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 is the second of two parts, with the first part available here, featuring select edited highlights.
How has mass notification has changed since 9/11 or the Virginia Tech incident? How do people think differently about ECS, and how do you think this will evolve in the next five to 10 years?
Peter Ebersold: Prior to 9/11, very few people saw the need for a comprehensive ECS. But during 9/11, first responders could not communicate very effectively with each other because of the building structure and because of the damage to the building. So early on, the occupants in many areas did not receive any information about what was going on. At Virginia Tech, it was a little bit different. The did have an ECS, but it was really a one-dimensional one, so it took 18 minutes to get the information out to everyone on the campus and the whole incident only took nine minutes. So Virginia Tech raised awareness that there needed to be multiple methods of communication and unique messages for different areas on campus. I think over the next five to 10 years, we’re going to see almost every facility install ECS as more owners and occupants realize that any facility can face a threat, whether it’s a weather event, a medical emergency, chemical spill or an intruder. Multiple message paths and survivability of the system will be exponents of any ECS that’s installed.
It seems like there needs to be multiple systems integrated together; what are two or three of most challenging ECS considerations in this area?
Jack Poole: Some of the most challenging spaces ultimately involve those that have hard-floor, non-acoustically friendly types of environments. Because of the reverberation that is created in those settings, such as a warehouse or a locker room, when the sound physically comes out of the speakers it just bounces off all those hard surfaces. So we often go back to the risk analysis to determine the best way to truly communicate to the people. And it may not always be a voice announcement. Maybe they have to do some scrolling marquees or some pop-ups on the computer.
What types of integrated ECS solutions are available now? What are the key features anyone that is specifying these systems should look for?
Ebersold: An integrated ECS includes voice messaging built indoors and outdoors. It may include yellow or white strobes depending on the type of systems. Messages can be sent to either landlines or cell phones or Web. You might have to pull up a computer screen, flat-panel TVs are in a lot of buildings now so you might want to use those in public areas to inform people about what’s going on or even dedicated electronic signs. Some manufacturers have done a great job of seamlessly integrating them so that the messages configure automatically to the impacted areas during an event. And then customize the incident commander as the event unfolds. So in the end, you want a system that’s easy to use in an emergency so you can reach everyone with the right message at the right time.
What if you had multiple properties apart from one another? Is there a way to monitor these facilities and send emergency communications to some parts of the facility or to all parts, even across continents?
John Wojdan: Absolutely, depending on the distance. Direct fiber-optic cable is not an option obviously, but everything seems to be IP-based these days. We use a lot of fire IP. The REACT software and server are IP-based, so you can basically communicate anywhere in the world over the Internet. The issue we see is that type of communication has to be considered as an ancillary type communication means or device, typically not UL-Listed for life safety and fire. I think the industry is in the very early stages of development here, and who knows we might get some kind of device or protocol that is UL for fire. As far as communication goes, one-way communication can be done over the Internet very easily.
How do you budget for something like this? In some cases, depending on the size of your facility, it could be a large sum of money. Say you’ve got 20 buildings to cover, plus some large outdoor areas. Are there smart and economical ways to build your property’s ECS infrastructure?
Bob Kaczmarek: You have to look at your solution in layers and determine with the customer what’s critical of their needs upfront. When I say layers, I mean you’ve got personal messaging, building live voice evacuation messages, other people have mentioned scrolling signs. What you want to do with an owner typically is figure out if they need a new fire alarm system. If that’s the case, that’s the best time to roll out a voice evacuation system that can double as an ECS. It’s easier to provide budget numbers based on a layer and break it down to a building. One of the most difficult things to budget is going to be a giant voice or an outdoor voice evacuation messaging system because it requires a substantial amount of analysis upfront to determine sound penetration, places to mount outdoor speakers and that type of thing.
Can you talk about instances where you have seen an ECS used for public address? Is that acceptable everywhere? Is it a good idea or a bad idea?
Bob Farm: I think it’s preferable to keep them as separate systems: public address from the standpoint of an emergency system as opposed to public address to make unimportant announcements like just paging people and things of that sort. They are operated by different people and they are patrolled by different people. I think an emergency system should stay as an emergency system.
Ebersold: The equipment can be used as a public address system. But frequently they are either building an upgrade or the local AHJ only wants the system used for emergency communications so there is often a separate system for public address.
Once you’ve got that ECS system in place, how do you ensure it remains effective over time?
Farm: From a physical aspect, if the building is to be modified, if they’re changing floor plans, partitions or things of that sort, you have to make sure everybody is informed and aware the system is in place if they’re going to move speakers. If they are going to change other systems in the building that affect the noise levels, they have to be aware of it and all the other trades and parties must be aware and it must be well discussed and well planned upfront. Beyond that, of course, is maintenance and just going through when you do the inspections making sure things aren’t changed in the building or making sure that they haven’t changed the way they operate such that it impacts the system.
Kaczmarek: No. 1 is testing the system every year and making sure it’s working, but one of the problem areas that we see is training. It’s nice to go in and train building owners’ personnel on how to use a system, but it really needs to be done on a continuing basis. I think a lot of people lose sight of that. So as part of our maintenance we’re giving owner training multiple times a year.
Ebersold: I agree. Regular maintenance is absolutely critical to make sure the system works and it’s ready to respond instantly. Regular training and drills will keep the incident commander and their staff prepared to use the system at any time.