstNet-compliant. For those reasons, there will be growing pressure on property owners and operators to make upgrades. A combination of zoning mandates, fire codes, county requirements, and industry standards and state/federal directives could drive these efforts. In addition, many owners and operators might pursue upgrades to demonstrate their commitment to public safety.

Considerations for Property Owners

Here are some things to keep in mind as organizations plan for FirstNet upgrades.

It’s not simply a “rip and replace” task. Some upgrades are simply a matter of pulling out the old unit and plugging in a new one. Unfortunately, FirstNet upgrades can be complicated. The performance of antennas is influenced by many factors, including the shape of the space, the density of the walls, the materials immediately surrounding an antenna and nearby electrical equipment. Successfully upgrading buildings with FirstNet-ready connectivity requires the right antenna for each installation site within a building as well as the right equipment to connect those antennas. A RF (radio frequency) expert can assess the space, guide antenna choice and perform testing to ensure it will properly support emergency personnel.

FirstNet upgrades must focus on more than LTE. One of the biggest misconceptions about FirstNet is that it’s all about the LTE cellular protocol. In reality, it’s a combination of complementary wireless technologies that must work well alongside one another, whether on top of an ambulance or in the third-floor hallway of an office building. For example, first responders not only require LTE connectivity but also UHF connectivity, which is a technology many of their communications systems rely on. While LTE is the core technology of FirstNet, in-building implementation must balance the other wireless needs of first responders as well as the wireless needs of tenants. For tenants, these might include Wi-Fi capabilities as well as amplification of public LTE signals. This requires antennas that can integrate multiple technologies operating on multiple wireless bands without interfering with one another. 5G will also be an important consideration, particularly when first-responder organizations begin deploying applications that rely on real-time communications with high-data throughput that are specifically designed to take advantage of the ultra-low latency of 5G. Examples of those applications that rely on 5G-ready in-building connectivity include situational-awareness technologies such as real-time video from first responders’ on-body cameras and real-time virtual maps that give first responders augmented-reality navigation inside a building while also reporting their location to command centers. The adoption of those applications will be driven at the local level by each public safety organization, however, rather than by a federal edict. 

Be prepared for different profiles. Antennas and gateways come in every shape and size. Upgrading from existing in-building wireless to FirstNet-ready connectivity may involve a change in the shape and profile of the installation. Multiband, FirstNet-ready antenna systems might have a different size and shape than the ones they are replacing. In addition, the new antennas may require a different installation location than the prior antenna due to radio frequency dynamics. Aesthetics are important in building interiors, so the planning process should assess antenna solutions that deliver the connectivity required while also having the desired look. For example, there are many low-profile FirstNet antennas that can minimize the aesthetic impact on an interior setting. A property’s FirstNet upgrade plan should also build in enough time for potentially moving the site of current indoor antennas.

These upgrades to in-building wireless systems entail extra costs to building owners. It is estimated that FirstNet-ready antennas would involve a 5%-10% cost increase over traditional antennas.

Upgrades to antenna systems can be complex, but they can ensure that public safety professionals will have the connectivity they need to do their jobs during an emergency. 

Ted Hebron is the senior product manager at Laird Connectivity.