FM Issue: Message Received?

By Mike Madden
From the May 2014 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Emergency Communications

In an age of mass shootings and unpredictable weather disasters, an emergency management plan is more important than ever. For today’s facilities, emergency preparedness must extend beyond an occasional fire drill and should encompass detailed and continuous risk assessment and response planning. Technology tools can help with emergency communication, but people, and how they react, are a huge variable that can only be addressed with repeated training, assessment, and practice.

The first step is a risk assessment, which is not something that should be turned over to a consultant. A consultant can ask the right questions, but the answers have to come from within the organization in a process that requires participation from multiple stakeholders. There are several steps required to evaluate and address effectively the threats and risks faced by a facility.

Step 1: Gather Stakeholders

Anyone whose participation is required to evaluate risk and to plan emergency response should be assembled as part of a team. The list of likely participants varies according to the type of facility and specific needs and factors. For a college or university, stakeholders might include the security department, campus fire marshal, head of the department of housing, the facilities department, and even the heads of academic departments that have their own buildings. In a large corporate campus, on the other hand, the parties involved would include the facilities and/or engineering department, the security department, and a representative of the local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) such as the local police and/or fire departments. Participation by the local police chief, or a representative, ensures the department is “plugged in” as risk issues are being addressed.

Step 2: List Possible Risks

It is difficult to prepare for a risk unless it’s anticipated that it could happen. Working with stakeholders to make a list of what could go wrong and the possible impact can provide a guide to various response scenarios. Obvious threats to consider include workplace violence, weather emergencies, and fire. The basic list can be broadened to include other possible risks specific to the type of facility. These might include hazardous materials used in a manufacturing facility or storage of oxygen or the presence of various bio-hazards at a large hospital.

Step 3: Consider Current Response Technologies

Emergency Broadcasts
The intelligibility of emergency messages, which involves ensuring the information can be heard clearly by people in the vicinity, is addressed in the NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. (Photo: Gamewell-FCI.)

The team should create a laundry list of technologies that are currently installed, from fire alarms to public address (PA) systems. It is critical to evaluate technology choices for emergency response. Major categories to consider are fire alarms/life safety systems, PA systems, and security systems.

Fire alarms/life safety systems. Fire alarms have been around for 160 years and are required in public buildings. Life safety systems are listed by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and governed by local codes based on standards of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Regular testing ensures life safety systems will operate in an emergency.

PA systems. Most buildings have public address, but many facility managers have not evaluated the effectiveness of these systems to communicate in an emergency. There may be “dead zones”—areas throughout a facility where people cannot hear the PA system. Important criteria of emergency communication are audibility and intelligibility; systems must be loud enough to be heard and clear enough to be understood.

Security systems. From perimeter protection to video to access control, security systems can play a vital role in an emergency situation. These systems promote awareness of intruders and early warning of emergencies.

Step 4: Combine Technologies To Manage Emergencies

Where are the holes in the system? How might assets, like fire suppression systems, be used in an emergency even beyond the hazards for which they are designed. How can emergency alerts be delivered into high ambient noise areas, such as by using messaging on closed circuit monitors?

The team should evaluate the capabilities of the PA system. Where does it reach? What are its capabilities? Where is it inaudible because of ambient noise? Is the system “supervised” or not (i.e., the system sends a trouble alarm to someone if it becomes inoperable)?

Where are video monitors located, and could closed circuit television be used to spread emergency notifications? Are there marquee signs or large screen displays that could be used to get attention in an emergency?

Today’s life safety and fire alarm systems incorporate greater emergency communication capabilities that are useful in situations beyond fire. A life safety system could detect carbon monoxide in an underground parking garage, for example.

Visual Messaging
Text messaging and other tools significantly improve the ability of managers to connect with people in and around their facilities during an emergency. (Photo: Gamewell-FCI.)

In addition to alarms, life safety systems can offer a range of customizable automated messaging, and operators can use microphones to communicate live in an emergency. The benefit of automated emergency voice message alerts via a life safety system can be optimized if the messaging specifies what action people should take. Open-ended messages and general phrases such as “go to a safe place” should be avoided; some people might misunderstand such messages to mean that they should flee the building, when in fact that might be the most dangerous option. Current systems vary in message capacities, and these systems can offer anywhere from 16 to 256 programmable voice messages.

Step 5: Consider What May Be Missing

How can the team ensure everyone is notified in an emergency? In a campus setting, what about people who are outdoors walking from one building to another? If not already in place, the organization might consider a campus wide mass notification system, which can include exterior high powered speaker arrays mounted 50′ up in the air or on a rooftop to cover a larger area.

And how does the system communicate with an employee wearing noise canceling headphones or to guests touring a college campus? There are systems that can communicate messages via marquee signage and/or video monitors. Meanwhile, the use of computer pop-ups can alert anyone using a computer on the organization’s network; the software operates quietly in the background until an emergency occurs. An acknowledge button helps to track how many people have received notification. Notifications sent via text messaging can also play a role, especially in an educational campus environment.

Step 6: Keep The Plan Current

Test, evaluate, review, adjust, and repeat. These are the key elements of keeping a plan current. Creating an emergency response plan should be considered an ongoing process. Things change in a facility from month to month and even day to day, so a dynamic approach to emergency response planning is needed. The team should use drills and exercises to test the response to various kinds of threats. And it’s important to know how many people are getting emergency messages; coverage should be above 90%.

Various people of authority should be assigned to specific areas to lead and oversee emergency response. After a test, gathering them together for a debriefing can shed light on what is working well and what needs to be fine-tuned. Authorized personnel must be trained to use emergency equipment effectively. Emergency communication systems generally provide local operator consoles positioned throughout a facility, which can be used by authorized personnel or by first responders. Each console can include a microphone and provide the ability to activate the system.


The challenge of emergency communication is especially daunting if a facility spans a wide geographic area such as a large campus setting, or if many people are involved. Emergency management is essential at facilities such as corporate offices, healthcare and education campuses, military bases, and transportation venues such as airports and train stations. It’s safe to say that the larger the facility, the greater the emergency management and communication challenge, although facilities of any size should have a plan that starts with a thorough risk analysis.

Madden is a fire alarm industry veteran, working with facility managers and other stakeholders to design and implement life safety technologies for more than 35 years. As the national sales manager for Gamewell-FCI, his primary responsibility has revolved around fire alarm and emergency communication systems, educating potential users on available technologies and applicable codes.