By Tom Kuklo | Brought to You By: Mission Critical Magazine
The way we live has changed drastically. With more and more people looking to occupy the world’s major cities, the obvious choice has been to build up. The result is huge numbers of individuals and businesses alike finding their homes in high-rise buildings. This offers huge benefits, but it is not without its drawbacks and communications, particularly when it comes to safety.
Hong Kong has 9,000 high-rise buildings, there are more than 6,000 in New York, and many cities are seeing a similar rising skyline. The response has been that globally we have seen an uplift in regulation around the construction and management of these buildings to ensure they are safe. However, despite improved safety standards, one of the most essential considerations has to be putting provision in place should the worst happen.
In the U.S., as of 2016, fire departments deal with 14,500 structure fires per year in high-rise buildings. This does represent fewer incidents than in low and mid-rise buildings, but high-rise fires come with a unique set of challenges that make them a real concern for both fire teams and the building residents.
The real-world consequences when fire takes hold of a high-rise can be significant and devastating, and it is therefore crucial that should a fire break out, everyone involved is as well-equipped as possible to minimize damage and ensure a positive outcome.
Much of the work towards this has been achieved by regulating how buildings are constructed. For example, regulations require buildings to be built with materials that stop a fire from spreading. However, what is still absolutely vital, is a safety net that means in the event of a fire, it can be tackled in the most efficient, and most importantly, safest way possible.
When dealing with an event of this nature, communications is critical. It may not stop the fire itself, but it enables firefighting teams to address the incident in the safest way possible, both for themselves and the occupants of the building. Being able to communicate reliably, both as a team and with those in the building is key to ensuring the best outcome. Without adequate communications systems in place, the situation becomes much more difficult to manage, and firefighting teams are exposed to an unjustifiable risk. Therefore, making sure communications infrastructure works, and can continue to work, in the event of a fire must be a priority.
The logic behind this is patently obvious. However, to understand why it needs to be a key consideration at the construction phase of a building, we need to look at the problems that arise if we were to simply use standard communications equipment.
Firstly, let’s look at the difficulties of communicating within high-rise buildings at all. Providing reliable connectivity, particularly to higher floors requires dedicated indoor wireless systems. Without these systems, the buildings are simply without any wireless coverage. These systems need to be put in place not only to meet the modern living demands for connectivity but to enable critical communications in the event of a fire as well. If a fire causes them to fail, there isn’t a work around or quick fix to delivering connectivity, and the ability to support safety communications just isn’t there.
Knowing, therefore, how critical this infrastructure is, it of course makes sense to incorporate it into buildings at the construction phase. However, problems can arise if standard cabling that is not designed specifically to withstand fire is used. This cable burns through incredibly quickly, and once the cabling is affected, it takes out connectivity on both the floor on which the fire started and every floor above. Most high-rise building fires begin on floors no higher than the sixth story, making it easy to lose the ability to communicate with the majority of the building. The result is unnecessary and avoidable risk for both occupants and emergency crews as they are left isolated and without the ability to communicate the safest way to manage the situation.
Building fire-safe comms
Thankfully, this hypothetical scenario is completely avoidable. There are a variety of solutions that can prevent this from ever being a concern when fighting a high-rise fire. Ultimately, as long as a building is left with fireproof communications equipment that will work continuously and effectively in an emergency situation, the problem has been resolved. However, is there a best practice approach?
One way to ensure fire-safe communications equipment is to encase cabling in fireproof conduits or heat resistant trunking. This is undoubtedly effective and has typically been the favoured approach, but it does have drawbacks. Using a multicomponent approach adds complexity and expense that is not only a drawback at procurement stage. If there is any problem with the conduit system, the communications system becomes vulnerable. So, from the practical challenges of a multicomponent installation to the total cost of ownership (TCO) implications, this is no longer the simplest way of delivering the fire-safe communications systems needed in high-rise structures. But, what is the alternative?
Traditionally, this approach has been the only way to meet fire safety requirements. However, we have recently seen the advent of fireproof cables which offer a simpler, and more effective way to tackle the issue. They are able to offer the capabilities that previously would only have been possible with an additional conduit solution in a single, simple solution. These cables can survive while burning continuously for two hours at temperatures up to 1,850 degrees Fahrenheit. The cables offer an effortless solution to deploying fire-proof communications infrastructure and over the next few years, we will see them become the backbone of the next generation of public-safety communications equipment.
The cables deliver the same performance and reliability as existing multipart fireproof communications systems but as a single, simple-to-deploy product, they make safety easier than ever and offer advantages for all stakeholders, from building planners to emergency services.
Despite being an essential part of modern living, communications technology is not necessarily the first thought of construction and integration professionals seeking to design greener and more efficient homes. Of course, it is a consideration, but by offering a single and most importantly, simple way to take care of fire-safe communications requirements, their job can be done just as effectively, without having to navigate the complexities of sourcing appropriate conduit for a cable system.
Building owners on the other hand, benefit from complete peace of mind. From their perspective the result is a fully functioning communications system that gives them safety reassurances. This is vital, given that building owners are ultimately held responsible for the safety of the building and its occupants.
Finally, for emergency services professionals, the cables give reassurance that the communications systems that are a crucial part of any emergency operation will not be compromised as a result of fire. They are able to rely on equipment from both a performance and fire-proof perspective and fully concentrate on the task of managing the situation as safely as possible. Loss of communications has the ability to leave emergency services teams blind to emerging risks in emergency situations, and so alleviating concerns around this is essential to allow them to do their job to the best of their ability.
The trend for building up shows no signs of slowing and ultimately, living in high-rise buildings is perfectly safe. It is the perfect way to meet the ever-growing demand to live in the world’s biggest and most highly populated cities.
Fire safety isn’t and shouldn’t be a day-to-day concern for occupants or indeed building owners and managers. The essential groundwork should already be in place. Those involved in the construction and ongoing maintenance have a legal responsibility to ensure everything possible has been done to ensure safety as an emergency situation is managed.
The big leap forward has been to make providing fire-safe communications as easy as possible. By offering a single solution fire-proof RF cable, the process of ensuring the communications safety net is in place becomes incredibly simple. It is an obvious evolution of the fire-safe communications equipment that has come before it, but by simplifying what is needed to meet regulatory requirements, minimize installation complexity and ease the procurement process, we can make huge progress. The simple evolution eliminates much of the risk of an error, meaning there is no excuse for communications failure in the event of a fire and ensuring the safety of the millions of people living in high-rise buildings world wide.
Tom Kuklo is the global product manager for in-building solutions for Radio Frequency Systems (RFS).