The Role of Bidirectional Amplifier Systems in Fire Safety

Posted on: July 14, 2017

New codes in Broward County may require you to boost the signal

Bidirectional amplifier (BDA) systems, aka “signal boosters,” have been used in the cellular industry for a number of years to promote reception in places like the lower floors of tall buildings, stadiums, basements, and tunnels. And the public safety industry has been using these systems even longer. But it’s only been since April 15th of this year that Broward County enacted building codes mandating the installation of BDAs to ensure that public safety officials can communicate effectively in all areas of a building during an emergency. And while Broward is at the vanguard of BDA regulation, other municipalities in Florida are sure to follow. Here’s what you need to know to make sure your building is protected and up to code.

How do bidirectional amplifier systems work?

Bidirectional amplifier systems feature an antenna on the roof of a building that is connected to an amplifier that drives a signal to antennae strategically placed throughout the structure. This set up allows for uniform signal coverage, especially in larger buildings where there are key areas at which radio signals may be blocked.

What are the details of the new Broward County building codes surrounding BDAs?

Broward County’s new building code went into effect on April 15, 2016. It requires fire inspectors to check if public safety radios work in critical parts of buildings such as stairways, in front of fire alarm panels, near elevators, and along routes of evacuation. If these radios do not get signal in these essential areas, the fire inspector will issue the building owner a code violation and mandate the installation of a working BDA.

Details in the Broward County code

Below are some of Broward’s specific guidelines on bidirectional amplifier systems:

  • All BDA systems must be properly permitted and inspected.
  • All systems must be installed by a qualified vendor.
  • An engineer is required to sign off on all BDA plans prior to installation.
  • • The BDA must be tied into the fire department panel, so if something goes wrong with the system it sends a signal to the monitoring company.
  • Building owners need a maintenance agreement in place with a reputable vendor who can fix any of these reported problems within 48 hours.

What about other areas in Florida?

Across the State of Florida, building codes are extremely disorganized and fragmented. Neighboring Miami-Dade County, for example, does not have a similar code to the one recently enacted in Broward, and the 35 municipalities in Florida have a hodge-podge of directives, guidelines, and codes in place. In some cases, enforcement may be as arbitrary as a fire inspector identifying something as a problem, even if it’s not necessarily documented as a building code.

While NFPA 72 does issue guidelines related to bidirectional amplifier systems, these are not backed by the enforcement of law. And the State of Florida has only adopted NFPA 2010, which has some language on BDAs, but not does not go into nearly as much detail as NFPA 2015.

While the government may be slow to adopt and codify these guidelines, stricter legal requirements related to BDAs may be coming statewide, and certainly within more and more individual municipalities. Thus, building owners should do what they can to stay ahead of this legal evolution and make sure they are prepared.

How costly and complex are most BDA installations?

BDA installations can range in complexity, depending on a variety of factors. Each site must be surveyed by an engineer to determine if there are any communications failures. Once these issues are identified, a system must be designed and installed to overcome them.

Because of the complexity of some installations, it’s important to work with a contractor with significant experience installing a wide range of BDA solutions. Some buildings may have no or only a few dead spots, if they happen to be positioned closely to a public safety radio tower, for example. But larger buildings that are positioned farther from the towers will likely have a number of problem areas requiring amplification.

According to Broward’s new code, critical areas in a building must have 99 percent radio coverage, whereas everywhere else must meet a standard of 90 percent. Installing a new BDA to achieve these levels may be relatively straightforward in modern structures that were built with conduits and logical cable runs already installed, but older buildings will present more challenges and cost for these installations.

Costs may run over a million dollars in more complex cases, and take four to five months for both the permitting and installation processes. If you’re a building owner or developer, the sooner you address this issue, the easier the process may be, especially for new structures that are pending construction.

Is your building properly protected with a bidirectional amplifier system?

If you’re in Broward County and own a building that is not properly outfitted with a bidirectional amplifier system, you could have both a safety and a legal issue. For more information about recently issued code requirements, or to talk with Life Safety Management about seeing if you are in compliance or designing and installing a BDA in your facility, give us a call today at (800) 330-1158, or reach us through our online contact form.