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Limited Radio Communication Leads to Increased Risk

Inadequate In-Building Radio Coverage Endangers Students

On May 24, 2022, a horrific tragedy unfolded in Uvalde, Texas, when a lone gunman entered Robb Elementary School, killing 19 students and two teachers. 

In the aftermath of the incident, the local police force has come under intense scrutiny as officials work to determine what happened that day and what went wrong. 

The Three Pillars of Public Safety

According to Safer Buildings Coalition, the three pillars of public safety are:

  1. Mobile 9-1-1 Calls and Texts Must Get Out with Location Accuracy
  2. Mobile Mass Notifications Must Reach Building Occupants
  3. First Responder Communications Must Work

In this post, we’re going to examine the ramifications of pillar three – First Responder Communications.

From the start, it’s been clear that one of the day’s biggest failings was that the responding officers had little to no communication with each other. Officers inside the building could not communicate with the team outside or with officers stationed in other parts of the building. 

Officers were stationed inside the building for an hour with no communication from the command station outside or with each other and it ultimately took 71 minutes before the first victim received any medical treatment.

Poor In-Building Coverage Is A Public Safety Crisis

While no one was expecting what happened at Robb Elementary School, it’s no secret that school shootings are an all-too-common occurrence in the United States. As such, it’s clear that there was a certain lack of preparedness on the part of both school officials and the responding police officers. 

Robb Elementary school – like many schools, shopping centers, etc – is constructed with thick walls and a metal roof. While this certainly protects from the elements, it’s clear now that it made radio communication within the building incredibly difficult, an issue that was exacerbated by the sheer volume of radios in the vicinity at the time. 

The radios of Uvalde officers did not work at all, and they had to step at least 10 feet away from the building to get a signal. Meanwhile, some Border Patrol agents reported that their radios did work, although with varying degrees of success and not in all cases.

What Could Have Been Done Differently?

It’s impossible to say if the incident could have been entirely prevented. After all, there are so many safety, security, and interpersonal factors that come into play. However, it’s likely that a more robust communications system could have dramatically decreased the loss of life. 

For over an hour officers stationed inside the building waited for direction while children barricaded inside the room with the shooter called 9-1-1 for help. The officers inside were unable to receive critical information about the location and status of the victims and the shooter because the dispatchers and outside command center could not reach them.

In addition to taking steps to communicate and plan for crises, there could have been infrastructure improvements that would have allowed communication to flow seamlessly between responding officers and the command stations.

Two-way radio communications are undoubtedly one of the most reliable methods of communication in an emergency situation but on May 24 were rendered ineffective due to the construction of the building and the volume of activity. 

Since 2009, the International Fire and and Building Codes have dictated that all public buildings must be assessed for inadequate public safety radio coverage, and where shortcomings are found must be remediated. Theoretically, had the proper assessments taken place, the fact that radios would not work as needed or expected should not have come as a surprise to the school district or responding officers and an alternative plan could have been put into place. 

The Role of Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS)

Although the Codes do not lay out specific steps for remediation, they do discuss Emergency Responder Radio Coverage Systems (ERRCS). More importantly, remediation of the issue would have rendered communication issues a non-factor. 

Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) enhance cellular and radio coverage throughout an entire building. DAS system components (like BDA’s, HEU’s, and Indoor and Outdoor Antennas) become vital parts of your schools’ overall communications infrastructure, ensuring your analog, digital, and smart radios can broadcast and receive clear and concise signals no matter the situation that necessitates their use.

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