Integrating Emergency-Response Systems

July 24, 2009
Integration helps your emergency-response system run smoothly in a crisis

Since 9/11, companies across America have been attempting to solve the problem of safely evacuating and securing their buildings in an emergency. The emergence of MNEC (mass-notification emergency communication) systems has integrated security and fire-alarm systems with other building systems to create mass-notification systems. Although not yet code, most new buildings have emergency-response systems integrated from conception.

One of the most important aspects of an emergency-response system is the ability to communicate information to occupants inside and outside of the building.

One of the most important aspects of an emergency-response system is the ability to communicate information to occupants inside and outside of the building via PA/intercom systems, horns, LED displays, PC alerts, loudspeakers, emergency lighting, and signage. The newest part of this technology is referred to as “by-your-side technology” and includes messaging through cell phones, PDAs, handheld radios, and e-mail. Through new networking sites, such as, groups can receive detailed accounts of incidents from their local public-safety department. Communications like these provide up-to-the-minute information about staging areas, first-aid stations, weather updates, etc. Some systems can even map out evacuation areas by radius.

This type of technology also keeps radio and cell phone frequencies clear from the numerous inquires that normally occur during an emergency situation. In response to the tragedy at Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University implemented an emergency-response plan that included e-mail, voicemail, and updates via its website. The website received more than 352,000 hits in 7 hours after the shooting in February 2008; within 70 minutes of the tragedy, the message was out via all of these channels that the shooter was dead and the school was secured.

Steps to Ensure Proper Integration

With safety and security being always-present concerns for building owners, and life-safety systems becoming complex integrations of emergency-notification systems, fire-alarm systems, and other building systems, keeping your emergency-response system functioning smoothly may seem difficult.

Ruth Wedster, security specialist and director of training at the Chicago Police Department, recommends these steps to ensure that your building operates well in an emergency:

  1. Identify possible threats.
  2. Calculate the probability of those incidents occurring.
  3. Institute plans geared for the probable, but include all possibilities.
  4. Coordinate the integration of systems utilizing all key members: Fire, security, and alarm companies; IT personnel; and local public safety should be included.
  5. Test the system on a regular basis, and share changes and upgrades with your team.
  6. Practice, practice, practice!

When assessing the need for an emergency-response system, a building owner must first ask: What are the major threats, and what is the probability of these events occurring? According to a recent survey of public-safety specialists, 65 percent of respondents felt that their biggest threat was a natural disaster, followed by a drug-related security breach and an active shooter. With that in mind, it’s important to ensure that your system is tied not only to an emergency-notification system, but also to the security and fire-alarm systems. Doors that automatically lock or unlock, cameras that automatically react to alarmed areas, and signage that directs occupants to safety are just some of the integration areas. This task isn’t as difficult as it may seem. Many buildings’ systems are already in place and, with the assistance of a security consultant with a strong IT background, many of these systems can be upgraded. Integrating by upgrading not only saves money, but also keeps employees from having to learn a new system.

Another important aspect of completing an emergency-response system is to bring together the departments of your organization that need to work together to form an emergency-response team, including life safety, security, technology, and building-management personnel. It must be understood that autonomy breeds disorganization and miscommunication. Creating an emergency command center is a good way to ensure that all integration is completed and tested on a regular basis. Frequent drills alongside local fire and safety personnel need to be performed, and the physical mechanics of the integrated system must be tested. Additionally, everyone associated with your organization must be well versed in the plan and know their parts. A frequent concern, especially with school violence plans, is that key players, such as teachers and staff, are unaware of the plan or have forgotten procedures due to lack of practice.

Ruth Wedster is a security specialist and director of training at the Chicago Police Department.

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