Mass notification systems have been around, in a sense, for a long time. If you have a simple pull fire alarm system, where a trigger can be activated that sends a warning throughout a building or campus, then you have a basic mass notification system. Essentially, the system works to inform a large group of an impending or current safety issue in a timely manner.
Mass notification systems, as most technologies, have evolved over the years to incorporate so much more than what their fire alarm ancestors were capable of. And it couldn’t have happened at a better time. Too often we hear about tragedies across the country where mass notification was or could have been utilized. The most obvious example comes from active shooter incidents, often across college campuses but also in office buildings, movie theaters, and so on. On top of that, chemical spills, natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes, and still fires are all situations where mass notification systems can come in handy.
There is so much available in mass notification nowadays. Multiple trigger systems, similar to fire alarm systems, have been created for different emergencies such as chemical spills. Systems can be set to notify first responders in case of emergency to speed up the reactionary process. And increasingly mobile devices have been incorporated into mass notification. Software exists that can even send personalized instructions to employees based on their duties within the company and the area of the building they are in.
When installing these systems there are certain qualifications that must be met, and once these systems are in place there are tests and evaluations that must be conducted regularly. Our document will explain some of the different types of systems you can install in your building, and how to keep up with them to ensure they are useful in case of an emergency. As UNC Chancellor Carol Folt said after a delayed response in the school’s mass notification system during a crisis, “Even if we’re successful 99 times out of 100, that extra one is really important.”
When it comes to Mass Notification Systems (MNS), it has been said, “What you do in the first 60 seconds of a crisis will have more impact on the outcome than the first response of any municipal agency.” While this may be the goal that many MNS programs attempt to reach, the truth is that too often these timely goals are not met when implemented.
The science of Mass Notification actually evolved from the Fire Alarm Systems technology. Making sure all personnel were evacuated from a burning building was top priority and the notification part of these systems had to meet industry standards such as NFPA 72. With the advent of the 9/11 attack and other similar recent terrorist emergencies, MNS now have higher expectations and demands.
A good example of the shortcoming of Mass Notification Systems is the recent incident at the University of North Carolina. On the night of July 22nd two armed robberies occurred which forced administrators to sound the campus emergency alert system. The message was to alert students and staff to stay inside campus buildings. The intent was for the alarm to go out via emails, text messages and social media postings. The problem was that the messages did not arrive until 40 minutes after the initial alarm.
What went wrong? Some comments on Facebook postings hinted that the email and text message advisories were slow. UNC Chancellor Carol Folt stated a “complete unacceptable” failure of the system, and further commented “Even if we’re successful 99 times out of 100, that extra one is really important.” The MNS incident is currently under review by the university. The sad thing is MNS performance failure is more common than many would like to admit.
Staff need to not only create great emergency plans with defined objectives, but should also have a proven command and mobility technology platform in place for the easy distribution of these emergency measures. Remember, 79% of companies said their staff needs access to emergency information. On the other hand, 77% of organizations depend on antiquated binders to hold their emergency plans. There is much work to be done in updating old tech emergency plans.
Test and Evaluate Annually
As we have seen in the UNC robbery event, planning and implement- ing an MNS event can have dramatic consequences. This is why it is paramount that facilities, organizations and first responders designate at least one day each year for all participants to take part in refresh training and a test exercises. One of the important areas of today’s MNS is how well all elements work seamlessly. An MNS within a facility communicate with local first responders and they in turn often communicate with government organizations.
The US in 2012 set aside 20 megahertz of commercial spectrum and 7 billion dollars of funding for the creation of FirstNet, a secure dedicated broadband service for public service workers across America. So far only a few police departments across America have implemented the FirstNet system. One is the Texas Department of Public Safety, Region II Headquarters, Harris Count Sheriffs Office Texas which includes the city of Houston — the 3rd largest police force in America. One of five police departments in the country using a secure broadband network, deploy- ing this new technology in their instant command center.
Software called Mutualink has features that can take a snap shot with smartphone, add notations, and share data in real time with any police department across America. The system has the capability to pull video from remote IP cameras on a 64 inch touch screen.
This software was recently used in the Boston bombing. The Mutualink system is currently in use at Knoxville, TN schools and University of Tennessee Police Department, and Texas A&M University and Harris County Sheriff’s Office.
Ongoing MNS training is vital. Showing staff that could be involved in a dangerous active shooter scenario what to do can go a long way in saving lives.
Mass Notification Can Be So Much More
While Mass Notification System’s primary design might be for that occasional active shooter or chemical spill scenario, there are many features that can be used in every day non-emergency operations. This could include intra- and inter-plant communications, such as public address and intercom systems. Using parts of the MNS for daily activity allows personnel to become familiar with operations, thereby providing more effi- cient performance when a MNS emergency does occur. Additionally, daily use of non-emergency MNS functions helps in justifying system costs.
