Services & Maintenance: Emergency Notifications

Visual alert.
Photo: Thinkstock

By Erica D. Kuligowski
From the March/April 2015 issue

If a fire or other building emergency occurs, what should be communicated to occupants so that they understand the situation and know what to do in response? Obviously timely information is key, but what kind of information and how should it be organized and conveyed?

Research on building emergency communications provides useful guidance on ways to communicate emergency information to improve public response and safety.

Many buildings have mass notification communication systems, which disseminate audible or visual information in the event of an emergency. However, these systems often are not used in the most effective manner. For example, these systems often disseminate pre-recorded, general emergency voice messages that are short on instructive information occupants need. The consequences can be delay and confusion. As use of mobile devices, social networking tools, and other newer technologies increases, guidance on message content and dissemination becomes even more critical to ensure effective and safe response of building occupants during an emergency.

To address this need, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed guidance and communication strategies providing clear and salient information to occupants in the event of “rapid-onset” emergencies—those that occur with little or no warning. Intended users of these documents1, 2 are building managers, emergency personnel, alarm system manufacturers, codes and standards committees, and others responsible for emergency communications.

Alert And Warn

When developing an emergency communication strategy, it is important to incorporate both alerts and warnings. An alert is meant to grab people’s attention and make them aware that an emergency is occurring and that important information will soon follow. The warning message that follows instructs, clearly and succinctly, what actions building occupants should take.

Alerts can be provided by audible, visual, or tactile means. Their primary purpose is to gain attention and prepare occupants to listen to and act on information in the warning message. Additional considerations for alerts are:

  • Alerts should be significantly different from ambient sounds.
  • Background noise should be reduced when initiating audible alerts.
  • Flashing, rather than static lights, preferably one standard color for all buildings, can be used to gain attention.
  • Additional methods to alert building occupants to an emergency include disruption of routine activities, tactile methods, social networks, and face-to-face communication.
  • Alerts should always be followed by a clear, consistent, concise, and candid warning message.
  • Before implementation, alerts should be tested for effectiveness in capturing occupants’ attention in the event of an emergency and should be used as part of building-wide training exercises.

The warning message following an alert should clearly advise occupants on the type and state of the emergency and concisely instruct them on what to do. Message content, structure, and language are critical.

Message content:

  • A warning message should address each of five important topics to ensure that building occupants have sufficient information to respond:
  1. Who is providing the message? (i.e., the source of the message)
  2. What should people do? (i.e., what actions occupants should take in response to the emergency and if necessary, how to take these actions)
  3. When do people need to act? (In rapid-onset events, the “when” is likely to be “immediately”.)
  4. Where the emergency is taking place? (i.e., who needs to act immediately and who does not)
  5. Why do people need to act? (Include a description of the hazard and its dangers and consequences.)
  • Message source should be someone perceived as credible by the building population.
  • Building managers and emergency personnel should understand the building population and, from this understanding, develop a database of possible trusted sources (as well as backup sources).

Message structure:

  • Depending on the technology restrictions, some messages must be shorter than others. Short messages (e.g., a 90 character text message) should present information in the following order: 1) source, 2) guidance on what people should do, 3) hazard (why), 4) location of the hazard (where in the building), and 5) time. Message order for longer messages should be: 1) source, 2) hazard, 3) location, 4) guidance, and 5) time.
  • Numbered lists can organize the sequence of actions in a multiple step process.
  • For limited message length, message writers could draft the message in a bulleted form; each of the five topics in the warning should be separated as its own bullet point.
  • Distinct audiences should be addressed separately in the message (or in a separate message for each).

Message language (or wording):

  • Messages should be written using short, simple words; unnecessary words or phrases should be removed.
  • Messages should be written using active voice, present tense; avoid hidden verbs (i.e., verbs converted into nouns; for example, use evacuate, not evacuation).
  • Use short, simple, and clear sentences—avoiding double negatives and exceptions to exceptions; main ideas should be placed before exceptions and conditions.
  • Emergency messages should be written at a sixth grade reading level or lower. An emergency message can be evaluated for its reading level using computer software and/or simple calculation (see Reference 1 at end of article for more details).
  • Avoid jargon and false cognates.

Other Considerations

An emergency may require communicating multiple warning messages. Examples are updates and feedback messages. If instructions or other information changes, it is important to tell occupants why the information has changed, so that the new message is viewed as credible. Also, message providers should disseminate feedback messages after a “non-event” to advise occupants whether the alert signal and warning system operated as planned and the reasons why the event did not materialize.

Message providers should develop dissemination strategies appropriate to the medium or communication vehicle. Messages that are displayed visually will have different capabilities and limitations than those communicated audibly. Message creators should consider the different factors influencing the clarity and effectiveness of emergency communications.

Visual technologies that could be used to disseminate warnings are textual visual displays, SMS text messages, computer pop-ups, e-mail, websites, news (television broadcast), or streaming broadcasts over the web. Audible technologies include public address systems (voice notification systems), automated voice dialing, satellite/AM/FM radio broadcasts, satellite/off-air television broadcasts, and tone alert radios. Whereas visual technologies may limit message length, audible warnings are often limited only by the attention capabilities of the audience. Therefore, communicators of audible messages must be careful to convey information succinctly, within an appropriate length of time. (See sidebar for sample emergency messaging in a high-rise fire scenario.)

Kuligowski and Omori1 provide guidance on appropriate dissemination strategies to ensure that occupants receive the message (audibly or visually), understand the warning, perceive warning credibility and risk, and respond appropriately.


Kuligowski is a sociologist and fire protection engineer in the Disaster Resilience Program of the Engineering Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Dr. Kuligowski holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Colorado at Boulder, as well as a B.S. and M.S. in Fire Protection Engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research interests are human behavior in fires, people movement, evacuation and wayfinding systems, and computer modeling of fire evacuations. Dr. Kuligowski was part of the NIST Investigation of the 2001 World Trade Center Disaster, studying the evacuation of building occupants. She performed evacuation modeling to recreate scenarios for NIST’s investigation of the 2003 Rhode Island Night Club Fire.


1Kuligowski, E.D. and Omori, H., 2014. General Guidance on Emergency Communication Strategies for Buildings, 2nd Edition. NIST Technical Note 1827, National Institute of Standards and Technology: Gaithersburg, MD.

2Kuligowski, E.D. 2014. Guidance Document: Emergency Communication Strategies for Buildings. The Fire Protection Research Foundation: Quincy, MA.

3START (National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism). 2013. Task 2.9: Phase II Interim Report on Results from Experiments, Think-out-Louds, and Focus Groups. University of Maryland, College Park: College Park, MD.

4Kuligowski, E.D., S.M.V. Gwynne, K.M. Butler, B.L. Hoskins, and C.R. Sandler. (2012) Developing Emergency Communication Strategies for Buildings. Technical Note 1733, National Institute of Standards and Technology: Gaithersburg, MD.


The guidance provided here is taken directly from a report published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The report is based on a review of 162 literature sources from a variety of social science and engineering disciplines4 and the prioritization of the specific findings extracted from each literature source. This three-year effort was funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate and the Fire Protection Research Foundation.1,2



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