Safety Trends: Mass Notification Decoded

By Ted Milburn
Published in the March 2011 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Wide-Area MNS provide critical messages that are specific to the emergency and delivered in real time. (Photo: Cooper Notification)From catastrophic natural disasters to the various security threats college students face, there has been a heightened demand for effective, multi-layered Mass Notification Systems (MNS) to protect, alert, and inform people in an emergency. The number and diversity of these threats have influenced the federal government and other organizations to create regulatory codes for MNS.

Mass notification is a dynamic market that is constantly evolving. When it comes to selecting an effective, facility wide mass notification solution, there’s a wide range of technologies available, countless vendors that provide it, and new industry codes and requirements to follow. [For more on these technologies, see The Facility Technologist article.] From indoor voice evacuation systems to outdoor, high power speaker arrays, there’s no doubt the sheer volume of information for an inundated facility manager (fm) to sift through is massive—more than 13 million results are returned when an online search is conducted.

For fms who are either first time buyers of MNS or looking to upgrade their current systems, the key is choosing not only the right mix of emergency communications systems to meet the facility’s needs, but also understanding and complying with the latest minimum requirements.

Mass Notification Defined

The role of mass notification—alerting and warning people—is not a new tactic. Consider the midnight ride of Paul Revere as a historical example of using both audible and visual alerting methods. Today’s sophisticated MNS have certainly come an extremely long way since 1775, combining fire, security, and alerting systems to provide a complete, integrated emergency communications solution to handle different threats.

Although the role is not new, the term mass notification was only introduced within the past decade by the U.S. military. Since then, it has rapidly emerged into a defined stage with regulatory codes and requirements.

After the 1996 terrorist attack on Khobar Towers, the U.S. Secretary of Defense issued a post-incident report, which concluded that there was no effective notification system to warn personnel. This prompted the U.S. military to develop force protection standards—the Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC) 4-010-01 Minimum Antiterrorism Standards for Buildings—where mass notification was first defined. In 2004, the Department of Defense (DoD) published the UFC 04-021-01 Design and O&M: Mass Notification Systems, which required the installation of intelligible voice notification systems in and around new “inhabited buildings.”

In creating the UFC, the DoD discovered that most fire alarm systems were unable to communicate with people in non-fire emergencies such as severe weather. The U.S. Air Force petitioned the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to develop MNS requirements. In the NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code 2010 edition, Chapter 24 Emergency Communications Systems (ECS) is the first mass notification code developed for the private sector.

NFPA 72 MNS Codes

The new MNS chapter in NFPA 72 2010 is a complete set of requirements for installation and performance of indoor and outdoor ECS, which includes In-Building Fire Emergency Voice/Alarm Communications Systems, In-Building MNS, Wide-Area MNS, and Distributed Recipient MNS.

To communicate information properly, the NFPA states that the ECS must broadcast messages the intended recipient will hear and understand with specific, consistent, accurate, and intelligible information. An ECS must be installed in occupancies where required by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) or other applicable governing laws, codes, or standards. Regardless of whether an ECS is required by the AHJ or voluntary, installing a code compliant system insures the fm that the ECS system has achieved a level of performance tested to the rigorous standards of the latest Codes.

In-Building Mass Notification Systems

As defined by NFPA, an In-Building MNS provides information and instructions to people in a building or other space using intelligible voice communications and visible signals, text, graphics, tactile, or other communications methods. Combining or integrating in-building fire emergency voice/alarm communications systems with other communications systems (such as mass notification, public address, and paging) is now allowed and encouraged by code. Using one system that meets code is financially beneficial to fms, since it reduces design, installation, and ongoing life cycle costs. Fire alarm or priority mass notification messages as determined by a risk analysis must take precedence over any other announcement such as paging or public address.

MNS provides live voice and pre-recorded localized messaging within a protected individual building, areas surrounding the building, and other outdoor designated areas. The notification zones are also based on a detailed risk analysis. Each building should be provided with a separate In-Building MNS, which must be designed with intelligible voice in accordance with NFPA 72 2010, Chapter 18, Notification Appliances. An effective In-Building MNS manages all audio and visual notification appliances for both fire alarm and emergency communications and reports trouble and supervisory signal through the Fire Alarm System (FAS).

