Spring 2012 has been an unusually active, dangerous weather season, with unprecedented tornadoes hitting the Midwest, Southeast and the state of Texas.

April saw a shooting rampage that resulted in seven deaths at Oikos University, a small college in California. This shooting came just a few months after violence revisited the campus of Virginia Tech in December 2011. Two people were killed in that incident, which brought back memories of the deadliest college massacre ever on the same campus in 2007.

In January 2012, the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground, killing 28 passengers and crew.

What do these incidents have in common? They all highlight the need for clear, concise communication to a large group of people to help save lives.

As a technology solution, it is sometimes called “mass notification” or “emergency communication.” The two terms can be used interchangeably, but aren’t exactly the same thing, says Rick Rauenzahn, senior product manager, GAI-Tronics, Mohnton, Pa. “A mass notification system may have emergency communication as part of it, but mass notification is comprised of multiple systems, such as voice, sound, texting, e-mail, signage and more.”

Shawn Mullen, president and chief energy officer for Protex Central, an integrator in Hastings, Neb., sums up the term “emergency communication” nicely: “It is getting the right message to the right people at the right time to do the right thing.”

When the Costa Concordia tragedy occurred, one of the most frequent complaints passengers reported was the lack of clear directions for what to do immediately following the accident. In an age that is all about information, people have a high expectation that they will be informed and instructed when an unexpected event occurs.

But achieving that level of communication is not simple, says John Von Thaden, vice president and general manager for Alerting and Notification Systems, a unit of Federal Signal Safety and Security Group, University Park, Ill. “While it is true that communicating to someone is easier than ever today, achieving it to everyone is as much as a challenge as it ever was.” Finding the best method of communicating to a specific group of people — college students, employees, or citizens of a community — is the crux of the issue.

Code Changes

NFPA 72 used to be called the National Fire Alarm Code. In 2010 it became the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. This change was a direct result of some of the most tragic events in recent U.S. history.

After the Saudi Arabian Kobhar Towers were bombed in 1996, killing 19 U.S. servicemen, the Department of Defense began requiring mass notification systems. In 2002, following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the DoD adopted the Uniform Facilities Code, mandating that all U.S. military installations worldwide have these capabilities. Since many of the facilities were based in the United States, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) began incorporating a lot of those same requirements, Mullen describes.

“There has been a paradigm shift in the industry,” says Jack Poole, principal/owner/fire protection engineer for integrator Poole Fire Protection, Olatha, Kansas. “What is really driving this shift, as I see it, is 9/11. As a result of that event we saw fire departments change how they do business and rethink how they respond to incidents. Also, we are seeing building owners change how they run their building, as well as how the designers design systems.”

All of this is reflected in changes to the NFPA code.

“As of 2010, the title changed and now the code addresses more than just fire alarms,” Poole explains. “With 2010 we have gone from 11 chapters to 29 — 15 of which are empty now — but designated to be used later. That tells us that that there are lots of changes coming down the pike.”

Chapter 24, particularly, includes specific technologies such as emergency voice evacuation, alarm communication systems, firefighters communication and mass notification, says Jim Spooner, product manager for Silent Knight, part of Honeywell Fire Systems Group, Northford, Conn. “The major difference is that historically when you had a fire system if someone pulled the fire alarm or the smoke detector went off, the fire alarm was king and had top priority as an emergency message. Now, the NFPA recognizes that there may be a situation where fire is not the priority message.”

NFPA 72 2010 now allows for emergency communication to override the fire alarm and suggests ways to communicate the exact nature of the emergency. With these changes, fire and security manufacturers as well as integrators are coming to the understanding that products and services will have to meet a different set of needs than in the past, says Tom Giannini, director of security and emergency communications/marketing, SimplexGrinnell, Westminster, Mass.

“With the codes that have changed, the fire alarm system will be doing much more than just fire alarm systems and detection,” he says. “Yes, code still requires it to be in the building, but it needs to be able to do more than just sit passively on the wall. Technology is evolving rapidly to provide greater degrees of communication and voice intelligibility.”

At the forefront of this change is the integrator that now must meet new demands, says Ted Milburn, vice president of marketing, Cooper Notification, Ocean Port, N.J. “Some of the events that have happened, end users look at this and ask, ‘Where is the button I can push to make the communication happen?’ Integrators are pulling all of this together and manufacturers are developing products to allow that to happen more smoothly.”

The Layered Approach

Emergency communication systems can be (and often are) integrated with the fire alarm system, and increasingly manufacturers are making it easier to provide an integrated platform. But other emergency notification products can be used stand alone or in conjunction with but not integrated into one another. Knowing which elements to pull in and how to incorporate them is the key to an effective system.

“There have been plenty of independent studies that show a layered approach to emergency communications is critical,” says Mark Jay Kurtzrock, president and CEO, Metis Secure Solutions LLC, Oakmont, Pa. “There is not one most effective way.”

An effective system may involve indoor speakers through the fire alarm system, “giant voice” speakers outdoors and a combination of text messaging, computer pop-ups, LED/LCD signage and even social media.

