Guest column

When it comes to emergency preparation, Houston buildings need to focus on communication and compliance, says this expert

Houston buildings — old and new — need to think about their emergency communication compliance. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

Like most of us, I remember where I was when I learned that terrorists had crashed hijacked planes into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

In addition to the high cost of civilian life, 412 firefighters, EMTs and police officers lost their lives — many the result of not receiving an order to evacuate. Many just did not get the order because the existing first responder radio system and private cellular services were too jammed with calls as a result of the emergency and as a result of damage to the buildings. We also saw the same lack of decent communications with law enforcement in the Mandalay Bay mass shooting in Las Vegas.

The lessons of the Twin Towers were not lost on the city of Houston and Harris County which require all new buildings to have a specially designed emergency responder radio system, or ERRS, installed which passes a rigorous testing procedure. Buildings over three stories, without a basement or over 50,000 square feet are not exempt but do not have to submit plans to the city. If the system is not designed properly, The city and county will not issue a certificate of occupancy. Repeated violations of an order to install an ERRS can result not only in fines and city tickets, but also in a referral to the district attorney's office to consider whether a felony level crime has occurred. It is not a trivial building code provision obviously.

Unfortunately, this ordinance is either not known or is not known well yet. I serve as the chairman of the Houston Tower Commission, am a former Houston council member and chairman of the Regulatory Affairs Committee, an attorney for almost 28 years, a law professor in legislation, and the owner of a professional design/build company involved in wireless electrical engineering and installation.

While I can't issue a formal advisory opinion on behalf of the city, on an industry level this is what businesses and commercial builders need to know:

  • Every building is different, and the systems are not off the shelf or cheap.
  • The publicly broadcast FirstNet signal, if being received throughout your building, does not exempt a building owner from compliance.
  • Compliance is not entirely based on the equipment installed, but primarily on results. Each floor of a covered building is divided in to 20 grids and each grid is tested to see if the signal strength is 95 dBm. If more than two consecutive grids fail, then the floor is divided into 40 grids and if four consecutive grids fail, the system must be redesigned.
  • The systems must be designed by an engineer utilizing iBwave software that should be submitted with your permit package. Again, these are not off the shelf products.
  • Because the systems are designed to work when a building is on fire, most cabling must be done with a fire resistant conduit, fiber or even fireproof antennas in certain jurisdictions.
  • Existing buildings are not required by code to install an ERRS unless they undergo a major renovation. However, a building owner can install one of the systems voluntarily.

It is the nature of the evolving world of wireless technology that our "smart buildings" of the future will be required to install technology of all sorts that allows for modern communications. Certain cities are already requiring new buildings to also install private wireless systems that allow you to use your private cell phone throughout your building. The correlation is clearly with sprinkler systems, the requirement for which is found in the same section of the fire code which requires an ERRS. Sprinkler systems were invented in 1872 but were not required by code until the 1960s. Amazingly, there are many cities that have not modernized their codes to require an ERRS in new buildings, including Dallas.

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Rob Todd is the founder of Amplified Solutions and chair of the Tower Permit Commission for the city of Houston.

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Building Houston

 
 

As of this week, Lara Cottingham is the chief of staff at Greentown Labs. Photo via LinkedIn

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

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