Services & Maintenance: Getting The Message Across

By Joe Wilson
Published in the April 2012 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Emergency warning and mass notification for large industrial, commercial, and institutional facilities have traditionally focused on audible and visual signaling devices such as sirens, horns, warning lights, beacons, and public address and intercom systems. To alert anyone outside the facility (most notably fire, police, and medical first responders), but also the surrounding communities, communication was commonly limited to telephone landlines. All that changed on 9/11.

Around the world, terrorist attacks have had a dramatic impact on how facilities managers (fms) and planners develop alerting and notification strategies. Issues of employee and public safety are now suddenly and inextricably interwoven with a variety of security and detection functions.

In addition to propelling a host of subsequent technological developments, the potential threat of terrorist attacks has prompted fms and planners to re-evaluate their approaches to emergency communications—both internally and externally. This covers the full range of facilities, but is particularly acute for industries involved in the processing, use, storage, and distribution of hazardous materials such as chemicals.

The 9/11 tragedies placed the spotlight on the vulnerabilities of many of the nation’s industrial facilities. It also served to attract the renewed attention of government agencies, community leaders, and the general citizenry to public safety issues related to the processing of hazardous materials, and with good reason.

According to a 2007 U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report, there are approximately 7,000 facilities—roughly half the nation’s chemical plants—at high risk of a catastrophic accident or terrorist attack. This includes 101 plants classified as the most dangerous facilities in the U.S., and which place more than 80 million people within range of a worst case toxic gas leak, explosion, or terrorist event.

Compliance with government directives emanating from organizations like DHS is driving this reassessment of facility requirements for emergency warning and mass notification. This has led to a proliferation of network based systems as well as seamless, multi-device, interoperable communications for use both within and outside the facility. Finally, there is the ongoing trend toward integrating disparate warning/notification devices and systems to achieve the highest possible levels of redundancy, reliability, and operational simplicity.

Defining Objectives

The idea that each individual facility presents its own set of requirements is a point consistently acknowledged by virtually everyone, including federal, state, and local government agencies. With regard to security initiatives, for example, this disparity characterizes itself in federal directives for chemical plants ranging from the number of required perimeter fences to standards for outdoor illumination. Additionally, many states have enacted regulations that are even stricter than federal guidelines.

It is because every facility is different that objectives for emergency alerting and mass notification can vary widely from one facility to the next. Again using the example of a chemical plant (where basic considerations include the type and quantity of the chemicals being processed) a successful emergency communications strategy will focus on issues as diverse as ensuring failsafe reliability and redundancy among disparate systems; initiating and maintaining seamless communications with local first responders; and establishing effective protocols for communicating with employees, management, and citizens of the surrounding community.

Decisions will never need to be made more quickly than in the event of a catastrophic incident. There simply is no time for hesitation or doubt when lives are at stake. Though technology now promotes much faster modes of response—including software automation to initiate alerts and subsequent action plans based on predetermined scenarios—it stops well short of supplanting the need for comprehensive emergency planning, including the development of effective mass notification procedures and resources.

Recent studies have shown that since 9/11 potential terrorist attacks remain foremost on many peoples’ minds. But ironically it is other types of emergencies—fires, explosions, hazardous spills, toxic leaks, and extreme weather conditions—that actually represent more likely risks. Also, beyond responding to events such as fires, tornadoes, and terrorist attacks, the inherent capabilities of today’s mass notification systems have also proven to be a valuable asset for everyday, non-emergency, intra- and inter-plant communications.

This is now particularly evident in the deployment of interoperable, multi-device communications technology that not only enhances overall plant communications but also provides a number of useful, software based management and administrative tools. Additionally, even many of the more traditional mass notification tools, such as public address and intercom systems, play important roles in everyday functions like routine communications and process control that offer attractive potential for return on investment.

Mass notification is just one aspect of emergency planning and preparedness, and, at least up until 9/11, may not have always received the attention it deserved. More importantly, some of the procedures originally put in place for alerting/mass notification were anything but “best practice.”

Despite government oversight, the shortcomings have ranged from insufficient audible coverage for indoor warning systems to confusing menus of tonal alerts to inadequate contingency planning in the event key personnel are either unavailable or not present to initiate emergency plans. Employee and management training that is either insufficient or too infrequent continues to be another issue that surfaces with disturbing regularity.

System Integration

Personnel safety, communication, and security requirements have traditionally been thought of in terms of individual systems dedicated to specific needs. As these systems and communication formats have grown in complexity and expanded in number to encompass everything from public address, multi-party intercom, telecommunications, paging, voice messaging, and SMS to e-mail, instant messaging, and other real-time IP-based communications (including social media like Twitter), the concept of fully integrated, facility wide communications for warning and mass notification has emerged as an essential component of facilities planning.

