Posted on 8/7/2014 9:18 AM by Matt Brady

In designing effective emergency communications strategies for industrial plants, commercial retail enterprises, large office complexes or institutional facilities, there are multiple types of barriers to address - cultural, environmental and technological.

Cultural barriers stem from the broad ethnic diversity of American society where, in many cases, adopting English is often a generational issue. Those that speak English as a second language are likely to think faster and more clearly in their native tongue, particularly in a crisis situation.

With this in mind, it has become imperative to integrate a multilingual capability into emergency communication systems. This can be accomplished through distinctive siren and alarm tonal alerts, pre-recorded voice messages in alternative languages, and visual signaling such as strobe lights and message boards. There are also promising new translation technologies that are deployable for emergency communication applications.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 65 million Americans with some type of physical disability. This includes a growing number of people with hearing and vision impairments who pose unique warning and evacuation challenges for building and facility managers. While blindness obviously calls for greater emphasis on audible warnings, hearing impairment correspondingly calls for more visual solutions, such as emergency signaling lights and text-based messaging systems.

Though it's not always the case, environmental obstructions are most often encountered by manufacturing operations. This refers to the hazardous nature of the materials and by-products used in production, as well as potential dangers (i.e., fire, explosion, toxic chemical spills and fumes) posed by processing operations. Among the environmental issues relating specifically to emergency warning communications in manufacturing settings are the excessive noise levels common to factory production operations that call for more visually-oriented emergency signaling.

Technological complications focus mostly on the breadth and scope of communications technology now widely available. This includes everything from cell phones and text messaging to IP-based devices such as smartphones, tablets, instant messaging and social media networks. To a great extent, it is the growing number of communication choices that has led facility managers to adopt the "layered" or multi-tiered approach to emergency alerting that not only ensures effective warning coverage but also supports automated system redundancy and backup.
 
Likewise it is necessary to address the generational differences of people unfamiliar with the latest technologies. For example, the elderly are far less likely to depend on text messaging than teenagers, preferring traditional warnings such as sirens. Many of these barriers can be addressed by multi-tiered communications that feature a high degree of automation and redundancy.

While advanced technology has dramatically expanded the reach of emergency communications, it is important to acknowledge that these advancements are accompanied by inherent drawbacks that have come to light in recent years. Emergency communications personnel should address all three barriers when considering the design of their communications strategies to ensure the most reliable communication plan for facilities during an emergency.

Matt Brady is the vice president/general manager of Global Solutions Division, North America for Federal Signal Safety and Security Group and can be reached at mbrady@federalsignal.com.