Part I of II - Crisis in Plain Site: Robb Elementary Shooting Reveals that In-Building Public Safety Radio Coverage was "Mostly Ineffective"  

"Upon entering the building, the officers tried but were unable to communicate on their radios."

Law enforcement personnel work at the scene of a mass shooting in Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, May 25, 2022. (Nuri Vallbona/Reuters)

By John Foley, SBC Managing Director

Posted on July 28, 2022

We of the Safer Buildings Coalition mourn with the Uvalde community the tragic loss of life resulting from the assault on Robb Elementary School on May 25th. While it is the role of many to find every solution that could make our schools safer, it is the role of the SBC to examine whether public safety communications may have been a factor in such an incident, and how we might work to improve  such problems wherever possible.

The Interim report of the Investigative Committee on the Robb Elementary Shooting of the Texas House of Representatives found that Robb Elementary “did not adequately prepare for the risk of an armed intruder on campus.” “Upon entering the building, the officers tried but were unable to communicate on their radios.”

In today’s world, it’s simply unacceptable to have people inside buildings unable to communicate with each other during an emergency.

In Part I of a two-part series, Safer Buildings Coalition examines a crucial element of this tragedy: Poor in-building public safety coverage. 

In Part II, next month, the Safer Buildings Coalition will examine:

  • How common is the problem? Actual school in-building testing data
  • Solutions
  • Success Stories
  • Grants and Funding
  • What other verticals need to be prioritized? (i.e. Higher Ed, Malls, Healthcare, more...)
  • Next Steps and Call to Action  

Some key outtakes from the Texas House of Representatives report: Uvalde Robb Shooting Report - Download HERE

  • “Responders needed other lines of communication to communicate important information like the victims’ phone calls from inside the classrooms.”
  • Upon entering the building, the officers tried but were unable to communicate on their radios.”
  • An effective incident commander located away from the drama unfolding inside the building would have realized that radios were mostly ineffective, and that responders needed other lines of communication to communicate important information like the victims’ phone calls from inside the classrooms.
  • Uvalde CISD police officers commonly carried two radios: one for the school district, and another “police radio” which transmitted communications from various local law enforcement agencies. While the school district radios tended to work reliably, the police radios worked more intermittently depending on where they were used.
  • The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School incident in 2018 taught the importance of incident command structure for appropriate management of resources and that law enforcement responders must be prepared to use word-of-mouth communication when radio communications are overloaded.
  • On the subject of communicating effectively, the ALERRT course teaches that effective communication is necessary for successful teamwork. “Regional law enforcement agencies should continually train together to establish radio protocols for use during multi-agency active shooter response.” “Law Enforcement responders should be familiar with their regional communications plan but also be prepared to respond effectively without reliable radio communications.” “After giving a message, [law enforcement] responders should look for confirmation that the intended party received and understood the message.” “If radio communications are unreliable, it may be necessary to use runners to deliver messages.”
  • In part due to the difficulty of maintaining radio communications within the building, not everybody inside the building received all of this information.
  • And although it should not have proved necessary had responders remained focused on “stopping the killing” as soon as possible, as the incident dragged on, nobody tasked any law enforcement responder to establish reliable communications between the south and north sides of the building and with resources outside the building. Radio communication was ineffective, so something else was needed for decision makers to receive critical information, such as the fact that victims had called from inside the rooms with the attacker.

Other Observations from Press Reports:

  • Headline: Poor Police Radio Reception Caused Confusion in Texas School Shooting Response, Says OfficialWSJ, June 4
    • The police officers who waited more than an hour inside a school in which a mass shooter was barricaded were in a position that received only sporadic and unreliable radio communications, according to two officials with knowledge of the investigation and the system.
    • Forrest Anderson, an emergency-management employee for Uvalde County who oversaw installation of the local police radio system nearly 20 years ago, said the low-frequency radios that are best for the terrain in the area don’t work well in buildings with thick walls and metal roofs like Robb Elementary School, where the shooting took place. Furthermore, the more people try to use the radios at the same time, the less likely they are to work well, he said.
  • Headline: Multiple security failures contributed to Uvalde school mass shooting fatalities NBC News, June 21
    • The portable radios used by Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police Chief Pete Arredondo — who initially didn’t even have his radio — other officers and Department of Public Safety personnel did not work inside the school building, and officers had to step 10 feet away from the school to receive signals, McCraw said, citing an investigation. Radios used by Border Patrol agents did work but poorly, he said.
  • Headline: Another Uvalde Police Flaw Outlined as Phones Worked While Radios Didn'tNewsweek, June 21
    • During a hearing in front of the Texas state Senate, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told senators that radios belonging to officers with the Uvalde Police Department and Uvalde Independent School District police, did not work inside the Robb Elementary School. According to McCraw some Border Patrol radios did work during the school shooting incident the school, but he noted that the Border Patrol officer's radios did also face issues. Phones did work in the school, as officials previously said that several students inside the classroom where the shooting occurred, were able to call 911 and ask officers for help.