The ability to integrate systems—from sirens and signaling beacons right through to telephone, intercom, and public address—is now critical to developing a cohesive warning and mass notification strategy. The automation that accompanies the integration of multiple systems significantly speeds incident response times while also providing decision makers with up-to-the-minute data that can prove invaluable as an emergency unfolds.

While individual systems need to retain the ability to be integrated with one another, they must also be able to adapt to changes in the future. Plant safety and security requirements can change quickly and dramatically. And, as has happened since 9/11, so can government regulations.

Also, technology continues to create new opportunities for improved efficiency while raising the standards for best practices. Engineering mass notification systems so they can be expanded to accommodate these changes is not only critical, it simply makes good business sense.

While digital interoperable technology has had a powerful impact on emergency notification, and continues to show substantial promise, it is not without its limitations. For instance, recent shooting incidents on college campuses illustrate that the infrastructure for local telephone, wireless, and Internet access can be overtaxed in the event of a catastrophic incident. Such deficiencies seriously impair the ability to initiate conventional and automated telephone, text messaging, paging, and e-mail notification either internally to management and employees, for instance, or externally to local public safety officials and the general public.

Under such circumstances, a fully integrated system that offers the reliable back up of more traditional alert systems (i.e., sirens, horns, loudspeakers and signal beacons and warning lights) stresses the importance of seeing that redundant back up is built in at all levels of emergency communications.

Keep It Simple…Always Good Advice

Complex warning alerts and messages or an excess number of scenarios and action plans could well add to the confusion of what is inherently a confusing emergency situation.

So at the world’s largest liquefied natural gas production facility, a single alert tone is used for all emergency situations. Though the system employed is capable of providing hundreds of different alert tones, employing just one eliminates the need for employees to memorize, interpret, and react to multiple tones and their associated meanings. Once the warning tone sounds it is immediately followed with a more detailed voice instruction broadcast over the public address system.

“Best Practices” Should Be The Only Practices

With regard to best practices, the trend towards network management over discrete wires and relays stands out as a major improvement over mass notification systems of the past. Enabling users to distribute data and information over a network is both faster and more efficient. As an added benefit, there is also the cost savings that accompany a substantial reduction in infrastructure requirements.

Network managed systems also accommodate a broader range of media, such as audio and video, providing an increased level of communications flexibility. A proven methodology now standard throughout the MIS community, Standard Network Management Protocol (SNMP) supports continuous remote monitoring of individual mass notification system components, thereby assuring the beneficial tandem of improved reliability and lower maintenance costs.

Standardized Windows™ based system control and configuration software represents another step forward for mass notification. Systems are not only easier to install, but they permit simple, routine modifications to be made in the field and without the need for custom factory software. Just a point-and-click enables users to program settings into a non-volatile memory.

Fiber optics is a favorable trend that offers important benefits for larger facilities and operations comprised of multiple facilities. By using fiber optic transmission to link facilities in redundant, completely “self healing” communication rings, users experience heightened standards of reliability, enhanced flexibility, and simplified maintenance.

Another promising development is the use of satellite images in support of facility layout design. Incorporated as overlays with site drawings, these images can be used to calculate theoretical sound coverage for audible alerts such as sirens and horns. The imaging can also be used for GIS mapping for targeted alerting of the surrounding communities.

The Future: IP-Based And Software-Centric

Mass notification for facilities covers both indoor and outdoor requirements and calls for interface with the telephone/PABX and plant intercommunications (i.e., public address, tones, voice messaging, etc.). Through traditional loudspeakers and a variety of illuminated signaling devices, these back-end systems actually produce warnings and notification. On the front end of emergency notification—performing the function of activating and integrating these back-end systems—are the intelligent, IP-based interoperable technologies that have captured center stage in the wake of 9/11.

Since it first enjoined real-time communications and urgent notification on the same platform, interoperability has gained momentum as a major priority. Its value becomes particularly evident with regard to initiating and maintaining seamless, multi-device communications with first responders, local authorities, and citizens. However, fully integrated, two-way voice and data communications are capable of supporting and augmenting a number of other incident response and emergency preparedness initiatives, including wide area alerting and data sharing between multiple agencies.

An extension of alert notification and secure messaging software has been the development of incident planning and execution tools that support NIMS/ICS, while providing a method for defining tiered response plans. Scenario management software integrates alerting, communications interoperability, and collaboration tools to activate multiple forms of communication automatically. By initiating events both internally and externally, these systems can act as a nerve center to trigger and coordinate response efforts of management and employees, local officials and agencies, as well as first responders.

The tragedy of 9/11 was clearly a benchmark event in the development of emergency communications for industrial, commercial, and institutional facilities. Though 10 years have already passed since 9/11, many experts believe the notification industry is still in the early stages with many improvements in network based systems, increased emphasis on system integration, and accelerated deployment of interoperable communications technology yet to come.

Wilson is president of Federal Signal‘s Safety and Security Group, where he is responsible for the company’s Industrial Division. Wilson joined Federal Signal in 1987 as the Western Regional Sales Manager for Electrical Products.