Unify Your Mass Notification

Nov. 23, 2015

Avoid communication gaps with layered messaging.

Are you still relying on your fire alarms to notify occupants when there’s an emergency? A series of warning sounds may fall short when people need specific instructions to reach safety. A mass notification solution will extend your communications by providing concise, actionable information. There are plenty of technologies on the market that will deliver messages, but don’t overlook your role. Every effective mass notification system starts with one fundamental – a good crisis plan. Learn how to tailor yours using a risk assessment and layered communication.

Start with a Risk Assessment
During a crisis, a major complication can arise if you only use one path for messages. A single channel for communications could leave your occupants in the dark if it fails or isn’t intelligible. Today’s facilities face a diverse spectrum of emergencies that go far beyond fire. Occurrences such as extreme weather, terrorism, hazardous materials and workplace violence have thrown the need for agile messaging into sharp relief.

“The old way of having fire alarms double as your emergency notification doesn’t cut it anymore,” explains Chris Jelenewicz, Senior Manager of Engineering Practice with the Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE). “You need the ability to distribute accurate, timely and consistent information to a large group of people for all types of situations.”

Before you jump into the technology side of mass notification, take a hard look at your existing system. You need to identify what your gaps are so new components can fulfill your needs. Conducting a risk assessment will ensure your system has been planned and designed with forethought rather than a piecemeal approach that could fail to address deficiencies.

“Because a mass notification system interacts on multiple levels of an organization, have all of your building stakeholders involved,” advises Jelenewicz. “This includes owners, upper management, FMs, the security department and outside parties for law enforcement and fire service. This includes a risk analysis that examines the likelihood of an event, how severe the impact could be and what the response will be.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy with crisis communications. Like saving energy in your facility, you have to identify your unique mix of safety factors to form the best response protocol. All facilities should anticipate events like fire, severe weather and active aggressors. Walk through any situation that would require occupants to evacuate, shelter in place or otherwise muster at a safe location. From there, pinpoint which emergency scenarios could be a reality based on your location and organizational threats. For example, a school with laboratories should consider the possibility of a biohazard event while a global business company may need to anticipate a bomb threat.

“Beyond looking at facility characteristics, occupant characteristics are also important. This is more than tabulating the total number of people that need to be notified – understand the types of occupants present in your building,” Jelenewicz recommends. “Do you have trained employees, transient public visitors or school children?”

These details will help you refine your emergency planning – think of this as creating a standard operating procedure for life safety. These parameters will then highlight areas that you can reinforce with technology.

“Any and all of the communications tools that an organization uses to reach their staff can be integrated into a mass notification system,” says Ray Grill, Principal with Arup and co-chair of NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. “This can include desk and mobile phones, computers, and building systems such as fire alarms and paging systems with voice messaging. Text messaging and emails can also be part of the plan by notifying people that may be remote from the incident or immediate locations.”

These devices will serve as the foundation for your emergency response. Using a tiered approach (page 34) means messages are deployed over multiple channels, creating redundancies so each occupant has multiple opportunities to receive instructions.

Use your risk profile to determine which tiers you need to add or strengthen with additional components. Sequencing these individual technologies isn’t a plug-and-play option, so make sure to seek professional help when adding new devices or software, states Grill.

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Refine Your Messaging
With system components in place, focus your attention on the content of your emergency messages. Alerts should be kept brief, concise and actionable, meaning they provide instructions on how occupants are supposed to respond. Ensure you have messages that range from early warnings, immediate action, updates and all clear.

“Priority levels should be established in your emergency plan based on the level of hazard and the urgency of the action required. For example, there is typically early warning for a hurricane, whereas a fire emergency or active shooter will necessitate an immediate response,” Grill notes.

“This can be aided greatly by using prerecorded voice instruction and video signage instruction such as displaying evacuation maps on TV monitors,” adds Randy Montelius, Vice President of Communications Engineering Company (CEC).

As life safety events become more complex, individuals not only need specific information upon first contact, but frequent updates as a situation evolves. Even if a crisis is still in progress, an update that states “emergency responders are on their way” or “remain in place” lets occupants know your organization is monitoring their safety.

Look for additional opportunities to tailor your messages based on your occupant demographics. For example, you may need to include bilingual instructions, says Montelius. There are also a host of ADA accommodations that are easy and practical retrofits.

Montelius recounts a manufacturing facility he worked with that had a loud environment. Because everyone was wearing hearing protection, the audio and sound system didn’t have an effective reach. They installed strobe lights with three bands of colors, which are tied to alarms for fire, severe weather and medical. This solution ensures that occupants can receive a visual notification when there’s an emergency.

Train for the Inevitable
There’s a strong human element to emergency response and technology is only as effective as those using it. Invest time in training your staff and occupants, particularly as multiple parties need to understand their role.

“All departments that have responsibility for the various communication systems – fire alarm, IT and security – need to work together,” stresses Grill. “One department may take the lead, but it takes cooperation and collective knowledge from various groups to develop and implement a plan.”

Start by identifying which individuals have key responsibilities during a crisis and spell them out clearly in the plan, says Jelenewicz. Don’t forget to specify a backup person for each of these roles.

Submit your staff to tabletop exercises and drills to iron out hiccups. They need to have the confidence to assess a situation, select effective messages and distribute them using the emergency system.

Occupant drills are another priority. Workers and students alike might freeze while being bombarded with information if they can’t easily recall how they are supposed to react: “If you don’t practice very often, the first thing that people will do when they hear an emergency alert is to start questioning what it means,” cautions Montelius. “It creates hesitation, if not outright confusion.” Emergency response should be second nature, but that only becomes rote memory through repetition.

Part of training should also be keeping up with code. Like fire alarms and sprinklers, you are obligated to prove your mass notification system is reliable and functioning. “NFPA 72 provides annual criteria for testing emergency communication systems,” Grill says.

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While general purpose paging and background music systems are not part of the code’s requirements, it would be prudent to evaluate them as well as you are still liable for their performance, Montelius suggests.

Make sure your tests go beyond turning the system on and off. Have a checklist that accounts for how all building systems are integrated. It’s also important to simulate an event and run through the entire sequence of your emergency response plan, Jelenewicz says. Given the complexities of a full mass notification system, ask a fire protection engineer to get involved.

Also follow up on any false-positive alarms. Your system has tripped for a reason, so look into the root cause.

“Don’t automatically assume the system is acting funny or being overly sensitive,” Montelius stresses. “You’d rather have that alarm turn out to be a non-issue than ignore a potential malfunction.”

Jennie Morton [email protected] is Senior Editor of BUILDINGS.

About the Author

Jennie Morton

A former BUILDINGS editor, Jennie Morton is a freelance writer specializing in commercial architecture, IoT and proptech.

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