Vaughan Ontario is one of the fastest growing communities in Canada. Our population is expected to increase 33% over the next 10 years, with commensurate growth in new construction projects. As more than 100,000 new residents are finding a home in our city, we are often looking upwards into the sky. Vaughan high-rise residential projects are increasing and now approved to be 60 storeys and above. The stretch in new build construction is also necessitating first responders to evaluate the technology in place for emergency communication systems relied upon in an emergency.
New building construction is focused on energy efficiency – keeping the heat out in the summer and holding onto it in the winter. Unfortunately, this also means that modern buildings with high tech building materials keep radio and communication signals out, creating coverage challenges. The adoption of In-Building Auxiliary Radio Communication (ARC) Systems is something that I’m following closely. ARC systems have been mandated in new construction high-rise buildings in New York City since December of 2014. Since that time, multiple jurisdictions across the U.S.A., including those in California and Florida, have introduced similar requirements for their high-rise developments.
An ARC system is a wireless two-way building communication system that receives and transmits signals carried on frequencies licensed and restricted to use by first responders. In Toronto, for example, 770 Mhz and 868 Mhz are common, whereas in New York City, depending on which part of the city you find yourself in, first responder chatter can be found anywhere from 460-487 Mhz.
The lack of frequency standardization by cities across North America and internationally makes the development of equipment more challenging for manufacturers, thus, limiting options for buyers and driving up the costs of implementation. Currently, most ARC equipment is repurposed from the marine market, with components like antennas, RF power amplifiers and signal boosters customized to a local market requirement.
In Canada, we have been tracking the development and implementation of ARC systems in other regions with a keen eye to understand the efficacy and reliability for our own projects. With all new technological innovations, the public and private sectors need to consider both the costs and benefits of regulating such equipment in the interest of public safety. Our belief is that adoption of multi-stakeholder driven standards will motivate manufacturers towards a common set of requirements that will increase competition in the space, making ARC systems affordable for the development community. This will ensure the safety of both our first responders and the public at large. It is through the adoption of new technology that we can address issues such as communication ‘dead zones’ in super-tall modern structures, environments more commonly seen in our City. As the buildings around us change, we too must adapt the tools and techniques we use to deliver our best in class emergency response service.
One of the most interesting developments in the ARC systems market is the emerging standard ANSI/CAN/UL 2524:2019. Developed in part by the Standards Council of Canada, it is a joint Canada-United States National Standard for In-building 2-Way Emergency Radio Communication Enhancement Systems. The standard covers all aspects of ARC equipment to ensure everything from equipment construction to performance. Ensuring rigid certification requirements for ARC equipment ensures our people can rely on the system to perform under the harshest of conditions. In addition to equipment standards, multiple parties are developing commissioning and annual test and inspection standards that guarantee the proper installation and maintenance of equipment by facility owners and property managers.
ARC system development is challenging for several reasons. Manufacturers need to consider the stability and flexibility of radio repeaters, address deep technical challenges like maximizing the signal to noise ratio of transmitted signals, and additionally they are challenged to implement complex software algorithms to filter and treat processed signals with minimal delay. In some advanced implementations, arrays of sensors can track movement and location of first responders and occupants in a building during an emergency. The systems take years to develop and optimize. However, the fire protection industry has an equally vested interest as the fire and rescue service in life safety systems, especially as it relates to protecting lives and property. Vaughan Fire and Rescue Service is working closely with a local manufacturer of such technology, Mircom, North America’s largest independent designer, manufacturer and distributor of life safety equipment, to help guide system requirements to ensure our needs are met both in the short and long term.
As fire service professionals, we are proud of our profession and strive to give citizens our best effort to save lives and property. As a Fire Chief, it is my responsibility to ensure firefighters go home safe at the end of every shift. One of the most important elements of our life safety equipment is reliable, effective communication systems. Enhanced in-building radio coverage allows firefighters to remain on the network so that communications can be monitored and recorded throughout the emergency response for firefighter safety and accountability. While we can’t predict every future capability, it is vital to read reports and articles about emerging technology trends, and advocate for improvements in technology that promises vast improvements in operations and safety.
I am incredibly proud of my fire service team and remain personally committed to staying abreast of, helping to influence, guide, and effectively utilize new and improved technology in the execution of our important work. I encourage my colleagues and counterparts around the globe to do the same, and I support our industry and standards partners who continue development efforts in the interest of life safety.