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A Multilayered Approach to Mass Notification

Nov. 20, 2017

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.”


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 [email protected] 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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