A Multilayered Approach to Mass Notification

11/30/2017 | By Justin Feit

Develop plans and diversify communications systems for proper emergency responses

W​hen you think about alarm systems in buildings, fire alarms are likely to be the first you consider. They are highly visible systems that communicate a simple message to building occupants: to evacuate. But for emergencies that are not fire-related, the response might require something other than evacuation and occupants might not be sure what their next actions should be.

“With a fire alarm signal, usually you’re evacuating the building. However, if it is a mass notification for another type of emergency – active shooter, tornado warning, chemical spill – do you want to evacuate the building? Usually not. Usually you want to shelter in place. You want to have an emergency response plan to be able to talk about those different scenarios and decide what actions should be taken and what is a higher priority,” says Bryan McLane, Vice President of the National Training Center, a training provider for fire alarm and security systems.

Making sure your occupants know what to do during  these events requires foresight, diligent preparation and the right mix of technologies to communicate with everyone. Are your mass notification systems and plans enough to ensure your occupants’ safety during an emergency?

Developing an Emergency Response Plan

One of the most important things to know about mass notification is that communicating widespread messages to the right building occupants takes serious preparation and an ability to anticipate any number of emergencies and events that require action.

“A common misconception about mass notification is that systems will work right out of the box without having any kind of implementation or planning,” says Daniel Graff-Radford, Chief Product Officer at OnSolve, an emergency mass notification provider. “There are ways that you can blast messages to people and that might suffice, but that is a recipe for disaster. If you don’t have a really solid implementation plan, when an issue comes up, you’re not going to be as prepared to run those scenarios.”

Thus, it is important to develop an emergency response plan and risk analysis with someone who is qualified and can think big when it comes to these events, explains McLane. Working with experts who will think of the right questions, anticipate how building occupants might react and know how to cover any possible scenario is critical to being prepared. At that point, you can enact a clear, sequential plan that will lead building occupants to safety.

“You have to think about these scenarios as times when there is a lot of emotion because people are scared and they want to make sure they do the right thing to stay safe and help others stay safe,” explains Graff-Radford. “What people want in any sort of notification system is to have scenarios that are built out of best practices so when notifications go out to people, the facility manager doesn’t need to put a lot of thought into it. The thought happens before the emergency. Think about these scenarios as logic-based parts of the software system that detail who gets what messages and what messages they get back. It is very important that there can be segmentation of different groups getting different messages so a building manager or head of security can initiate a scenario with a simple push of a button and have the security team get a specific message about what they should be doing.”

To account for possible events, work with someone who will be resolute and will not underestimate any threat. For example, mass shootings have become all too common, but people still inadequately prepare for them because of the pervading notion that “it could never happen here.” Therefore, a committee of individuals who work for your organization may not have the proper knowledge or foresight for an emergency response in these types of situations and may be unwilling to consider the possibility of such atrocities.

“Unfortunately, it is a very dark line of thinking. You have to think about the worst of people and some of the really terrible things that could happen,” says McLane. “By doing the emergency response plan, you’re looking at this and saying, ‘We may not be able to save everybody, but we can certainly save a lot of lives, and here’s how we’re going to do it.’”

Testing and Maintaining Your Systems

Once you have an emergency response plan in place, it is important to keep testing and maintaining your mass notification systems. Communicating with building occupants requires more than just foresight; it necessitates tests to ensure that important messages reach recipients in a timely, organized manner.

 “The real work of mass notification happens in the implementation and making sure that all the recipients are properly loaded into the system, doing regular testing and building out those scenarios,” says Graff-Radford. “The actual pushing of a button and having the right messages go out looks at the time like a blast of text messages. But the forethought that goes into different people getting different messages to improve their individual outcomes would be where the real power of mass notification is. That upfront work of implementation and configuration doesn’t take too many hours to do, but there is a very defined process that needs to be followed to ensure success.”

Mass notification systems are governed by requirements laid out in NFPA 72 Chapter 24: Emergency Communications Systems, and among other standards for the different types of mass notification systems, it provides requisites for testing and maintenance. You should test systems annually to make sure they properly operate when required, but this is commonly neglected.

“A lot of times these systems are ignored or considered secondary. They aren’t properly inspected or maintained, and when they are needed, they don’t function correctly or at all,” says McLane. “When you make modifications to the programming, you have to test the system in addition to annual testing so that everything works correctly. I’ve heard horror stories from people who recall that when the system was installed, everything worked great and things were computer programmed. There have been instances where people changed the programming or added components and didn’t do the test or didn’t do it the way it was supposed to be done. And when they needed the system, they found it didn’t work properly.”

McLane recalls one example where some additional programming was done to a distributed recipient system on a campus so that everyone would receive notifications via cellphone, text message or email. But when an incident occurred and the system was triggered, that part didn’t work because nobody tested it after programming to make sure it still operated properly. 

Filling in the Gaps

Whether you are managing one building or a multi-building campus, it is important to make sure that you incorporate a number of mass notification systems working together to communicate to active occupants.

“It’s important to have multiple modes of sending messages. If there’s an emergency and you’re in a building, sometimes those emergencies affect cell towers so you don’t just want to text message people. Sometimes people are less likely to see emails so you don’t want to just email people,” says Graff-Radford. “You need to have multiple modes if one area of communications is down.”

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