With a wider range of functionality having been applied in recent years, emergency communications systems are progressively becoming more sophisticated and in higher demand by end users. Fire alarm dealers, systems integrators, and engineered systems distributors (ESDs) alike must consider a wide range of factors in order to design the right mass notification or emergency communications system for these end users.

Getting Started

The first and simplest factor to consider is the terminology. Is there a difference between mass notification and emergency communications? According to Shawn Mullen, president and chief energy officer at Protex Central, Hastings, Neb., the choice of terminology depends primarily on the type of customer.

The term “mass notification” originated with the Department of Defense (DOD), Mullen says. “If you’re looking from a non-DOD point of view, you’re talking about an emergency communications system.” Although the term “emergency communications system” is becoming more common, keep in mind that some customers may be more accustomed to the term “mass notification.”

As Mullen explains, emergency communications “boils down to getting the right message to the right person at the right time.”

A customer’s fire alarm system often can do double-duty in meeting this goal, with the panel acting as the brains of the emergency communications system, as well as the fire alarm system. Some of today’s fire panels have sophisticated programming capabilities enabling the system to be set up to trigger outputs only in certain parts of a facility or to trigger different messages or outputs for different areas.

“It makes sense to use the fire system because it’s an emergency evacuation system already,” says Boyd Ferrin, general manager, Fire Protection Services Corp., doing business as Mountain Alarm of Ogden, Utah.

The first step in designing and engineering any emergency communications system is to find out what types of emergencies the customer wants to warn people about and to create a plan for what should happen when each type of emergency occurs.

“The building will have a formal evacuation plan,” notes Ken Webster, owner of Eagle, Idaho-based Webster Fire Protection. The evacuation plan is put in place at the time the building is designed. “The fire alarm and emergency communications will be designed to accommodate that.”

In designing emergency communications systems, ESDs and fire alarm dealers can use a wide variety of inputs and outputs, depending on the customer’s specific needs. “The whole purpose is selective communications and directing people in peril to a safe place,” Webster observes.


One type of input could be specialty sensors, such as those designed to detect ammonia in a factory, potentially triggering a pre-recorded message, email blast, or both/other output.

Certain informational feeds also can be important inputs. For example, a customer can get a feed from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which provides alerts about tornado warnings and other weather conditions. A customer also might want a feed from the local public safety answering point’s computer-aided dispatch console.

Events reported to the PSAP are coded depending on the nature of the event and a customer’s emergency communications system can be set up to take certain actions when it receives certain types of alerts. Webster cites the example of a business located near a prison that might want to alert employees if a prisoner escapes.

An important issue to resolve with customers is what to do in the event of an armed intruder or similar threat — and how that alert will be triggered.

“You need a process,” Mullen observes. That process could include designating a specific employee to be in charge of determining when action needs to be taken and what that action should be.

“You may not want an automatic message to play; that could escalate things,” Mullen notes. One option is for the designated employee to speak a code message into a microphone. For example, a message advising a certain person to come to the office could be the signal to employees of an intruder situation so that the employees can take a pre-determined action such as taking cover in a specific location.

Mullen cautions that if a business, school or other enterprise plans to use spoken announcements, those announcements should be pre-written.

“The whole purpose is selective communications and directing people in peril to a safe place,” Webster emphasizes.

Selling Themes

When selling emergency communications systems, security integrators may need to work with different decision makers than usual, observes C.J. Simonds of Mountain Alarm. When Simonds sold an emergency communications system to Colorado State University, for example, his primary contact was the risk manager. Traditionally in selling a fire system, Mountain Alarm works primarily with the facilities or operations director.

Simonds believes the emergency communications market is “in its infancy.” Potential clients often are relatively unfamiliar with emergency communications. Accordingly, Mountain Alarm sometimes puts on lunch-and-learn events or seminars aimed at educating attendees on the topic.

Dealers and integrators may need to educate themselves as well. Fabian Escalante of Convergint Technologies advises security salespeople to “understand different industries and the type of technologies that are of interest to each of them.” He notes, for example, that while a college or university might want indoor and outdoor audio alerts as well as a distributed recipient system, a healthcare facility probably would not want the outdoor audio alerts because of concerns about disturbing patients, but would want the other two.

Some integrators advise pitching emergency communications whenever a fire system is pitched. And even if a customer is not initially ready to install emergency communications, the integrator should suggest that the customer install speakers rather than horns — or at least use four wires rather than two when wiring the horns — in case emergency communications might be added in the future.  

Key Terminology

These are some of the key terms used in emergency communications:

  • Acoustically Distinguishable Area— an enclosed or otherwise physically defined area, or an area that can be distinguished from other areas because of acoustics or environmental or use characteristics.
  • Area of Refuge — a pre-designated area to which occupants should move in the event of an emergency.
  • Distributed Recipient System — a system that can be programmed to send email or text alerts to smartphones or to cause a pop-up alert to be seen on desktop computer screens.
  • Giant Voice — an audio alert system designed to be heard throughout large outdoor areas.
  • Intelligibiltiy — a requirement for an emergency communications system aimed at ensuring that people not only can hear an alert but that they also can understand it.
  • Shelter in Place — a response to an emergency that involves occupants remaining inside a building.
  • Sidecar — a separate element connected to a fire panel to boost capacity of audio outputs.