Some Observations from SBC 

It is clear that poor in-building communications for public safety radios played a key part in hampering police capabilities. In-Building Communications are Critical to Public Safety, and to the Safety of the Public.

We frequently talk about the most valuable asset in an emergency: Time. The FCC estimates that a one-minute improvement in 9-1-1 response time would save 10,000 live per year. In the case of Uvalde, it took 71 precious minutes to begin treating the wounded. Callers must be quickly and accurately located.

While the area LMR system did not penetrate the building walls, cell communications (in some cases from trapped children) provided critical information about the situation and location of victims. Mobile Calls to 9-1-1 must work. Cell Communications are a public safety necessity.

"We no longer live in a tethered communications reality. We are fully in the tetherless, wireless world. It is time that public policy and public expectations align with that reality, and that buildings lacking adequate indoor wireless coverage be relegated to the ranks of buildings without running water." 

In-Building Public Safety Communications Coverage is required by Fire and Building Codes 

 It is clear that poor in-building coverage is a public safety crisis in plain sight. Since 2009, the International Fire Code has required that buildings be assessed for inadequate public safety radio coverage, and where poor coverage exists, it must be corrected.

These standards have been updated and strengthened in every code cycle since, found in NFPA 1, 72, 1221, 1225 and the International Fire and Building Codes.

While the codes do not prescribe a specific technology solution for poor in-building coverage, they  have quite a bit to say about the most common solution: Emergency Responder Communications Enhancement Systems (ERCES). When these systems are deployed, they must conform to all FCC rules and regulations, as well as fire and building codes and standards that describe the correct way to design, install, monitor and maintain them.

Clark County, NV, took action after One October Mandalay Bay Mass Shooting

October 1, 2017, a shooter opened fire on the crowd attending the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada. From a 32nd-floor suite in the Mandalay Bay hotel, the shooter fired more than 1,000 bullets, killing 60 people and wounding at least 413. The ensuing panic brought the total number of injured to approximately 867. Quoting the 1 October After Action Report: “As SWAT officers arrived and entered the property, their communications failed, and radios were rendered ineffective without a line of sight.” 

In response, the Clark County Fire Chief at that time, Chief Gregg Cassell, sent a letter to all Las Vegas high-rise hotels and casinos requiring that they undertake radio coverage assessments. As a result, many properties have already installed in-building signal booster systems that correct poor coverage.

School Systems Nationwide are Deploying In-Building Public Safety Coverage Enhancement Systems

Institutions of higher learning and K-12 school systems across the country have been very active in evaluating their buildings, and where deficiencies are found, systems are installed to make the buildings safer.

Some examples of school districts known to be deploying solutions: Harris County, TX, Knox County, TN, Orange County, FL, Hillsborough County, FL, Shawnee Mission School District, KS, Kipp Schools, TX, and many others. According to industry reports, thousands of such systems have been deployed.

In the State of Michigan, House Bill No. 5561 proposes to install such solutions in K-12 schools. 

"...there is no disputing that mass school shootings are another level of evil. Not only are schools more often the target of these mass shootings, but the young victims lose a lifetime of years, devastating families and communities for generations. We must prioritize solving for wireless dead zones inside schools immediately." 

Taking a Position: Buildings with poor wireless connectivity are unacceptable. Especially when they are schools. 

All buildings should be evaluated for adequate in-building communications coverage, and where “wireless dead zones” exist, they should be corrected. This is true not only for public safety push-to-talk radios, but also for cellular communications. 

We no longer live in a tethered communications reality. We are fully in the tetherless, wireless world. It is time that public policy and public expectations align with this reality, and buildings lacking adequate indoor wireless coverage should be relegated to the ranks of buildings without running water.

Building owners, building operators, public safety officials, radio system operators, and industry must work together to solve for one of the key areas where together we can truly make a difference.

Every life is precious. But there is no disputing that mass school shootings are another level of evil. Not only are schools more often the target of these mass shootings, but the young victims lose a lifetime of years, devastating families and communities for generations. We must prioritize solving for wireless dead zones inside schools immediately.     

The Three Pillars of Public Safety Communications remain:

  1. Mobile 9-1-1 Calls and Texts Must Get Out with Location Accuracy
  2. Mobile Mass Notifications Must Reach Building Occupants
  3. First Responder Communications Must Work

A Call to Action: WHAT DO YOU THINK? 

Have an idea or a comment on what should be done next? Are you aware of grant or funding opportunities? Tell us!

Contact Us Using the Subject Line: Comment on Uvalde 

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SBC Three Pillars