Behind the Scenes of Mass Notification & Emergency Communications

Mass notification systems have received a lot of attention in recent years and represent a growing market for installing life-safety system contractors. Find out how this area developed, where it differs and overlaps with emergency communication systems, and where this market is heading.

If you attend events like the ISC or NFPA expos, you’ve probably noticed a number of exhibitors displaying mass notification equipment. That’s because mass notification has created a buzz for firms that produce life-safety products.

But what exactly is mass notification, and where did it originate? In the 2010 edition of NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, a new chapter was added. Chapter 24, “Emergency Communications Systems (ECS),” was developed by a new technical committee to the NFPA 72 process called Emergency Communication Systems. This is a separate group from the Notification Appliances for Fire Alarm Systems Technical Committee.

This month, I will discuss the concept of mass notification systems (MNS) and emergency communications systems (ECS). Next month, we’ll look at the different types of systems.

How NFPA Got Involved

Prior to the 2007 edition of NFPA 72, the United States Air Force (USAF) proposed to the NFPA Standards Council that a consensus-based standard for MNS be promulgated by NFPA. The Standards Council concurred and forwarded the project to Signaling Systems for the Protection of Life and Property Technical Correlating Committee (72 TCC), which is responsible in part for NFPA 72.

Prior to the Air Force’s request, the Department of Defense (DoD) had developed the Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC) Design and O&M Mass Notification Systems (UFC 4-021-01), which was published in 2002. This document defined MNS as “… provides real-time information and instructions to people in a building, area, site, or installation using intelligible voice communications along with visible signals, text, and graphics, and possibly including tactile or other communication methods. The purpose of mass notification is to protect life by indicating the existence of an emergency situation and instructing people of the necessary and appropriate response and action.”

Attack Prompts Action

Prior to the development of this UFC, the DoD and Department of State had no standardized method to alert staff and occupants of a building or site of an emergency or other event that might be occurring from within or from outside of a location. This became very apparent in 1996 at the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

That’s when and where a housing complex that was being used to quarter Air Force personnel came under attack by bombers who parked a tanker truck converted into a mobile bomb directly outside of the compound. An Air Force sentry saw the tanker truck as a threat and, by going door-to-door within the building, was able to alert a large percentage of the occupants, most of whom were sleeping at the time. Nineteen lives were lost and 372 individuals were wounded.

Air Force Lt. General James F. Record was tasked to investigate the causes of this attack and determine preventative measures against future incidents. Among the recommendations found within his Independent Review of the Khobar Towers Bombing: “Procure commercially available pagers, in the near term, for alerting/warning systems in deployed locations; and explore advanced technologies for this capability.”

From these recommendations, UFC-4-021-01 was developed. While this document was created by the Army, Navy and Air Force, it was not a consensus-based standard. Once assigned the task to develop a standard, the 72 TCC discussed if this should be a separate document or part of NFPA 72. The conclusion was that MNS should be contained within NFPA 72.

Annex Details 4 MNS Factors

In the 2007 edition of NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code, MNS is found in Annex E. This annex was developed by a task group made up of members from the TCC and various technical committees that develop the 72 standard. Annex E had four parts: 1. Introduction; 2. Fundamentals of Mass Notification Systems; 3. System Features; and 4. Central Control Station(s).

The scope of Annex E was: “Annex E covers the application, installation, location, performance, and maintenance of mass notification systems (MNSs). For the purposes of the annex, a MNS was considered to be: “A system used to provide information and instructions to people in a building, area, site, or other space using intelligible voice communications and possibly including visible signals, text, graphics, tactile, or other communications methods.”

The stated purpose of these systems was: “The systems covered under Annex E are for the protection of life by indicating the existence of an emergency situation and instructing the occupants of the necessary and appropriate response and action.” Within Annex E the basic principles for a MNS was laid out, in that they would provide information within a “building, area site or other space” using voice and visible communications or “other communication methods.” These methods could include pagers, cell phones, E-mail and reverse 911.

The text, however, in the 2007 edition was written in nonenforceable language; “should” as opposed to “shall.” Annex E was seen as being a transition between the UFC and a full standard developed by NFPA. Between the 2007 and 2010 editions, the new technical committee was selected.

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