Military Mass Notification

The military uses the term “mass notification” for what’s known in the civilian world as “emergency communications.” By comparison with civilian systems, military mass notification systems have stricter requirements, notes Duane Hannasch, president of San Antonio-based Fire Alarm Control Systems.

In general, military mass notification systems require greater-capacity batteries and must put out greater amperage, Hannasch explains. The reason is that speakers in military installations generally are required to sound for a longer period of time and batteries must provide backup power for a longer time period. Intelligibility requirements also are stricter for the military, Hannasch notes. “It requires us to put in more speakers at lower wattage,” he observes.

Hannasch says it’s also important to understand that specific requirements vary from one branch of the military to another. For example some branches use strobe lights for visual notification while others look for signs with scrolling text.

“Find a qualified fire protection engineer who is well versed on the requirements; it makes a great relationship,” advises Hannasch, who notes that the Department of Defense requires a fire protection engineer to be involved in the design of any mass notification system.

Specific requirements for military mass notification are detailed in the Unified Facilities Criteria 4-021-01, Hannasch says.


When a fire panel is used to control emergency communications, it is critical for the system to use speakers rather than horns which, in turn, drives the need to run four wires between the control panel and the speaker, rather than only two as when horns are installed.

In planning speakers for an emergency communications system, dealers and integrators need to make sure that the panel provides sufficient amperage for all of the speakers it will be driving — a task that can be accomplished through a close reading of manufacturer specifications.

In some cases a panel may not provide sufficient amperage. If this occurs, the integrator may be able to install what is commonly referred to as a “sidecar,” Ferrin states. A sidecar is a separate element connected to the panel to boost output levels or to provide other required functionality that may not be built into the panel.

For large commercial, educational or other installations involving multiple buildings grouped together on a campus, it may be important to install what integrators refer to as “giant voice” speakers. These speakers are designed for outdoor use and can be heard for distances as great as a half mile or more, according to Fabian Escalante, senior account executive for Schaumburg, Ill.-based integrator Convergint Technologies.

Another important requirement for speakers used in emergency communications systems is intelligibility — a capability defined by the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA). Intelligibility is a topic that SDMpreviously has covered in detail (see “More Online” for information about article archives.)

Some customers may not want to rely solely on audible alerts in the event of an emergency. Instead they also may want digital display signs that can be set up to display different messages depending on the circumstances. Another option that may appeal to some customers is a distributed recipient system. These systems can be programmed to send email or text alerts to smartphones or to cause a pop-up alert to be seen on desktop computer screens. Escalante cautions, however, that not all distributed recipient systems handle all of those types of alerts.

Distributed recipient systems are popular with clients in higher education, Escalante describes. He cautions, though, that clients shouldn’t rely solely on the distributed recipient system. “It’s important to have additional layers,” he says. “If students are in class and their phones are off they still need to be able to get the message.”

The concept of multiple layers raises another issue — that of systems integration. Escalante cites the example of one university that had three separate systems — one for indoor alerts, one for outdoor alerts, and a distributed recipient system — until Convergint worked with the university to consolidate functionality onto a single platform.

When Escalante works with customers that want multiple types of alerts, he takes care to recommend equipment that can be easily integrated. Often that means using a command console rather than a fire alarm panel as the master controller. “Fire systems do a good job of driving indoor solutions, sometimes outdoor,” he observes. “But when it comes to personal messages, digital displays and desktop alerts, traditional fire systems aren’t necessarily the best drivers. Other systems are more open, more IP-enabled.”

Selecting systems that can be easily integrated eliminates the need for administrators to log in and direct multiple systems in order to execute an emergency communications plan, Escalante explains.

Ken Hoffman, CEO of Casselberry Fla.-based DynaFire, offers another piece of advice about distributed recipient systems. Employers should gather phone numbers and emails for employees’ spouses and include them in emergency communications plans, he says. He notes, for example, that if an emergency occurs at a place of work and someone involved posts something on Facebook, news of the emergency could quickly reach spouses who will want to know what is going on.

Networked Systems

When a customer has multiple locations in a campus environment, it’s a good idea to use a networked system, enabling audio and visual alerts in multiple buildings to be controlled from a centralized location, eliminating the need for separate systems in different buildings to be separately controlled
and managed.

Networked emergency communications systems should have their own dedicated network that is not shared with IT traffic, observes C.J. Simonds, general manager of Middleton, Colo.-based Mountain Alarm.

If a campus is really large, the integrator should be prepared to sub-divide the network, advises Simonds. He notes that a typical fire alarm system may be able to handle about 100 individual points, but that number can be increased by creating multiple interconnected networks, he explains.

That’s the approach Mountain Alarm used at Colorado State University in Middleton, where the company is in the process of adding emergency communications to an existing fire alarm system serving 152 buildings underpinned by 27 miles of fiber.

A Customized Solution

 A properly planned emergency communications system can prevent panic and even save lives during an emergency. And with the wide range of inputs and outputs available today, each system can be closely tailored to meet the needs of each individual end user.