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Fire Code Changes: Does It Affect My Building?

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Bi-Directional Amplifiers and Changes to the NFPA Code

Late in 2016, a new fire code change under the NFPA was adopted that is leaving developers and Florida contractors scrambling to learn more. It involves incorporating a Two-Way Radio Communication Enhancement Public Safety Signal Booster System, otherwise known as a bi-directional amplifier (BDA), into a structure, which amplifies and rebroadcasts a wireless signal throughout your building. Why is this important? If you’ve ever been in a building that has a dead zone for cell signal, WiFi or radio, you know how frustrating the experience can be.

Now imagine being a Miami Fire-Rescue firefighter, police officer or another emergency responder in that dead zone. You’re dealing with a life or death emergency and can’t communicate to understand the overall situation or receive instructions. You could be walking into a fatal situation because you don’t know where the danger is located. In these situations, a BDA saves lives, much like a smoke detector or sprinkler system. But how does a BDA system work? Does it have aspects beyond the safety issue that can be sold as benefits to new occupants? Here are some basics to get started.

What Is It And How Does It Impact My Building?

A BDA takes a signal from either inside or outside of the building, amplifies it and rebroadcasts it to other radios, phones or devices. If you’re in a dead spot in the building, you’ll be able to communicate in that area with both incoming and outgoing signals. The new code will require buildings to be verified as in compliance by 2022, with apartment buildings receiving an extension until 2025. Microhotels will fall under a new set of rules creating 20×20 grids to check for full service.

If your building has radio, WiFi or cell signal dead zones, it will require a BDA system to rectify these problem areas. Because of the importance of communications in emergency response, these systems will require ongoing monitoring and annual testing, in addition to maintenance as needed. The system itself will require adherence to specific portions of the code, including a system adaptable to the 700/800 MHz p25 band, enclosure marking and other areas required by code.

Will the Fire Code Changes Create A Delay Or Increase Costs In My New Construction?

If you’re building a new structure, you’ll need to add a Distributed Antenna System (DAS) as part of your basic building design to avoid the high cost of a retrofit system later. Not only does it help you meet the BDA requirements, it can also provide you with options for cellular DAS, allowing your occupants to use their phones, tablets or other wireless devices to connect to the service provider.

In addition, though adding a BDA system into your new construction will increase the costs, it will be significantly lower than having to retrofit your structure later on. Currently, cost can be as high as $1.50 per square foot in high-rise structures that have significant signal degradation due to structural steel, reinforced concrete and impact storm windows.

Can’t I Just Retrofit It By 2022?

Not necessarily. If you’ve already received a Certificate of Occupancy, you can potentially retrofit the structure by 2022 for commercial buildings or 2025 if it’s an apartment building, but if you haven’t, a CO will not be issued until you meet the new requirements. Recently, a well-known hotel chain in Doral, which hadn’t yet received their CO, saw a project delay of four months with a retrofit installation of $130,000 because the developer had not included a BDA in their planning and design process.

However, there are other issues you may want to take into consideration at the same time, allowing you to consider the system as a benefit rather than a necessity by boosting occupants’ cell and data signals. As an example, St. Petersburg’s The Hermitage, an apartment complex with amazing amenities, is now investing $350,000 into its buildings to improve their BDA and DAS options as the cell service was so awful that they were not able to sell a single unit due to this issue.

Retrofitting is also a significant expense. It can cost up to two-thirds more than installing the system in a new construction building, at up to $2.50 per square foot. It involves significant design issues and has stringent requirements, including 3″ isolation from other systems and must be housed to run from the exterior antenna to the DAS inside the building. In many structures, these requirements can make retrofitting the system difficult at best. Once the space is found to run the cabling, the radio and antenna booster system will need to be designed.

How Do I Know If My Building Needs A BDA System?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question isn’t as simple as making a cell phone call and asking, “Can you hear me now?” while walking around the building. The code requires that the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) in the area, such as Palm Beach Codes Enforcement, determine whether the building will need a BDA system or not. Because the new code has not been well publicized and studied, it can be difficult figuring out whether your structure will need a system in place prior to occupancy.

Fort-Lauderdale-based GSD Contracting is one of the few south Florida commercial contractors experienced enough with the technical aspects of this new code. As your trusted design partner, advisor and contractor for your new construction or retrofit project, we’ll help keep your costs down and delays at a minimum. We are partnering with several BDA and DAS manufacturers, creating competition in the market to drive prices down to a more affordable level. We’re working to create designs that meet AHJ and code requirements for new and retrofit structures without delaying the project any more than necessary.

Including BDA and DAS as part of your building design is necessary to meet the new fire code changes and prevent expensive retrofits in the future. If you need help determining what course of action to take with your structure and DAS, please feel free to contact the experts at GSD Contracting today to schedule a consultation. We’d be happy to help you come up with a solution for your building. With over 35 years in the industry, our focus is on delivering the best solution for your project with exceptional results.

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