WEB EXCLUSIVE: Mass Notification, Crucial Communication

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This Web exclusive was contributed by William F. Donahue IV, president of Crown Supply Co., Inc., a distributor of electrical and fire alarm products, with locations in Providence, RI and Milford, MA.

Ever since there have been buildings there’s been a need to alert people on how to get out safely in the event of an emergency. Three hundred and fifty years ago the prime danger was fire, which was the case when London was leveled by a conflagration that destroyed 13,000 buildings. Remarkably, only a few people perished as the warning system of the day—a ringing bell and people yelling out warnings in the street—proved sufficient.web exclusive

In today’s world, shaped by events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, fire is not the only peril facing facilities. School shootings, like those at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, cry out for a more sophisticated emergency communication system. But even as the PA system at Sandy Hook Elementary was crackling with gunfire and screaming, those in the school were still without necessary information; such as where is the shooter, how many shooters are there, and what is the safest exit route or next action?

The ability to communicate real-time information in the case of a dangerous situation, to as many people as possible, via different technological routes such as voice via speakers, signage, e-mail, text messages, loudspeakers, display monitors, and phone systems, is to use a mass notification system (MNS). The building code related to MNS is the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. The code covers the application, installation, location, performance, inspection, testing, and maintenance of fire alarm systems, supervising station alarm systems, public emergency alarm reporting systems, fire warning equipment, and emergency communications systems, and their components.

It’s easy to understand why fire alarm systems are inherently the right choice for use in mass notification.  Fire alarm systems are code driven and regulated. The circuitry is fully supervised, and the systems are periodically tested using NFPA guidelines. The rules, testing procedures, and installation practices are already established, so fire alarm companies are able to hit the ground running. Also, first responders are already familiar with the fire alarm equipment. Both the government’s and NFPA’s actions reinforce the fact that the core of MNS exists, in many cases, in a facility’s fire alarm system.

Perhaps nowhere has the need for MNS become more in the forefront of the public’s mind than the recent rash of shootings in our schools. Aside from the aforementioned Sandy Hook tragedy which claimed 26 lives, the horrific shootings on the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007 which claimed the lives of 32 students, is still an open wound when it comes to the mention of MNS—even though it appears, for the most part, the system worked well.

Reports are that within six minutes after a Virginia Tech security guard was shot, university officials had sent an emergency alert to students and faculty stating shots had been fired on campus and to stay inside. The system allowed university officials to send alerts via a number of mediums, including phone, e-mail, text messages, desktop alerts, campus loudspeakers and digital signage. They were also able to alert students and faculty via any computer or mobile device with access to the Internet. Over the course of the afternoon, the university sent a total of six alerts with its MNS (dubbed VT Alerts) to keep students and faculty informed.

It is thought that one of the most effective methods of warning students of a potential danger is texting to a cell phone. However, such a system proves ineffective at the K-12 level, where the text messaging option is geared toward parents rather than students.

In many cases, during an emergency normal means of communications such as cell phones, landlines, and Internet may be overtaxed or completely incapacitated, as was the case during the Boston Marathon bombings in April. Using a system that is reserved for emergency situations, like the traditional fire alarm system, decreases the time required to notify staff, students, or any facility occupant or visitor to the area. This type of system is considered one of the highest levels of a comprehensive MNS, and today is one of the least used. Still, many fire installation experts say they’re frustrated that school officials and facility owners in general don’t realize how valuable an emergency communications system/MNS can be in situations until it is too late.

Integration Of Systems, Efforts Is Key
Unfortunately, many school officials and property owners, and the engineers who design fire alarm systems for them, are not familiar with these systems, how they work, and how they should be implemented. This may be due to the many different technologies that can be integrated to provide a complete emergency communication system or MNS.  In many cases, technologies and systems that were considered to be part of campus security and fall under their direction can or need to be integrated with systems like the fire alarm system which is considered to be part of facilities and systems in a typical campus setting. Mix this in with the fact that the best way to interconnect all these pieces would be through a computer network which is another department, budget and management group. All of these departments operate with their own valid concerns, budgets, responsibilities, and groups of engineers they consult with. The bottom line is that there is, currently, not a single answer to a true MNS. It requires interconnection and communication between a variety of systems.

There are many new devices that are available that can integrate with existing and new fire alarm systems that can convert or create a very reliable MNS system. One example is a small device similar to an exit sign that either flashes silently or makes noise and delivers text messages with instructions on how to react to the particular threat. Unlike traditional fire alarms where the natural response is to exit the building to get to safety, the MNS message may instruct people to seek cover based on the existing threat. Unlike the familiar red pull station found on a traditional fire alarm, the pull station of the future includes a choice of “fire emergency” or “shooter emergency” among others, providing the appropriate notification response.paul revere

Installation of an MNS is aimed at saving lives. It can be a complex system that reaches all areas of a campus inside and out, or a single sign on a highway that alerts thousands of motorists to a breakdown or a fire in a tunnel.  The common thread is each communicates to the largest group possible in the shortest amount of time.

When Paul Revere alerted the colonists about an impending attack by flashing lanterns and riding horseback through the streets yelling at the top of his lungs, in many ways this was the 18th century equivalent of an MNS. Sadly, in today’s world, where our attackers don’t arrive in wooden boats but in our own fuel heavy jet planes, and the enemy isn’t always a foreign stranger but the boy down the street, we all need to be protected by the state-of-art technology that exists today. Because to be in a building without an MNS when something goes terribly wrong, the silence can not only be deafening, it can be fatal.

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