Roger That: Emergency Responder Communications

Fire Focus July 2020

Firefighters discovered early in their response to high-rise fires that their radios would not work well, if at all, once they got inside the building. Since 1993, building and fire codes required dedicated firefighter telephone systems (FFT) in high-rises. NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, required all high-rise fire alarm systems to include FFTs to provide first responders with the ability to communicate within the building to other telephones and primarily to the fire ground commander at the fire command center.

The FFTs were generally supplied by the fire alarm system manufacturers. Therefore, everyone in the installation process—designers, authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) and installers—wrongly assumed the FFTs were an integral part of the fire alarm system. In fact, they were ancillary to the fire alarm system, even though the electronic portion of the telephone was a component of the fire alarm control unit.

There were several issues with the FFTs, in that they were generally only installed in the elevator lobby and inside the two exit stairwells from each floor. Additionally, codes allowed the use of FFT jacks in lieu of an actual telephone at each specified location, with a bank of phones with the appropriate plug located in a cabinet at the building fire command center. A firefighter would have to get a phone and plug it into an available jack to communicate with the fire ground commander.

Firefighters experienced numerous problems with the FFT jacks. Often gum, or some other substance, was stuffed into the jack, rendering it inoperable. The FFTs were rarely checked when the fire alarm system was tested. When there were amplifier failures, the problem would not be discovered until the system was needed during an emergency.

Today, FFTs are not allowed to be installed except under a specific variance. Since 2009, the building and fire codes require the installation of emergency responder radio communications systems (ERRCS) in all new and existing buildings where the fire department deems it is necessary for first responder safety or when the fire alarm system is replaced or extensively upgraded. Also, ERRCS has been introduced to serve not only fire department personnel, but all emergency responders.

These systems’ intention is to provide reliable radio communications for all first responders within all buildings in their jurisdiction. The building codes now require these systems in lieu of firefighter telephones in high rise buildings. However, many jurisdictions require them in all buildings where a field strength survey indicates the need because the coverage provided by the public service radio transmissions cannot penetrate the building’s construction materials.

Initially, the requirements for the ERRCS were found in NFPA 72. However, most of the fire alarm systems designers and installers did not have the necessary background and skills to design or install an ERRCS. Subsequently, the requirements were removed from NFPA 72 in 2016 and are now found in NFPA 1221, “Standard for the Installation, Maintenance, and Use of Emergency Services Communications Systems.”

To design an ERRCS, the designer needs to hold a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license, i.e., a general radio operator’s license (GROL). A GROL is a license granted by the FCC that is required to adjust, maintain or internally repair FCC-licensed radiotelephone transmitters in the aviation, maritime and international fixed public radio services.

ERRCS’s design requires that a field strength survey be done to ensure the correct equipment is installed. It is preferable that GROL-licensed contractor perform the field strength test.

A new Underwriters Laboratories standard, UL 2524, “In-building 2-Way Emergency Radio Communications Enhancement Systems”—published in 2018 and updated in 2019—provides “requirements for items such as repeater, transmitter, receiver, signal booster components, external filters and battery charging system components.”

It also aligns with requirements in model building and installation codes, such as the international fire code, the National Electrical Code , the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code and more.

There has been a great deal of discussion regarding the need for the ERRCS to be monitored for integrity and be installed using survivable cable. Many fire AHJs assume that because ERRCS are referenced in NFPA 72, they have jurisdiction over the installation. The reference is only to state that such systems are needed, which is already required by the building code, and then it points the reader to NFPA 1221.

In fact, the jurisdiction’s director of radio communications is the person who is, and should be, responsible for ensuring that the ERRCS is installed properly and working in accordance with NFPA 1221. There is no requirement that the ERRCS be UL-listed. However, given the new UL standard, there will surely be listed units on the market. There are no requirements for internal supervision or survivability under NFPA 72.

NFPA 1221-2016 does require that the ERRCS include automatic supervisory signals for malfunctions of the two-way radio communications enhancement systems that are annunciated to and by the fire alarm system in accordance with NFPA 72. It must comply with the following:

1. Monitoring for integrity of the system in accordance with Chapter 10 of NFPA 72

2. The system must include the following supervisory signals:

  • a. Donor antenna malfunction
  • b. Active RF emitting device failure
  • c. Low-battery capacity indication when 70% of the 12-hour operating capacity has been depleted
  • d. System component failure

3. Power supply supervisory signals must include the loss of normal AC power and failure of the battery charger for each RF-emitting device and system component.

4. The communications link between the fire alarm system and the two-way radio communications enhancement system must also be monitored for integrity.

Also, a dedicated monitoring panel must be provided within the fire command center to annunciate the status of all RF emitting devices and system component locations.

Monitoring panels must provide visual and labeled indications of the following for each system component and RF-emitting device:

A. Normal AC power

B. Loss of normal AC power

C. Battery charger failure

D. Low battery capacity (to 70% depletion)

E. Donor antenna malfunction

F. Active RF-emitting device malfunction

G. System component malfunction

Like the supervision requirements for the fire alarm system and ERRCS, the communications link between the dedicated monitoring panel and the two-way radio communications enhancement system must also be monitored for integrity.

Suffice to say, when you find an ERRCS specified in your contract, you must not attempt to immediately subcontract the work to a fire alarm contractor. The best chance to avoid serious issues at the critical final approval stages of your project is to contact the local jurisdiction to determine who has performed ERRCS installations successfully. You could also find a fire alarm supplier who has done their homework and teamed with a provider of ERRCS who offers FCC-licensed design services and the necessary equipment to meet the project’s specifications.

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and expert in the life safety field, is a principal member and past chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. He is a vice president with Jensen Hughes at the Warwick, R.I., office and can be...

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