Achieving Critical Mass Notification

High profile incidents are fueling greater demand than ever before for mass notification systems (MNS). Find out how new technologies, standards, designs, installation techniques and practices are helping fire/life-safety solution providers grow their MNS business and help clients better deal with emergencies.

Integration, interoperability, IP and intelligibility are key technology trends that impact the design and implementation of effective mass notification systems (MNS). Understanding the latest MNS design trends, some of the challenges, and the latest codes will help integrators and installers better serve their customer needs and grow their business.

Integrated, Multilayered Solutions

Although a multilayered approach to emergency communications is not a new trend, there has been a renewed focus on the importance of layers, redundancy and the need for integrating the different systems. The 2013 edition of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 72 National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code introduced the concept of MNS layers to ensure system robustness and reliability of message delivery. The four layers include:

Layer 1 — includes systems/equipment to notify people inside a building (in-building MNS)

Layer 2 — provides communications to occupants on the exterior of a building (wide-area MNS)

Layer 3 — alerts personnel through individual measures such as text messaging, automated voice calls, computer pop-ups, E-mails (distributed recipient MNS)

Layer 4 — notifies personnel through public means (broadcast, radio, television, social networks)

According to NFPA, the risk analysis should determine the layer or layers needed to meet the organization’s emergency communication objectives. In the majority of MNS applications, it is recommended a Layer 1 system be combined with one or more of the other layers to provide effective emergency communications. Relying on just one method in an emergency could result in a relatively large portion of the targeted population not receiving the message.

After the Virginia Tech shooting, college campuses began purchasing separate mass notification solutions as their budgets permitted. As the need for layers and redundancy grew, the number of different types of systems grew from text messaging systems to outdoor giant voice. Administrators began to realize that activating all of these disparate systems greatly increased the time it took to get messages out as well as lengthened response times of key personnel. 

“I like to refer to what we needed as layers in an onion,” says University of Central Florida Director of Emergency Management Jeff Morgan. “We wanted a mass notification solution that had several layers, layers for redundancy. It is important to design a system that is both integrated and redundant. Integration enables faster notification through all of the MNS solutions, from outdoor warning systems to mass E-mails and from digital display signs to in-building notification. It’s also more efficient to click a mouse a couple of times versus signing in four or five different systems. And the redundancy aspect allows us to reach out toTo properly plan, design and measure intelligibility, one must understand which spaces need intelligibility and the factors that affect it. NFPA 72 2010 defines intelligible as “capable of being understood; comprehensible; clear.” faculty, staff, students and guests in more than one way.”

With limited staff and multiple, independent communication and security systems to activate and monitor, system operators need an integrated solution with a simplified, single interface. There are several ways integration can be accomplished, two of which will be covered here.

First, system designers need to take note of an organization’s existing systems to see what can be utilized and what can be integrated. For example, if an organization has an existing paging or voice-capable fire alarm control system, and stakeholders want to add wide-area MNS, they should look for a vendor that can provide high power speaker arrays that can be directly integrated and controlled by their existing audio source. The second method leads us to a further trend, integrated IP-based mass notification solutions, expanded upon in the next section below.

IP Systems Enable Interoperability

It goes without saying that distributed recipient MNS solutions currently leverage the power and reach of existing computer networks and the Internet to deliver emergency messages to a wide range of audiences at a moment’s notice. Now the trend is for traditional MNS such as an outdoor giant voice system or an indoor voice evacuation system to take advantage of IP-based infrastructure for a truly integrated and interoperable emergency communications.

Enterprise system solutions also allow organizations to leverage existing systems and infrastructure such as their local area network (LAN). Whether it’s a wired or wireless IP solution, the delivery method to all indoor, outdoor and personal notification devices can be agnostic across a wide range of networks. In some areas, a campus may utilize its LAN, and in other areas where LAN is not available, a wireless IP solution may be needed. The transportation mechanism for communicating emergency information can be independent of the device. In addition, IP-based solutions are key to interoperable solutions.

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