Increasing Parking Garage Safety with Good Cell Signals

In 2016, there were more than 23,000 violent crimes committed against victims in parking garages and lots according to the FBI Crime Database. The thousands of slips and falls that occur each year in parking garages are another serious concern for parking garage owners.

While good lighting and maintenance, visible security cameras and emergency phones are all essential safety measures to reduce these incidences, a victim may not be able to get to the emergency phone to call for help.

According to the FCC, 70 percent of all 911 calls are made from a cell phone, but cell phones are useless when the user can’t get a signal and parking garages are notorious for poor cellular reception. This is because the concrete and below ground-level construction common for parking garages block cellular signals from penetrating into the facility. Buildings or terrain around the garage, the location of towers, and congestion from so many users in the surrounding area also block the signal.

However, there are now technologies available with various price points, installation time, maintenance requirements, and quality of service that can bring cellular signal inside any parking garage and amplify it throughout the facility to resolve this safety issue.

Available technology

Each wireless carrier broadcasts its own cellular signal from large outdoor cell towers (called macro cell towers). For subscribers to get good cell phone reception in a parking garage, it is often necessary to amplify each signal independently throughout the garage.

Most people in the United States subscribe to Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T or Sprint, and most of the smaller brand carriers use these networks to deliver service, so ideally a garage should have good coverage for these four major carriers by utilizing one of these technologies:

Passive Distributed Antenna System (DAS) and Signal Boosters (or Repeaters)
There are many different options when choosing a passive DAS solution. A passive DAS takes a signal source, from either a BTS (base transceiver station), a small cell, or a signal booster (repeater) and distributes the signal across the desired area using a series of antennas. Depending on the technology behind the solution chosen, the signal may be transmitted from the donor source to the antennas wirelessly, over coax cable (thick and costly to install), or over ethernet cable (easier and less expensive to install).

Each of the wide variety of passive DAS solutions have their own coverage footprints and distribution methodologies. There are a couple of very important power metrics that help determine performance. One is uplink and downlink power. This number determines how much strength a given system has in providing a coverage footprint and reaching a distant cell tower.

There are a variety of FCC certification categories here, too, from consumer grade to industrial grade. Consumer-grade solutions are very convenient because they can be installed by a qualified individual or company, without the need for contracts or other agreements that can create lengthy delays.
Gain is another power measurement that determines system performance. A system’s gain rating indicates how much a donor signal can be amplified. In a poor coverage situation, a donor signal may be quite weak, and so a strong gain value helps improve the signal so it can be distributed effectively where coverage is needed. Lower gain systems are cheaper, but often struggle to provide great coverage in areas with poor donor signals.

Small Cells
A small cell is like a mini tower that (using a dedicated Internet connection) brings cellular signal directly to the facility so it does not need to depend upon the signal from the macro cell tower.

Donor antennas are not needed when a small cell is used, but there can be other associated costs, such as installing expensive fiber linking the small cell to the macro network, or to a dedicated data connection. Multiple small cells can be challenging to install. Beyond the costs, if multiple small cells are installed within a facility, they can cause interference between the signals of the systems, resulting in poor reception. There can also be black holes where there is no coverage due to obstacles like stairwells, elevator shafts or internal walls blocking the signal from the small cell to the perimeter of the structure.

Active DAS
An active DAS is a high-performance solution that is very expensive, is best for facilities a million square feet or more, and can take as long as 18 months to install. Active DAS is great for densely populated areas, like airports, while a parking garage is low-density. Active DAS solutions are an overkill for most parking garages in the United States that average 145,000 square feet, according to FIXR.

Active DAS Hybrid
There is now an active DAS hybrid available that delivers the performance of an active DAS, designed for facilities up to 500,000 square feet with a flexible configuration and price point for virtually any parking garage. It can use a donor antenna or a small cell for the signal source; the remote units broadcasting the signal inside the parking garage are intelligent and can be positioned at the best locations so internal construction obstacles do not block the signal, and distribute the most powerful cell signal allowed by the FCC; and it can add passive DAS antennas for a more cost- effective solution.

Because one size does not fit all, it is recommended that a parking garage owner engage a system integrator to provide the best cellular coverage solution for their unique facility. Below are examples describing installations of two active DAS hybrid.

Fountain Place Subterranean Parking Garage
Fountain Place is an architectural landmark in Dallas owned by Goddard Investment Group. It is a 58-story concrete and steel building with a three-floor, 400,000 square foot parking garage with 850 spaces. Because the parking garage is subterranean, cellular signals cannot penetrate through the gravel and dirt. As a result, tenants were not able to continue, initiate, or receive calls beyond the garage’s periphery.

“Tenants wanted to talk on their cell phones in the garage, but their signals were so poor they couldn’t,” explains Benjamin Mullenix, an asset manager at Goddard Investment Group.

Initially Mullenix decided to go with a traditional active DAS solution. However, after three years, the system was still not complete, and would only provide coverage for two carriers, so he engaged Wytec International, a wireless integrator based in San Antonio, Texas, to provide an alternative solution.

“We recommended Cel-Fi QUATRA, an active DAS hybrid, because it offers all the benefits of an active DAS and saved them more than half of what they were going to spend,” says Bob Merola, Chief Technology Officer at Wytec. “And we increased to coverage for four carriers rather than the two planned.”

The entire project took 61 days to complete, from signing the agreement to complete installation. All three levels of the below-ground parking garage at Fountain Place now receive reliable, high-quality cellular signal. Mullenix says, “It went from not being able to hold a phone call to being able to make a phone call. We went from having nothing to having a signal.”

Public Safety in Korea Town Parking Garage
A new four-story building in Korea Town, Los Angeles needed to comply with National Fire Protection Association regulations for emergency responder radio coverage. To bring the public safety frequencies inside the building and to the two parking garage floors below ground level, the building owners engaged Pacific Services, a public safety and system integrator based in San Clemente, California. Pacific Services recommended also testing cellular coverage while testing the emergency responder frequencies.

“When tenants are in the parking garage at night, even though there are cameras in the garage, having a cellular phone connection makes the garage much safer for them in an emergency,” says Gary Greening, vice president of operations at Pacific Services. “After surveying the garage and finding no cellular coverage down there at all, we went ahead and surveyed the rest of the floors of the building. There was basically spotty coverage everywhere.”

In the parking garage, the thick solid concrete walls and underground location blocked any macro cellular signal. The building itself is in a pocket of other high rises that blocked the macro signal, so Pacific Services recommended installing Cel-Fi QUATRA with small cells as the signal source. The installation took two days to complete once the small cells were installed. The public safety system was installed at the same time.

“The best part is the customer and the tenants now have peace of mind, and the reality is this solution might save a life,” Greening adds. “The active DAS hybrid is one of our leading solutions in venues under 500,000 square feet, and it’s been very successful. We have been able to install it for 50 to 60 percent less than the cost of other proposals the clients received.”

 

A version of this article was originally published by Parking Today Media 

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