News

Mass Notification Requires Planning and Robust Systems
February 05, 2010

By Maryellen Lo Bosco
Appeared in Building Operating Management/FacilitiesNet

In the last decade, a series of shootings on college campuses has forced facility managers to rethink the way that they respond to emergencies. Wide room for debate exists when it comes to speculating about why such incidents are increasing. But what has become apparent is the pressing need to inform large numbers of people about an emergency in a facility or on campus.

"Everybody needs a mass notification plan," says Paul Benne, senior security specialist for Syska Hennessy Group. The lesson of the past 10 years is that in an emergency the number of injuries and fatalities could be reduced if facilities could communicate through multiple means to a large number of people. The shootings have spurred efforts to design and install systems to control the way facility managers and others communicate with occupants, as well as the types of messages sent to different groups.

The first step is to develop a notification plan, which serves as the basis for developing a mass notification system that delivers emergency messages.

It is especially crucial to have an emergency notification system in place on campuses whether schools or industrial complexes. "The bottom line is that in any sort of large occupancy environment where there are numerous buildings across a large area, you need a mass notification system," says Mark Suski, senior consultant at Schirmer Engineering, an Aon Global company.

Begin With a Plan

Planning begins with some basic questions: Whom do I call? Who is in charge? Those are the kinds of questions that should be answered in the plan. It's important to delineate points of contact, incident commanders and calling trees. The plan should also spell out security responsibilities for example, who will physically cordon off areas and who will call for a lockdown. "Everything should be written down," says Suski. "You don't want people wasting valuable time, once an incident occurs, figuring out what their responsibilities are. You also need a backup plan if the crucial people are not there at the time of the incident."

Of course, not all emergencies involve violence and shooters, and facility managers should be prepared for other contingencies as well. "You don't define an emergency in such a detailed way that it's the only emergency you can respond to," Benne says. Whether a facility manager is responding to a chemical release or an intruder, that person has to communicate information. Essentially, the same pattern is followed in an emergency: identify the crisis, communicate the emergency and recover from the emergency.

Training is an essential part of planning. "Train staff in how to identify an emergency and communicate it," says Benne. "Train managerial people to re-communicate the emergency that has been communicated to them. The next step is to train building occupants to react to those communications. Once you have covered the basics fire extinguisher training, CPR training, shutting down equipment you are talking about how to gather and communicate information."

Training in how emergency equipment works is vital. Equipment must be maintained and continually tested. Part of training is to update the notification plan on a regular basis. "There are times when the plan gets set aside," Suski observes. "Even if a company has a plan, sometimes people on the list haven't worked there for five years. The plan needs to be practiced and updated continually. You add people, you lose people. You add dangerous scenarios. Suddenly you have a research lab that is using dangerous chemicals, and that can change your level of danger."

Adopting New Technology

Fire alarm systems are the oldest form of mass notification and of course remain crucial to ensuring the safety of building occupants. Nonetheless, new technology can get targeted emergency messages to an entire community or to only one sector of a building. For example, in a scenario that involves multiple buildings, an emergency might necessitate evacuating a plant while leaving an office group in place. Two separate messages would go in two different directions. Everyone in the office would have a computer, so messages could be sent with the help of technology that creates a computer pop-up. Telephone or indoor public announcement (PA) systems also might be used. In the plant, a fire alarm system could generate visual or audible alerts, sending employees to their mustering stations.

Benne stresses the importance of "granularity," or the ability to pinpoint messages for specific groups. For example, in a hospital it might be necessary to shelter certain members of the community (operating-room or intensive-care patients, for example) in a protected place while evacuating others. In a high-rise building, where there is a fire on one floor, it is usual to evacuate that floor and the floor above while keeping everyone else in place. But it may be necessary to send a message to the lobby to evacuate so there won't be people in the stairwell clogging egress, Benne says.

"In mass notification, we are using more than one method to communicate the message," says Benne. Options include the so-called "giant voice," which employs huge, outdoor speaker systems; SMS (short message service) texting from phone to phone or from the Internet to a phone; computer pop-ups; visual signage; and indoor paging systems.

Benne says that it is cost-effective to build on what is already in place. For example, every school already has a PA system, but it might be necessary to add an uninterruptible power supply to ensure that the PA will work if the regular source of power goes out. Similarly, most schools now have many computers in classrooms and other locations, so it would be easy to add a pop-up message program to the school intranet. "The school would have to purchase software for pop-ups and for communicating through cell phones, but that doesn't have to be costly," Benne says.

One type of signage that works very well on college campuses is a scrolling electronic sign, says Suski. These signs are commonly seen at the entrances to large campuses, but electronic signage could be added in front of each building or placed strategically near pedestrian walkways or high-traffic areas.

Suski suggests installing a central command center in a campus setting. "That's where the bulk of the equipment will be microphones and telephones that are hard wired or an intercom system where you can press a button and get in touch with people at various sites around the campus." Such a system sets up two-way communication between the command center and all the other locations that are part of the facility. Communication can go through existing Internet connections, using Internet protocols, or separate fiber wire can be installed that connects the buildings on campus so they can communicate with one another.

Facility managers should also be giving thought to ensuring reliability over time, which might entail battery backups and emergency generators.

Read the rest of the article on BOM's website.