Where there is audible notification, the In-Building MNS must provide visible notification to serve the hearing impaired; it must also be suitable for high noise areas. Visible notification is typically accomplished through the use of clear strobes for fire alarms and amber strobes for MNS.

In addition to the strobes, textual, graphic, or video displays can also be used. Transmission of visible notifications and messages must be simultaneous to audible notification and messages.

Wide-Area MNS

The Wide-Area MNS broadcasts real time intelligible voice messages, tones, and sirens, covering large outdoor areas. Wide-Area MNS can be used for applications such as campus or large facility voice systems, public warning systems, and military base outdoor notification systems.

Distributed Recipient MNS

Distributed Recipient MNS (DRMNS) can be added and integrated with audible and visible alerting systems for a multi-tiered communications system. The DRMNS must be able to communicate to hundreds or thousands of individuals through multiple delivery methods including mass dialing systems, e-mails, SMS/text messages, paging, and desktop pop-up notifications.

MNS Trends And Future State

As a result of new codes and a multitude of emergency situations that could occur, facilities are beginning to upgrade their current FAS with voice communications whether it’s through the FAS or a standalone in-building mass notification solution. Setting off strobes and sirens alone, systems must do more than just signal the need for people to evacuate the building. A facility’s communications system must be able to direct occupants on what to do and where to go with specific instructions for different types of emergencies.

There is no single technology that fits every situation. NFPA states that relying on just one technology to do the job in an emergency could result in a relatively large population not receiving the message.

The overall solution is for fms to use multiple communications systems (or System-of-Systems) that combine to produce a reliable and robust design, ensuring that information will successfully reach the affected audience. The different layers of communication include broadcasting emergency information over indoor or outdoor MNS, sending e-mail and text messages, activating computer pop-up alerts, distributing automated voice calls, and using electronic signage.

With limited staff and multiple communications systems to launch, fms need integrated emergency notification systems with a simplified, single interface to launch all of the different applications. This allows fms to focus on the emergency at hand without being slowed down in the act of trying to activate multiple systems.

In addition to an integrated System-of-Systems, multiple sites and facilities can be tied together for a corporate wide MNS. Through a secure, real time information sharing framework, a facility can communicate with other facilities as well as local fire, police, and health departments for a better understanding of the emergency. This enables fms to make more informed decisions when time is of the essence.

Another trend in MNS is improving situational awareness and alerting time with interoperable life safety and security systems. By integrating MNS with security systems (such as video monitoring, access control, and sensor detection) or with external data sources (like the National Weather Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Federal Drug Administration, and Consumer Products Safety Commission), alerts can be automatically sent when a threat is detected, allowing facilities to get the essential information out quickly, then follow up with additional information as needed.

Consider this example of an integrated life safety system at a chemical facility. An intrusion detection system is triggered in the back of the property; this then activates a camera to stream live video of the area. Next, the MNS sends an alert to the security guard stating there is an intruder in the restricted access area. The message is also broadcast to the detected area to deter the offender. By viewing the video, the guard confirms the threat and with a couple of clicks, he or she sends notification to security officers within the area to respond, alerts employees in the surrounding area, and locks all of the building doors with the access control system. Responding to this situation takes place within minutes, saving lives and reducing chaos. [For more security coverage, see “Bomb Scare.”]

Mass Notification Implementation

As codes continue to change, it’s important for fms to understand how they can optimize solutions that enable them to leverage existing infrastructure, systems, and equipment—all with minimal upgrades and modifications. For new construction, the range of state of the art ECS technology available today ensures success doesn’t have to be a difficult endeavor and can be accomplished by starting with these steps:

  1. Begin with a vulnerability and risk assessment.
  2. Develop a Master Plan that integrates:
    a. Protection systems;
    b. Mass Notification Systems; and
    c. Emergency action plans;
  3. Implement on a phased basis.
  4. Leverage existing systems and equipment.

By embracing a proactive approach, fms will be on the way to safer, more effective MNS for their facilities and those who occupy them.

Milburn is vice president of marketing for Cooper Notification, a provider in life safety notification and mass notification systems for college campuses, commercial, and military applications.