Bad weather alerts can be an important role for MNS. Tornadoes account for 1500+ injuries, and lighting for 300+ injuries. High-powered outdoor sirens such as Federal Signal’s New 508 can be effective warning systems. The 508 system provides maximum coverage with unidirectional rotating pattern of 128 dB at 500 Hz.
We are all familiar with the red fire alarm pull station on the wall. This image has slightly changed with the diversification of MNS. Now you may find similar pull stations but with the color blue. One example of these MNS emergency stations is the SS-2414E Bopper Stopper from Security Technologies Inc. These types of emergency switches can also be used to automatically lock or unlock doors to reduce the movement of an active shooter.
Standards To The Rescue
We have seen that being able to communicate with occupants, first responders and other parties in an emergency is critical. One of the best ways to accomplish this coordinated critical communication is through a fire alarm evacuation system. This concern was recognized by the National Fire and Protection Association (NFPA) with the release of their 2010 edition of NFPA 72. (Free viewing of NFPA documents is now allowed online.) It was the first edition to address MNS in a non-fire situation.
Systems in NFPA 72 include systems within a building and systems external that would interface with first responders. These systems would include two-way fire fighter communications, radio enhancements, elevator communications and refuge area communications.
In October 2011 ANSI/UL 2572 Mass Notification Systems was published by Underwriter’s Labs (UL). UL is noted for providing product safety standards. In this case UL provided the product standards in which the manufacturers of MNS equipment can become listed. This listing will assist in individual products being used in combination with other appliances to form a MNS.
Some of the specific areas addressed include: construction, product marking, installation of wiring diagrams and instructions, testing risk of fire and shock hazards and testing reliability and performance. Operation performance might include security and data protection. Coordination with in-building fire alarm signals would include priorities, interfaces and conflicting and overlapping signals.
Mobility Completes the System
According to a 2015 PEW Research Center Report, today nearly two-thirds (66%) of Americans own a smartphone of some kind, up from 35% in the spring of 2011. Additionally, 68% of smartphone owners use their phones to follow along with breaking news events.
In the past, mass notification was typically a one-way communications. An emergency announcement was broadcasted to all. This has been upgraded with two-way communications allowing all employees or students to provide valuable and immediate feedback as to the emergency situation at hand.
On the other end of the MNS mobile communication spectrum, police vehicles are increasing in direct digital voice, video and data communications with command centers. One good example is the InMotion Solutions oMG2000 mobile gateway from Sierra Wireless. This pilot program provides mobile units for all 62 police cars of the Brazos County Sheriff’s Office in Bryan, Texas. The system utilizes FirstNet Ban 14LTE support. It has been estimated the department collects an average of 4.5 terabytes of video every day.
“The switching between the Band 14 and Verizon Wireless LTE network is seamless with no drops in connection. The start-up and connection times to our network are extremely fast, and the gate- way is ready to go before the tablet has even started,” says Josh Hearen, Deputy Sheriff, Civil and Warrants Division, Brazos County Sheriff’s Office.
An Intelligible Voice
You hear an announcement come over the public address system. Would this message save your life? What if it was followed by more detailed evacuation instructions? NFPA 72 defines “Intelligible Voice” as being clear and understandable. While with today’s technology it is possible to measure what is considered intelligible voice, NFPA has yet to require quantitative measurement. It has, however, provided a new Annex D section in NFPA 72 – 2010 on voice intelligibility design using quantitative measurement. One
can also look to voice intelligibility test equipment such as the DSP2B Speech Intelligibility Meter from Gold Line. Make sure to check their STI Training Video series for some valuable additional information.
Some have confused the code requirements for intelligibility with audibility. Audibility refers to such things as alert tone loudness which in general should be 15dB above ambient sound pressure levels.
Diversification Gets The Job Done
Let’s take a moment and look at how a MNS needs to communicate with a typical office worker. Mary arrives at work and parks her car, having smartphone communications available. At the office she is working on her desktop PC in which email is the preferred communication channel to catch her attention. Later she has a meeting in which only emergency company phone calls are allowed. During the day, as Mary walks around the building, video displays and public address speakers are the preferred MNS communication methods. Additionally don’t forget voice messages over the fire evacuation system when personnel are in such places as the rest rooms.
The challenge here is that all these systems must seamlessly integrate MNS communications. The choice of the type of announcement is critical as you would want to use soft sounding alert tones for a active shooter scenario as not to excite the shooter but properly and quickly alert staff.
This article was updated from a piece originally published in 2016.
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