Mass Notification for High-Rise Buildings

06/03/2009 | By Michael Fickes

Mass-notification systems can help protect tenants in high-rise office buildings

Just before the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11, emergency responders were desperately seeking ways to communicate evacuation orders to people in the buildings. No communication tools were available to help.

Since 9/11, code officials, property managers, and security consultants have been evaluating emergency mass-notification technology with multiple modes of communication: public address, e-mail, text messaging, cell phone, telephone, and visual message boards. The idea is to send enough messages to so many communication devices that at least a few get through.

“Some code officials today require that audible fire alarms be accompanied by voice announcements directing people to areas of refuge,” says Charles LeBlanc, managing associate with Bastrop, TX-based Kroll Security Group. “Mass notification is an extension of that.”

Should a building have a notification system connected to the fire system and another system for use by the property manager? What kinds of communication capabilities should a system offer? Do different modes of communication work better for different emergencies? Does the lack of a mass-notification system create liability risks for owners? Are there routine uses for mass-notification systems – to amortize their costs? Code officials, property managers, owners, and security consultants are working out the answers to these and other questions.

One System or Two?
According to LeBlanc, some code officials argue that a building should have two systems because the public-address system that comes with the fire-alarm system is for the firefighters when they arrive. Then again, the firefighters may not want the building managers sending messages to people in the building.

“In a high rise, you rely on state-of-the-art fire alarm and notification systems when there’s a fire,” says Jeff Craighead, vice president, high-rise and real estate services with Securitas Security Services USA Inc. in Los Angeles. “But, a separate mass-notification system with texting and e-mail capabilities would be useful during incidents such as a shooter in the building. You could text and e-mail warnings and directions to people.”

Public Address vs. E-Mail and Telephones
In the case of a shooter, continues Craighead, a building manager wouldn’t use a public-address system because the shooter would hear any instructions telling people where to hide.

Nevertheless, voice messages play a critical role in keeping people safe during other kinds of emergencies. “With a public-address system, I can tell people what the problem is and what to do right now,” LeBlanc says. “People don’t always look at their text messages or e-mails right away. People don’t always answer their cell phones and office phones.”

LeBlanc also noted that e-mail, text messaging, and telephones have limitations. “On 9/11, cell phone and telephone calls overloaded the systems, and no one could get through,” he says. “The same thing can happen to e-mail systems. In addition, the police or fire department might block those systems to all users except for emergency responders.”

While voice is a key method of communicating mass notifications, multiple modes of communication are important. “You might use pre-recorded and automated messages while you assess a situation,” LeBlanc says. “When you develop a strategy, then you can make the voice announcement.”

Liability Risks
As more facility managers install mass-notification systems, do buildings without systems create liability risks? “Liability often deals with questions of what a reasonable person would do,” LeBlanc says. “Today, the concept of a reasonable person is changing in this context. Over time, that could create liability risks.”

Should not having a system become a liability risk, most building owners will invest in the technology. Until then, mass notification may be a way for owners to give their property a competitive edge.

Routine Uses
Most of today’s mass-notification systems are third-generation technology hosted by the vendor and accessed by users with Web browsers. Public-address speakers, message boards, and other hardware, of course, must be purchased and installed (preferably by a qualified audiovisual consultant).

If it seems difficult to justify subscribing to a system that may never be used, it may help to realize that mass-notification systems offer routine uses that can amortize the costs. For instance, building maintenance can notify tenants and their employees about renovation work. Buildings with service businesses, such as cafeterias, dry cleaners, and convenience stores, can advertise to tenants over the system. The property manager can notify tenants about special events.

While mass-notification systems haven’t become a requirement yet, they may come to be considered essential to protecting high-rise occupants during life-threatening emergencies.

Michael Fickes is a freelance writer and owner of Fickes & Co. Inc., a Baltimore publishing firm with experience in the security industry.

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