Shared from the 4/1/2018 MissionCritical Communications eEdition

FirstNet’s In-Building Impact

FirstNet’s rollout has local authorities contemplating the changing requirements for in-building communications.


Photo courtesy NIST

April-May 2018 MissionCritical Communications


Photo courtesy Comba Telecom

A system integrator’s public-safety distributed antenna system (DAS) in a multitenant building

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is starting to become a reality, so authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) must consider the wide-ranging ramifications of implementing the new missioncritical broadband data service and how it will affect in-building communications for first responders, building owners, facility managers and tenants.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an AHJ is the person or office charged with enforcing the Life Safety Code. In many states, the state fire marshal serves as the AHJ and has local inspectors work on the marshal’s behalf. In some cities, fire department fire prevention division personnel fulfill the role of the AHJ; sometimes it is the building official. For some locations, there is more than one AHJ, and each AHJ’s approval must be secured.

With all 50 states, the District of Columbia and territories opting into FirstNet — a nationwide interoperable wireless broadband data network dedicated to public safety — the task now becomes how the states, counties and local jurisdictions along with AT&T will implement and deploy the network. However, each individual AHJ will determine whether FirstNet services will be used on its public-safety communications network. In fact, in California, chief information officers (CIOs) and communications directors who oversee public-safety networks for first responder agencies, have already met with AT&T and authorities to understand the deployment status and schedule.

FirstNet gives AT&T access to 700 MHz band 14 for its Long Term Evolution (LTE) public-safety broadband data services. This means that AHJs that enforce inbuilding public-safety codes and want to enforce FirstNet would require an emergency responder radio coverage (ERRC) system to support band 14. However, AT&T has stated that FirstNet subscribers have access to any spectrum deployed by AT&T in a particular area, with the FirstNet service traffic prioritized and pre-empted.

Based on this spectrum decision, if AHJs decide to mandate in-building coverage for FirstNet services, it will definitely complicate the design process. Currently, the AHJ’s local ordinance for in-building twoway radio coverage requires specific attributes in the system design, including ensuring that a system is backed up by batteries. Another requirement is that the active electronics in the system be housed in a National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA)-4 enclosure for protection from water in the event of firefighters spraying the equipment. If the AHJ chooses to enforce similar requirements for a cellular distributed antenna system (DAS) used for FirstNet services, the cost to the building owner for additional equipment and operating costs will be significant. The potential increased costs to building owners and whether they outweigh the benefits of mission-critical broadband support for first responders will be considered.

Apart from enforcing a building code that includes FirstNet services, AHJs must determine what FirstNet services are required or necessary for their departments. Technology options are rapidly increasing and constantly evolving. From drones to internet of things (IoT) sensors, there are a vast number of technologies that AHJs could use to keep first responders and the public safe. Technology isn’t free; its deployment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on the size and needs of a department.

For example, adding new devices that support FirstNet services to a force of 20,000 first responders has immediate budget implications. Each jurisdiction must budget for new technology and devices. Additionally, testing and deployment is strict and rigorous because these devices must provide near 100 percent uptime because they are mission critical. Finally, AHJs should consider how new devices and First-Net services will interface with existing operations.

On the other end of the spectrum, if AHJs decide not to modify their ordinances for FirstNet services, there might not be support for public-safety broadband data devices within buildings. This would limit a first responders’ ability to use broadband services that could help in certain situations. A police officer wouldn’t be able to livestream an active shooter incident to allow the watch commander to have immediate information on whether or not more responders are needed to quickly take control of the situation.

The same would be true for a burning building equipped with sensors to locate exactly where the fire is in the building. Without broadband services, a battalion chief in charge of the firefighting operation would need to send in a team to assess the situation. Only after the team reported back could command coordinate the plan for fighting the flames, which could delay the response.

In both situations, broadband data services aren’t required because primary mission-critical voice communications can handle the job, but using FirstNet services might more quickly mitigate the situation, contributing to saving lives and property.

Primary mission-critical LMR communications is the principal lifeline for first responders; however, adding secondary noncritical voice communications over FirstNet could be an option for AHJs. Opening noncritical voice communications to other services such as FirstNet could provide additional voice communications capabilities, without causing additional load on a primary LMR network. Noncritical voice communications, such as updated situational information notices that occur after dispatch, could easily be moved to a FirstNet service. Conceivably, this would allow for all agencies to receive the data and achieve interoperability, a primary directive of FirstNet. Interoperability is something that is lacking in current LMR communications systems. AHJs should decide if they are comfortable with secondary noncritical voice over an independent network.

If the AHJ chooses to enforce requirements for a cellular DAS used for FirstNet services, the cost to the building owner for additional equipment and operating costs will be significant.

For FirstNet, broadband wireless services are provided by AT&T. The service isn’t free and is priced from $40 per month for data only to $60 per month per device for a plan that includes data, voice, text, mobile hot spot and tethering, according to But the AHJs will determine who needs to access the service because not all personnel would be required to have access.

Finally, FirstNet will not be the only option for AHJs. Some jurisdictions already employ broadband data services for their departments; however, they are not deployed on First-Net. Some use AT&T, while others use Verizon or another operator. FirstNet is designed to be a nationwide, interoperable public-safety network, but Verizon has said it will offer a similar service to first responders. This potentially gives AHJs another choice in the search for a broadband data service dedicated to public safety and could further complicate the codes they enforce.

AT&T is poised to deliver First-Net and its promise of a nationwide, high-speed, interoperable broadband wireless data network. However, to make it a successful, fully functioning and nationwide network, AHJs around the country must determine whether FirstNet brings value to their first responders. During the next few years as FirstNet matures and developers provide effective apps, we’ll understand the true impact FirstNet will have on inbuilding coverage and the publicsafety community.

Don Henry is public-safety program manager and director of sales for Comba Telecom. He has an extensive background in sales for wired/wireless networking solutions and was a police officer prior to joining the company. He also spent a number of years in the IP networking market. Email feedback to

If AHJs decide not to modify their ordinances for FirstNet services, there might not be support for public-safety broadband data devices within buildings.

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