Improving In-Building Comms Issues Still A Priority

By James Careless

The problem of poor in-building communications experienced by first responders is nothing new. It goes back to the days of land mobile radios. But even in today’s smartphone age, ensuring reliable communications for first responders remains an issue of life or death. This is why industry groups such as the Safer Buildings Coalition (SBC), of which the FirstNet Authority is a member, continue to promote communications solutions and host informational sessions to address this issue.

RapidSOS is another SBC member, and a company that is already offering a practical solution to the in-building comms problem. This is because the RapidSOS is an intelligence-gathering safety platform that securely collects location and other life-saving data from 540+ million connected devices (smartphones, wearable devices, connected cars and buildings worldwide. It then makes this data available in 911 operators, RapidSOS Safety Agents, and first responders globally. If the 911 dispatcher can’t find a person or first responder via their smartphone in an area of poor in-building, RapidSoS makes it possible to allocate them through alternative data channels.

Edward Parkinson, RapidSOS’ President of Public Sector, a position he assumed in 2022 after retiring from his post of FirstNet Authority CEO. As such, Parkinson is extremely knowledgeable about the issue of poor in-building communications and ways to mitigate them.

Current Solutions Have Their Limits

“We all know buildings in which we work or live where there’s good signal strength in one area, and poor signal strength in another,” said Parkinson. “We also know that solutions to poor in-building coverage are commonly addressed by installing cell phone boosters and/or Wi-Fi repeaters to spread that network, but that they don’t always fix the problem.”

A case in point: The Port Authority installed radio repeaters at the original World Trade Center after the 1993 bombing, in response to poor in-building communications. According to the 9/11 Commission report (as cited by the SBC website), “The FDNY’s radios performed poorly during the 1993 WTC bombing for two reasons. First, the radios’ signals often did not succeed in penetrating the numerous steel and concrete floors that separated companies attempting to communicate; and second, so many different companies were attempting to use the same point-to-point channel that communications became unintelligible.”

For a variety of reasons, the WTC’s repeater system encountered issues during 9/11 that limited its usefulness. Today’s cellphone boosters and Wi-Fi repeaters can also experience in-building communications challenges, which is why “groups such as the SBC and the Wireless Infrastructure Association are thinking about this creatively and looking to build coalitions of vendors and public safety who can bring in-building coverage to the forefront,” Parkinson said. “After all, one third of people who are rescued from incidents die on their way to the hospital. And that’s because they’ve been waiting around too long or don’t have the right information given to public safety when they are able to be rescued. So if you don’t have proper in-building coverage to get that information from the moment that individual is being rescued to when they’re being transported to the hospital, those individuals are unfortunately placed at risk through nobody’s fault.”

How RapidSOS Is Helping

Established a decade ago, RapidSOS handles about 175 million 911 calls in the United States annually, and is now integrated into every 911 call center nationwide. “Last year we sent over 3.3 billion data packages over our software,” said Parkinson. “From the minute a 911 call is placed, it pops up on a screen inside the call center to show who the caller is, where they are, and what type of situation they’re dealing with. Through our many partnerships with other third-party providers, we can tell in a school shooter situation if an individual has been detected with weapons (via ZeroEyes) and their z-axis location (via GeoComm VLS). And we’re the only folks who are able to provide that, which is why RapidSOS is in over 21,000 public safety agencies.”

The proof of RapidSOS’ usefulness has been attested to by numerous first responder agencies. Although the company’s “5 RapidSOS Clearinghouse Success Stories” doesn’t in-building communications specifically, it does validate RapidSOS’ overall credibility.

A case in point: The Seattle Police Department’s 911 center received a call from a nine-year-old girl reporting a man in her backyard while her parents were away. “During the call, the cell phone disconnected due to low battery,” said the SPD testimonial. “Without the added benefit of precise location services, the call would have been geo-located blocks away. With the enhanced location services, we were able to find the girl and make sure she was safe.”

These are the kind of results that RapidSOS delivers today as it mitigates first responder communications issues, including poor in-building signal coverage. “That’s the power that RapidSOS provides, not only to communities because they’re the ones who benefit from this service,” Parkinson concluded, “but most importantly the public safety individuals who are able to leverage it.”


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