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.

Harris County welcomed more new out-of-state arrivals than any other county in Texas. Getty Images

In the late 1800s through the mid-1950s, New York City's Ellis Island — sitting in the Statue of Liberty's shadow — served as the entry point for millions of new arrivals to the U.S.

Houston doesn't have its own version of Ellis Island, but perhaps it deserves a symbolic one to commemorate the flood of new arrivals from other states.

In 2017, Harris County welcomed more new out-of-state arrivals (81,781) than any other county in Texas, according to a data analysis released December 9 by StorageCafé, a self-storage marketplace.

That influx stands to reason, since Harris County is the state's largest county as measured by population (more than 4 million and counting). Still, it's astounding that Harris County attracted almost as many new arrivals as the entire population of Conroe (87,654 in 2018).

StorageCafé based its analysis on data published last year by the U.S. Census Bureau. The analysis excludes new arrivals from other Texas counties and new arrivals from outside the U.S.

No other county in the Houston metro area appeared in StorageCafé's ranking of the top 10 Texas counties for new arrivals from out of state. That hardly discounts the fact that the entire metro area is witnessing substantial population growth, though.

The Houston area added nearly 1.08 million residents between 2010 and 2018, growing at a rate of 18.2 percent, according to Census Bureau figures cited by the Greater Houston Partnership. From 2017 to 2018 alone, the region's population jumped by 91,689 — the third largest increase in the country — to just shy of 7 million.

To be clear, more than 1 million people didn't pack up and move to the Houston area from 2010 to 2018. Rather, the region's population growth rate comprises arrivals and births stacked up against departures and deaths.

Although the StorageCafé analysis indicates a Texas-leading population spike, Bill Fulton, director of Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research, notes that Harris County has experienced an overall decline in population growth since 2015.

"This is not surprising given the drop in oil prices, which led to economic stagnation in Houston," Fulton tells CultureMap.

Fulton points out that Harris County's population gains don't match the combined growth of the Dallas-Fort Worth area's two biggest counties — Dallas and Tarrant. Dallas County has about 2.6 million residents, while Tarrant County (Fort Worth) has a little over 2 million. That's a total of about 4.6 million, compared with Harris County's nearly 4.7 million residents.

"Don't be deceived into thinking that because Harris County has a much greater population increase than any other county, that, therefore, metro Houston is growing a lot faster than DFW," Fulton says. "If you add the Dallas and Tarrant numbers together, it clearly shows that DFW is still attracting more [newcomers] than Houston."

"The bottom line is: For the past several years, DFW has been growing faster than Houston, and that growth has been driven by [more newcomers] from other states," Fulton adds.

Indeed, grabbing second place in the StorageCafé ranking was Dallas County, with 47,336 new out-of-state arrivals in 2017. And in the No. 3 spot, next-door Tarrant County picked up 44,181 new arrivals. That means Dallas and Tarrant counties drew more than 91,500 new out-of-state residents in 2017, beating the total for Harris County.

Two other DFW counties, Collin and Denton, ranked sixth and seventh, respectively, in StorageCafé's list of the top 10 Texas counties. Collin County saw 24,918 new out-of-state arrivals in 2017, with Denton County at 22,190.

All told, the four DFW counties in Texas' top 10 absorbed 138,625 new out-of-state residents in 2017. By comparison, 138,541 people lived in Denton in 2018, the Census Bureau says.

From 2010 to 2018, Dallas-Fort Worth added more residents — over 1.11 million, or a growth rate of 17.3 percent — than any other major metro area in the country, according to the Census Bureau. In terms of the sheer number of new residents, DFW eclipsed Houston during that period, but Houston held a slight edge for percentage growth.

Bexar County, which anchors the San Antonio metro area, claimed the No. 4 spot in the StorageCafé ranking, attracting 41,062 out-of-state newcomers in 2017.

Just behind it, at No. 5, was Travis County, which anchors the Austin metro area. The StorageCafé data shows 33,939 people relocated to Travis County from out of state in 2017. Rounding out the top 10 was Williamson County (suburban Austin), with 15,712 out-of-state newcomers.

Combined, Travis and Williamson counties gained close to 50,000 out-of-staters in 2017. By comparison, Pflugerville was home to 59,245 residents in 2018, according to the Census Bureau.

Others in the top 10 were El Paso County at No. 8 and Bell County (home of Killeen and Temple) at No. 9.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.