Recently, Beth Welch, PR manager for Honeywell Fire Systems, moderated a media forum addressing emergency communications. The session featured Jack Poole, principal of Poole Fire Protection in Olathe, Kan.; Bob Farm, project manager for United Fire Protection in Kenilworth, N.J.; Bob Kaczmarek, vice president of sales & marketing for FireTron Inc. of Stafford, Tex.; John Wojdan, president of Great Lakes Building Systems in Buffalo, N.Y.; and Peter Ebersold, marketing director for NOTIFIER. I sat in on the session and in conjunction with the intelligibility feature just out in SECURITY SALES & INTEGRATION’s October issue, I wanted to share it with you here. What follows in the first of two parts, featuring select edited highlights, with the second part to appear in a few days.
Considering the tragic event of Virginia Tech and similar incidents, it appears that higher education and military bases are the primary facilities implementing emergency communication systems. Have you seen other markets in which demand for these systems is growing, and can you explain why?
John Wojdan: Absolutely. We’ve been very successful up here in western New York by promoting the emergency communications systems for industrial complexes and now food processing facilities. Why? Well, No. 1, I think it’s a change of NFPA 72 2010 Edition that changed and opened up us fire guys to allow us to go in and use our fire equipment for mass notification purposes. We have three facilities right now that we’ve been called in for during the last two years to upgrade their fire system. In the process of analyzing what they need for fire, we talked with the people in charge about communication in the event of a disaster. One thing led to another, and we ended up taking a standard fire alarm system with horn/strobes, converting them to a speaker/strobes evacuation system, and interfacing that with other mass notification devices such as REACT. And before you know it, their fire system has now become a combination fire/emergency communications system. So it’s very exciting now that we have a brand new avenue here — a brand new industry, basically — to pursue along with our fire products.
Let’s talk about what a long-term emergency communication system can be for a facility. How can a university, manufacturing plant or shopping mall, depending on whatever the application might be, start the planning process?
Jack Poole: It’s kind of being driven by the end user or the owners of these facilities. If it’s truly a decision made by loss prevention or other management groups within a facility, the best way to get started is to do the risk analysis that is discussed and talked about in the current edition of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. Given the hazards that you have at your facility and the risks you have at your facility, the type of occupancy that it is, that risk analysis will determine the best method to communicate to the occupants of the facility or the base or the campus to convey that real-time information.
Can you explain why these requirements are suitable to an emergency communications system from a facility manager/security director perspective? When I say requirements, I mean the NFPA codes.
Peter Ebersold: Codes are critical because they ensure that a system is properly designed for its intended use in a particular building or facility, that it’s regularly tested for its proper operation and that it can be readily upgraded or expanded as these needs change.
Let’s jump in to some real emergency communication systems complications. Bob Kaczmarek, you’ve provided the ECS for a petrochemical plant and a military base, and both properties have multiple buildings. What types of ECS did both facilities choose and why?
Bob Kaczmarek: Both of them put individual voice evacuation systems in each building and integrated it with the fire alarm system. The difference between the two is that the petrochemical plant wanted to cover about 24 acres outdoors with a giant voice-type system, and we used a wireless-based voice transmission system for that application. The key here to keep costs down is to integrate the ECS as part of the fire alarm system. It’s always been taboo to use the fire alarm voice evacuation system for things like music transmission, message transmission, tornado warnings, hurricane warnings. Now we’re going back the other way and we’re using the voice evacuation system or the fire alarm system to do these different things. It really cuts the cost of systems down for these types of facilities.
How often should ECS be tested, and how do you go about doing that without a whole upheaval?
Bob Farm: How often is dictated by generally local authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ), especially if it’s combined with a fire alarm because it has to be dictated by an insurance company or other agency on internal standards. In most cases, it’s an annual inspection, but this can vary a little bit by state or agency or particularly jurisdictionally. By NFPA standards, it’s generally an annual functional test. One aspect in terms of avoiding upheavals is with a voice messaging or text messaging system, you have a lot of versatility. For example, compared to a system with horns and bells, you can program custom messages into a system and you can announce, “This is a test; this is only a test,” or you can announce to other paging or other type systems that you’re in a testing mode. You can combine testing with emergency drills that give people information as to where to go, but still letting them know that it’s a nonemergency. We’ve also been successful in piping background music into systems, although that’s not a real valid test for intelligibility or audibility, it does let you know that the speakers are all operating and that the system’s working.
How about first responders? How do you involve them and to what extent when it comes to designing and planning of an actual ECS?
Wojdan: Typically, with any big plant that is going to have an ECS system, the first responders are actually employees of that company. So they’re already in tune with some sort of disaster plan onsite. We get them involved immediately in the planning stages. We bring them to the design procedures to make sure the proper control apparatus is at the door that they are going to respond to and the annunciators are there. We keep them involved in the entire process from the design to the installation, of course the final test and training as well. Now you have the outside first responders being the AHJs that we have to bring in as well. Typically with every job that we do, we sit down with the AHJ first and show them our plans before we do anything. We make sure we’re all in compliance and we’re all in agreement as far as the application, the product we’re going to use, the end result and so on. The quicker you get the first responders in the loop and make them feel part of the procedure the better off everybody is going to be, and the end result is going to be a much cleaner project.
The intelligibility or clarity of the message is an important aspect we should discuss. How do you make sure your systems’ recorded and live messages are indeed intelligible? Is there a way to measure it?
Poole: We use our past experience based on the acoustical conditions of a space to help us determine the type of speaker we use and where we locate the speakers. We are also using a modeling program during the design phase that allows us to enter the acoustical conditions, ambient background and other factors. It helps us make a better educated guess about where to locate the speakers, how to configure them, whether they need to be installed in the ceiling or if they need to be installed on the wall. A lot of that is truly driven by the acoustical conditions or the environment of that space. I think some of the misconception is that you need intelligible signals in every space of a building. I don’t know if that’s totally correct. From an NFPA 72 standpoint, there is no requirement to test with a meter; however, it is discussed in Annex D of 72, yet per DoD requirements, you are required to test with a meter. Intelligibility needs to be addressed at the design phase to the best of our abilities and acknowledging that we’re changing and we’re growing and we’re communicating with acoustical engineers to help us make some of those better educated guesses as opposed to waiting until final acceptance time.