“The thing that is so exciting about technology today is that we have systems that integrate very tightly with email, smartphones and even Sirius radio,” Mullen says. “That is really cool. We can create a layered effect. If we don’t catch them in the classroom or office building with a speaker announcement or flashing warning light, we might catch them at a desk in an email message or through the internal network on a screen that flashes a message. We might also get them on their smart phone through instant messaging.”

What might this look like design-wise? “Interior voice systems primarily use the fire alarm system, which today by code you can use for both,” Giannini explains. “Then you use the network to put desktop alerts on everyone’s PC and use a text messaging service for those that may not be at their desk. If you have a multi-building campus you should also have an outdoor speaker system with good intelligibility so people can clearly hear the directions you want them to take. This is one part of an all-encompassing program that should also include good education, good plans and technologies.”

Poole breaks this down into three distinct communications: In building, wide area, and distributed recipient. In building is often done through the fire system, although it doesn’t have to be, and is an audio and/or visual signal or voice instruction on what to do in a specific emergency. Wide area involves high-powered outdoor speakers to convey real time instructions. Distributed includes emails, PC pop-ups, text messaging and other ways to reach individuals one at a time.

Many manufacturers and integrators point to fire system integration as a logical starting platform over pulling disparate individual systems together. “The fire alarm system is a required entity anyway, Spooner says. “Because of code it is required to be tested and not forgotten about. Fire systems are required whereas security is a nice to have.”

When it comes to overriding the fire alarm system per NFPA 72, you would do better to go with an integrated fire system, he adds. “The key point is there isn’t a way that outside components can tell the fire alarm that they have priority.”

However, certain situations do call for separate systems. For example, community-wide emergency systems need to operate independently of individual fire protection systems. And many colleges and universities have elected to add notification components piecemeal rather than incur the expense of a fully integrated system. However, more and more manufacturers are designing scalable products that will be friendlier to these types of concerns.

Other systems are designed to work independently, but alongside the fire system, such as some of the software that allows for two-way notification. “We are talking about the ability for someone in central security to push information out to people who are in a specific situation as well as for those people to push the information back through to security,” Kurtzrock says. “A common interface allows you to pull together all the different types of security systems so people have at their fingertips the ability to activate LED signs or IP phones or other types of communication systems.” While their system can easily be tied into the fire system, it doesn’t have to be, he adds.

“Two-way notification and response applications give you the capability of multi-modal communication with tens of thousands of people simultaneously,” says Frank Mahdavi, chief strategy officer, MIR3, San Diego. “We can deliver information to anyone, anywhere on any communication device and solicit actionable response.” For example, say there is a fire on the fifth floor of a building. Two-way systems can send messages to a variety of devices and each recipient can choose from a list of responses, such as ‘I am not in the building,’ ‘I am evacuating,’ or ‘I need help.’ Those responses are then logged as a pinpoint on a map. Ultimately, responders can know the exact number of people who need help and where they are located.

“There is no singular solution or panacea for communication,” Mahdavi says. “It is all the technology, old and new. The ultimate objective is to reach as many people as possible. Each communication method has its own advantages and disadvantages. I don’t know if someone is looking at a sign or has heard a message or not. If I can send a two-way message via phone or Twitter or email, then I have accountability. On the other hand, if they don’t have those electronics with them or there is no phone or data coverage where they are located, the best opportunity to reach them may be through signage or a PA system.”


Designing & Implementing Effective Communications

This highlights the dilemma faced by integrators tasked with designing emergency communications systems.

“Diverse populations have different methods that will be effective,” Von Thaden says. “Individual attitudes about the ways in which they expect to be warned can complicate the effort for those trying to send out those messages. You need to understand not only where people expect to receive alerts, but also how they are likely to respond, which runs the gamut from people who will ignore, respond or seek validation.”

Most of the distributed communications options require buy-in from the end user and this presents difficulties, as well. “If people don’t enroll in a personal alerting program you can’t contact them,” Milburn says.

Technically speaking, distributed recipient notification can create other challenges that both integrators and their end user customers need to be aware of. “When you begin to leverage and utilize commercial mediums or public environments like cellular networks and email exchanges, high-density populations around campuses or large municipal areas can have limitations on throughput,” Von Thaden describes. “These limitations need to be taken into account in terms of understanding how quickly messages can be sent. There are bandwidth and throughput challenges that need to be considered.”

Giannini agrees. “Tens of thousands of messages may take a while to push out because they don’t have priority. If you have 25,000 messages it may take minutes and that means quite a bit in an emergency.”

Then there is the issue of the contact information provided. “Contact information is like milk. It has an expiration date,” Mahdavi says. “If people change phone numbers, move, etc., those numbers won’t be good. It is important for integrators selecting notification systems to ensure there is an automatic way to grab that data out of human resources and maintain that list.” Another option is to use service providers such as ConnectEd, At Hoc, and others that specialize in collecting, maintaining and utilizing these lists to disseminate information.

The more traditional elements are not without pitfalls, either.

Giant voice systems are not just the sirens of yesterday. Intelligibility is key. “These are exterior systems based outside and one of the challenges is you need to have a very good analysis of existing structures and the terrain of a particular installation,” Mullen says. “That will affect the design of your high-powered speaker array so you can achieve audibility.” Once you have a system in place, any adjustment or change to that environment, such as landscaping or additional buildings, can change the audibility of the system.

