September 11th – The Challenges of Emergency Communications in High-Rise Buildings

Yossi Segal  |

The design and construction of skyscrapers emerged in the 19th century with the purpose of maximizing building area in the smallest lot area. Two new developments have paved the way for this new type of construction: a safe elevator, and construction from steel. In old-style buildings such as the New York Empire State Building, most of the buildings were constructed of reinforced concrete, including the elevator and stair shafts. In the new skyscrapers, the elevators, stair shaft, utility shafts etc. are placed in a "core area," which is mostly found in the center of the building. Today, high rise buildings are required to have emergency responder's radio coverage throughout the building. This requires that a system be installed in the building that ensures fair radio communications between emergency responders. With most stair shafts located in the building's central "core area," which is "wrapped" by the building itself, and is constructed by concrete walls, most stair shafts themselves become an obstacle to almost any means of communications, and are an extreme N-LOS (non – line of sight) area for most communications modes – including radio. In fact, if there is one construction component of a high rise building that firefighters don't know enough of, it is stair shaft systems.

With skyscrapers dominating most of today's major cities' skylines, one of the main concerns remains; What happens in emergency or disaster events when the evacuation of thousands of people from a single or multiple high rising buildings is at stake, and no reliable communication system is in sight? Even when all communications systems are in place and working, can they communicate through concrete and
N-LOS stair shafts?

Radio Problems Hindered Rescue Efforts of the Heroes on 9/11

This is one of the main reasons for lacking communications during the 9/11 disasters. Radio problems prevented from many of the firefighters to adequately communicate with each other within the building, not to mention receive and transmit information to and from local headquarters located not far from the buildings. Not only was it impossible to communicate efficiently between dispatch groups within different sectors of the same stair shaft, it was impossible to communicate with between dispatched groups from within the same force (fire department), not to mention between different forces: fire, police, EMS etc. to work together as a unified entity.

Is there a technology that can sustain such a vital line of communications? The answer is that yes, there is.

The first step to overcoming such a challenging communications environment is by creating a private wireless communications network that will deliver communications regardless of any existing or non-existing communications infrastructure. The second step is to assure that a no single point of failure communications network is in place. One of the leading communications technologies that provide both of the above mentioned points would be a 4G MESH-based wireless private network. With the right products and solutions, such a network can deliver much more than just radio voice communication but also HD video, data and VoIP.

However, a regular MESH topology will not necessarily suffice for such a highly obstructive communications environment. For such surroundings, a Collaborative MESH topology is required. A Collaborative MESH, also known as Collaborative Relay,is applicable here, and will amplify all communication transfer and reception from any multipoint-to-multipoint, thus further reinforcing and assuring a strong and stable network. A third step is to ensure that your collaborative relay topology is operable on-the-move by all relevant parties: fire department and police personnel, EMC vehicles, fire vehicles, police cars, helicopters and any additional force that is on the move.

This network architecture and topology enables all dispatch and emergency units to receive and share video, data and VoIP as well as fully communicate with local HQ in broadcast, multi-cast and unicast mode and ultimately operate as a unified entity. Furthermore, local HQ can now obtain information from multiple onsite sources and obtain better perspective and grasp of the situation and be in a superior position to make life saving decisions.

9/11 has changed the face of the earth and how we think. Such technology was not available back then (and who would have thought that such challenges would be a major concern?). But with high rising building constantly changing our skyline and with advanced technologies available today, reliable communications in building shafts is no longer impossible!

Of course, no article about 9/11 can be complete without acknowledging the heroes who selflessly gave their lives to save others. We remember them on this anniversary of the terrible attacks.


Yossi Segal is the Co-Founder& VP of Research and Development for Mobilicom

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not represent the views of Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to:



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