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

 
 

Only time will tell, but this expert believes the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 will be a boon to energy tech startups in Texas. Photo via Getty Images

The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 includes $369 billion in investment in climate and energy policies, the largest investment in United States history to address climate change. The IRA could be a boon to Texas startups involved in clean energy, clean manufacturing and clean innovation.

Government policy and funding are critical to supporting the research and development for new technologies, which solve complex challenges and require significant upfront and long-term commitments of investment. Early government investment gives private investors more incentive to invest in the later commercialization and scaling of these businesses, and has a multiplier effect in accelerating the development, commercialization, and deployment of new technologies in the time needed in the market to capitalize on energy business opportunities and achieve climate goals.

The IRA’s biggest impact on climate tech businesses is through tax credits and direct investment. The IRA’s expanded tax credits will make it easier to fund and build projects, help reduce cost of construction, and help make renewable energy projects more competitive, encourage more funding and building of new projects, and bring new jobs and economic development. The IRA’s direct investments allow for companies developing new technologies to obtain grants and loans that help them develop their solutions while not diluting their investors, helping them build more value in their businesses and making them more attractive for later investment.

Texas is well positioned to be an energy transition and clean energy leader and beneficiary of the IRA. The state is home to major energy companies, and their technical expertise, know-how and experience in energy, and energy technology is unparalleled. There is huge momentum in innovation in energy transition and energy tech, and there is great research coming out of university and corporate R&D programs. For example, Texas is home to more than 20 energy-focused research and development centers and dozens of energy tech companies. And Texas is already the largest producer of wind power in the U.S.

Texas startups across industries were already attracting massive investment before the IRA became law. According to Pitchbook and the National Venture Capital Association, Texas startups overall raised a record-high $10.55 billion in venture capital in 2021, an increase of 123 percent from 2020’s $4.73 billion.

Early-stage investment in climate tech hit a record $53.7 billion in 2021. While the totals this year aren’t likely to reach 2021 levels, climate tech investors have said they aren’t seeing the size of pullbacks and slowdowns in other sectors. Despite the VC slowdown this year, clean tech and climate tech have remained attractive investments. This includes Texas. For example, the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator reported in August that 17 of its early- to mid-stage startups have already raised more than $54.5 million this year. Also in August, geothermal startup Fervo Energy, based in Houston, raised $138 million in new VC funding. Earlier in February, Houston’s Zeta Energy, which has developed a battery for the electric vehicle and energy storage markets, closed a $23 million financing round. We expect continued funding in this space.

Large corporates in Texas are building external innovation programs such as venture arms and accelerators. For instance, Houston’s Halliburton Company developed Halliburton Labs, an accelerator that has backed a number of startups in the carbon capture, clean hydrogen, and solar energy tech developers. Big energy companies are also joining Texas-based accelerator hubs such as The Ion in Houston. The Ion’s founding partners include Aramco Americas, Chevron Technology Ventures, and ExxonMobil.

It will require long term efforts to achieve results in climate tech and clean energy projects, but as the benefits of the IRA materialize, more startups in Texas will have the ability to obtain more long-term financial support and resources from all of the sources – government, universities, and research organizations, venture investors and corporations — that are required to develop solutions to the energy and climate challenges and capitalize on the business opportunities of today and tomorrow. Startups are creating transformative innovations that are key to the United States being a leader in clean energy and fighting climate change. And there’s no better place to do that than in Texas.

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Michael Torosian is a partner in the corporate practice in the San Francisco office of Baker Botts. He is outside general counsel to emerging companies and their investors and advisors at all stages.

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