Speaker arrays for giant voice can be upwards of 5,000 pounds, adds Steven Hatch, president, Dynafire, Orlando, Fla. “When integrators are considering mounting these large speakers on rooftops, they need to take into account requirements for hurricane and wind loads and roof loads. Older roofs might not be designed for that.”

Interior speakers are also subject to intelligibility issues, Mullen adds. Unlike the old sirens and tones that used to indicate whether the emergency was a fire or tornado, today’s systems use voice instructions to great effect. However, a facility that has a system installed can later install or remove carpeting, change ceiling tiles, or otherwise alter the structure and cause problems with occupants understanding the voice instructions.


Selling the System

Probably the greatest challenge to integrators in a recovering economy is selling the system itself.

“With the exception of the DoD, there is no building code or fire code requirement from a national standpoint for mass notification,” Poole says. “What is driving it now is generally news events and the desire of the end user not to end up on the front page of the newspaper.”

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education found Virginia Tech liable and fined the university $55,000 for waiting too long to notify students after the shootings, a decision that was recently overturned in a controversial decision, despite a jury finding the university negligent. No matter which way it turns out, the controversy and notoriety are something most facilities would like to avoid.

Another way to approach it is scalability or the modular approach, Mullen says. “Today we can put in the speaker system and strobes in an office building and make those work for a variety of different situations. Tomorrow the customer may want to activate email and two years from now they may want to enable smartphone capabilities.”

Focusing on the non-emergency communication potential is another way to justify costs right now. “Our systems can be used for both emergency and non-emergency events,” Von Thaden says. “It can be used on a day to day basis, which begins to help justify the investment.”

The opportunities are out there, Mullen says. “I wouldn’t say the doors to the vault have been opened. These are capital-intensive acquisitions and they need to budget for these things. We as an integrator are basically getting out there now and sensitizing the market to what the standards are saying and helping them understand that this is coming. They may not be able to implement everything today, but when they do get ready we are here to help them achieve those goals. And we are confident there will be opportunities that proceed from that.”

Communicating Through  Digital Signage & Screens

For many years NFPA has required that there be visual accompaniment to fire alarms to notify the hearing impaired. Today’s emergency communication systems take that 20 steps further, by using a variety of media to provide written communication. Text messaging, emails and computer pop-ups will all alert individuals with specific instructions sent directly to personal devices. Some systems even allow users to choose exactly what format by which they want to be notified.

But distributed communication is highly dependent on user participation and buy-in. If a student or employee doesn’t provide a phone number or email address, they can’t be notified this way.

Another way emergency communication systems successfully use text communication is by taking over the signage that is already available on a campus or at a facility. LED signs, LCD screens, televisions tied to internal networks — all of these can be used to disseminate messages to larger groups of people at once.

“LED signs have been used as a method to communicate for a long time, but they tended to be stand-alone tools” says John Von Thaden at Alerting and Notification Systems, a unit of Federal Signal Safety and Security Group. “Now we can integrate those into a communications system and incorporate both LED signs and large electronic screens.”

These signs allow facilities to have real, live instructions scrolled across a sign or at the bottom of a TV screen, says Jack Poole of Poole Fire  Protection.

“We sell a complete digital signage solution and emergency notification is one component of that, says Kristopher Konrath, product manager for Sony in the Digital Signage Group, Alpharetta, Ga. “It can be integrated directly into a security or fire system where if an alert goes off, it immediately changes the digital signage to post a specific message. We also have in our system the ability to have a message already created that would be able to take over the entire screen to make sure it is noticeable.”

Digital signage is particularly helpful for locations that get a lot of visitors, thinks Tom Giannini of SimplexGrinnell. “These folks may be hearing-impaired, or just not understand what is going on. In general people often react better to visual messaging and LED signs are one method of doing that. We have a software application in our interior fire alarm systems that can take flat screen displays already in place to provide normal, routine communication and put emergency messaging onto these displays.”

Leveraging a facility’s already-in-place signage is a great tool for emergency communication, adds Ted Milburn of Cooper Notification. “I think people are starting to look at all the different ways you can notify people and if there is a display somewhere, why not use that for information dissemination?”



Leveraging Social Media

Overheard on a college campus: “I only use email for formal communication with a professor or something. For everything else I use texting and Facebook.”

This communication trend can make reaching the younger generation difficult in an emergency.

“It is a challenge to reach cell phones, even on college campuses,” says Mark Jay Kurtzrock of Metis Secure Solutions. “Less than half sign up for cell phone alerts and it is hard to get buy-in. Plus, there is a privacy concern.”

Increasingly colleges and universities, and even communities are recognizing the need to leverage social media to tie in and validate the information people are receiving elsewhere. If students “like” a Facebook page, that action can be used to push information out to that student in an emergency.

“Social networks are how students communicate today, so campuses want to be able to port their emergency communications over all the social networks,” says Tom Giannini of SimplexGrinnell. “But again, it requires education of the student population about the importance of being an active participant to get the messaging in the first place.”