The Facility Technologist: Getting The Message

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By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the July 2008 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Facilities today face a broad range of safety and security threats, and these seem to increase every year. Whether it is severe weather, explosive or chemical threats, or a gun wielding attacker, facility managers (fms) must be prepared for these and other types of incidents and be ready to respond with effective mitigating action.

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In responding to these incidents, one of the most important tools an fm can have is the ability to communicate effectively with facility occupants. Alerting people to the presence of danger and instructing them to act appropriately is an absolute necessity. The recent tragedies occurring on college campuses around the U.S. have illustrated how effective communication can be the difference between life and death.

But how can an fm communicate to hundreds, or even thousands, of people who may be located anywhere in a large facility? Or, to take an even more challenging scenario, how can an fm communicate in a campus environment? In the past, public address systems were the only option; however, they have proven to be inadequate, because it is impractical to install them in every location. Also, people who are talking on their phones or listening to music through headphones could easily miss an audio alert.

Fortunately, technology offers a tool that can provide fast, effective communication to facility occupants. Mass notification systems take the concept of the public address system and ratchet it up with 21st century software capabilities. Mass notification systems use software programs that are able to communicate through e-mail, phone calls, instant messaging, digital signage, public address, two-way radio, and just about any other electronic means available.

A click of a mouse button can send messages to thousands of people instantly in multiple formats. Scenarios can also be pre-programmed into the system, so messages specific to an event like a tornado, flood, or an attack can be sent immediately when danger looms.

When the system is installed, facility occupants are enrolled into its database. Their list of e-mail addresses and phone numbers can be imported into the system, or facility occupants can sign themselves up on a Web site. Each person can have multiple contact methods-like e-mail, instant message, and phone-and prioritize them in the order they wish the system to use.

For example, if the person’s primary method of contact is a cell phone, the system will call the phone, play the message in the language specified, and ask the person to dial in a number to confirm they received the message. If the recipient does not answer the phone or does not enter the confirmation, the system will go to the next method for that person (e.g. e-mail, another phone number, or instant message).

Contact information entered into a mass notification system can be categorized so individualized messages can be sent to groups located in different parts of the facility. This capability can be very useful when reacting to location-specific incidents. For example, if there is a fire in one building on a campus, it may be necessary to evacuate nearby buildings, while asking others that are further away to remain inside to lessen traffic that could hamper responders.

Scenarios can also be built into the system so that a pre-programmed series of events can be automatically initiated. Some systems include a “scenario builder” that illustrates each step in the process in a flow chart format; each event is shown as a box linked to other boxes to form a series of steps. This can be an extremely useful tool in planning how emergencies will be managed and how people will be alerted.

Some fms are linking mass notification systems to digital signs located around their facilities. This allows the systems to be used for emergency alerts, as well as to communicate non-emergency information like event scheduling, wayfinding, and advertising.

Mass notification systems can also be programmed to send messages to all contact numbers simultaneously, but this puts a very large burden on the system and the phone network it uses. If an fm wants to implement a mass notification system and control it at the facility, s/he needs to consider the capabilities of the site’s phone and network systems.

Unfortunately, one challenge is that many facility phone systems quickly become overwhelmed, because they are designed for normal usage, not the huge flood of calls that occurs during emergencies. The fm should make sure there are phone lines dedicated for mass notification and that the facility’s phone switch can handle the load.

If an fm is not sure the phone system can handle the load, s/he can consider using an Application Service Provider (ASP), sometimes called “Software As A Service” (SaaS) or a “hosted solution.” The entire mass notification system is then located at the vendor’s data center, and facility staff can access it through the Internet. [To read more about SaaS, read "Decoding The Acronym Puzzle" TFM, June 2008, page 24; online at www.todaysfacilitymanager.com/tfm_08_06_trends.php.]

In this scenario, the fm does not have to worry about setting up or maintaining the system or whether or not the facility’s phone switch or network have enough capacity. The downside to an ASP is that the total cost of ownership (TCO) is higher over the long run; the facility pays for the convenience.

Another challenge is that the traffic on a facility’s network may block mass notification e-mails. To address this, the network can be configured to prioritize e-mail alerts from the mass notification system and by ensuring the e-mail server can handle the load.

Again, if it is determined that the facility does not have the necessary capabilities to handle the mass notification load, fms can consider housing the system’s operations at the vendor’s site.

Because of their immense value during emergencies, mass notification systems are starting to expand beyond the perimeters of facilities. For example, many large campuses enroll their local police and fire department contacts in their mass notification systems to keep these first responders informed even before they arrive on the scene. Some cities are using the systems to alert citizens to imminent dangers like approaching tornados, or events as mundane as roadwork or traffic jams.

The most sophisticated mass notification systems take the involvement of local authorities further by offering a solution to one of the most vexing problems that public safety faces-lack of radio interoperability between the fire department, police department, and other first responders. A dramatic example of this took place on 9/11, when different groups found themselves unable to communicate with each other because their radios operated on different frequencies.

This lack of communication brought to light the gravity of this problem in dealing with disasters. The federal government has made significant progress in radio interoperability, but this is still a challenge to many first responders.

One company, Federal Signal Corporation of Oak Brook, IL, offers Codespear technology, which has the ability to communicate with any UHF, VHF, digital band, or ham radio system. This allows it to be used as a central hub for transmitting to multiple agencies simultaneously, no matter what system is being used.

The tragedies experienced in recent years have shown that we can never go back to the time when these events were unthinkable or the stuff of action and adventure movies. The threats are real and have added yet another challenge to the fm’s job. But mass notification systems bring about another resource to help-facility occupants. If fms can communicate with them, occupants can help manage the incident and become part of the team. And in today’s facilities, fms can use all the help they can get.

Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is a contributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Managementtextbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago,IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, andreliability of client business through technology.

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