A Multilayered Approach to Mass Notification

For single buildings, you will want in-building notification systems connected by an autonomous control unit. In the event of an emergency, you will be able to broadcast voice and visual notifications to occupants, notes McLane. In larger buildings, you might want to include remote operating consoles in critical locations. And to enact your systems, you will need an initiating device – usually a manual push button or pull-type activate station often located in a security office or other secured space. In this space you will be able to trigger automatic pre-recorded messages or use the microphones for specific instructions that override preset ones.

In addition to the in-building systems for each individual facility, campuses should also include wide-area and distributed recipient systems to make sure people between buildings or other blind spots receive notification. 

“If there is an unwanted person on campus or something that erupts in a certain area, you can have a geographically targeted approach to letting people know what they need to do to stay safe,” explains Graff-Radford. “That can come in the form of a text message or a phone call to the students and faculty, but then a more detailed set of instructions to the campus security. You want to have a highly interruptive message that can show up to students to get them to do what they need to do and also to integrate with things on campus such as blue light phones, screens, desktop computers and so forth so you can get as many eyeballs and ears for a faster response.”

Also, be sure to plan for two-way notification so you can receive word back from those who do not respond to notifications when they are sent. It is important to have a mechanism in place to ensure that all occupants have received messages and can act accordingly. “Planning for two-way notification and the various response messages that may come back is critical to a comprehensive plan, as is the need to plan for a lack of response and what next steps would be in that situation,” says Graff-Radford.

Beyond having these systems in place for organizations spread out over campuses and multi-building networks, it is important that your emergency response plan and mass notification systems are uniform across your organization.

 “For companies with multiple buildings, they get consistency across a local, national or even global footprint from these scenarios,” says Graff-Radford. “If I have more than one building, I don’t want there to be one building that is good at safety scenarios and one that is inconsistent. In order to provide consistency in best practices, you want to have those scenarios.” 

Justin Feit justin.feit@buildings.com is Associate Editor of BUILDINGS.

Fire Safety Integration

Every building should already have a fire alarm system, and you can use that to your advantage when looking to implement or upgrade mass notification systems. You might be able to double up and integrate fire safety and mass notification systems together.

“Because many buildings require fire alarm systems, it is not uncommon for these voice systems to be dual-purpose systems. In other words, they use fire alarm notifications and fire alarm detection, as well as mass notification,” explains McLane. “A lot of buildings – especially high-occupancy and high-rise buildings – require by code a fire alarm system, so it just makes more sense to incorporate mass notification into one piece of gear that serves both purposes.”

If you integrate these systems, be sure that your messages clearly delineate instructions for occupants. Some emergencies will require a different response, and you don’t want occupants to evacuate the building in a scenario where they should be taking shelter instead.

Misuse of Mass Notification Systems

There is a temptation with mass notification systems – especially with in-building systems – to use them for non-emergency communications. Technically, there aren’t any rules against using them as such, but that can cause problems as messages can lose clarity.

“When people want to use a mass notification system as more of a marketing-based system, it dilutes the messages out there,” says Daniel Graff-Radford, Chief Product Officer at OnSolve, an emergency mass notification provider. 

During emergency response planning, prioritize emergency communications and make sure that wires aren’t crossed with any other types of notifications. It is critical that any emergency communications are taken seriously and not ignored, so it is a good idea to keep them separate. 

“We’re very careful that people can send both emergency and non-emergency messages, but we send the non-emergency messages through differentiated channels that have a different look and feel so that when an emergency happens, people don’t get confused about an emergency vs. non-emergency message,” explains Graff-Radford.


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