Choosing and Using Mass Notification Technology

09/01/2010 | By Michael Fickes

Are you prepared to quickly notify your staff and tenants about a hazard?

The Willis Tower

The Willis Tower in Chicago relies on web-based mass notification technology. The building’s property management firm doubts that the annual fee charged by its web-based system supplier will cost substantially more than buying a system outright.

One night last spring, flash floods inundated the streets of Alexandria, VA, near Washington, DC. This forced businesses in the area to make split-second decisions about their buildings and their personnel. If they remained open, how would personnel get there? If they closed, how would the personnel know?

Symantec's Solution
"We closed the location at 6 a.m. and moved critical operations to our Herndon, VA, office," says Todd C. Vigneault, CPP, corporate security manager for the Americas/East and Latin America divisions of Mountain View, CA-based Symantec Corporation.

Following the corporate protocol, the head of the Alexandria office initiated a process through which a mass notification system from San Diego-based MIR3 sent instructions to the Alexandria employees.

He phoned the corporation’s security communications center in Eugene, OR, and reported the problem. Working with the security group, he developed separate messages for separate groups of people. Some employees got the day off. Those responsible for critical services, however, were told to report to work at another Symantec office in the region.

The messages went out from the communications center to every employee’s e-mail, home and office landline telephones, mobile phones, pagers, and any other communications devices registered by the employees.

The messages asked employees to reply. The system periodically sent additional messages to those who had not responded. Within an hour or so, each of the approximately 170 Alexandria employees had responded. Problem solved.

Buildings Are Different
Once a system has been selected, users must develop policies and procedures controlling its use. While building tenants and building managers use these systems in different ways, appropriate procedures make it possible for the two to work together.

For example, the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago uses a system supplied by New York City-based Send Word Now. Keith Kambic, director of security and life safety with U.S. Equities Asset Management LLC, the building’s property management firm, keeps only 1,000 names in the system, even though 12,000 people work in the building.

Kambic only communicates directly with employees of his property management firm and top executives from tenant firms. "When we send a notification, we advise our employees to take certain actions, but it is up to the tenants’ management to decide what to tell their employees," he says.

Kambic has divided his list of 1,000 names into groups that receive different messages. His security staff receives instructions for helping property management employees and tenants. Direct employees receive instructions to, say, lock the door and wait for further instructions.

Notified of the emergency, tenants will typically use their own systems, as in the Symantec example above. In this way, a building system and a tenant’s system can work together.

Select Your System
The Symantec and Willis Tower systems are web-based, meaning that a third party manages, maintains, and upgrades the technology, while providing access to users through web browsers.

Other vendors sell systems outright. Corporations capable of housing systems in their IT departments might find it more cost effective to buy and manage their own systems.

Kambic specified a web-based system for Willis Tower. He didn’t want the responsibility for managing complex technology. "I’m not an IT guy," he says. "I want experts to keep the system operational."

In the end, Kambic, doubts that the annual fee charged its by web-based system supplier will cost substantially more than buying a system outright — which might have required hiring additional people to manage it properly.

Michael Fickes is the owner of Fickes & Co. Inc., a Baltimore publishing firm with experience in the security industry, and a contributing editor to BUILDINGS.

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