FM Issue: Situational Awareness For Safety

Emergency worker on cell phone.
Photo: Thinkstock/Stockbyte

By Mike MacLeod
From the May/June 2015 issue

One of the benefits of being a technology veteran is that you see a lot of trends over a lot of years, or in my case, decades. When I had my first bag phone with a backpack for the battery case, people mocked me mercilessly. Obviously folks changed their minds and cellular took off. Remember Star Trek’s Captain Kirk walking around with his communicator? That used to be science fiction; now it’s just science with more mobile phones in circulation around the planet today than toothbrushes.

Also from my perspective, the promise of technology is in prevention—as in preventing bad things from happening or at least facilitating the appropriate response if an emergency does occur. The good news is that a risk management strategy and technology framework does exist to detect threats automatically and initiate the appropriate responses. This approach is called situational awareness, and it leverages several current technology trends to improve communication, reduce confusion and panic, and prevent delayed responses and costly mistakes.

Converged Connectivity

Convergence refers to the confluence of voice, data, wireless, and even body area networks that provide an unprecedented level of connectivity. The beauty of the World Wide Web is the “world wide” part, so there’s Wi-Fi in buildings and cellular outside of buildings for roaming and handoff from office to home and anywhere in between. The meshing of networks and devices has created the Internet of Things, with Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group predicting some 25 billion devices will be connected by 2015, and 50 billion by 2020.

The power of this persistent connection makes it possible to do all sorts of great things. But life safety applications should always be on a dedicated mesh network. It’s okay to use a data network to send out alerts, via e-mail for example, but alerts also should go out via landlines, smartphones, radios, public address systems, and digital signage, such as wall boards, CCTVs, and tablet based kiosks.

Using multiple communication end points ensures redundancy, which is critical for life safety. However, monitored sensors—from emergency call stations and fire alarms to access control and intrusion detection—should never be placed on an IP network because there are too many failure points (e.g., routers, PoE, cabling, and access points).

Wireless For Mobility

Connectivity actually facilitates mobility, or wireless, which has serious life safety implications for any business. For example, Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Indiana, Inc. uses mobile duress in its Princeton Plant’s welding and storage areas to give crews the ability to call for assistance without exiting their forklifts and tuggers. If a driver presses one of the affixed wireless “help” buttons, an alert automatically goes to team leaders via radio and/or smartphone. In addition to the truck ID, alerts also include the truck’s approximate location to improve response times because those needing help can be found more quickly.

Situational awareness is a mindset and overall approach, not for causing fear but rather, for creating time for stakeholders to prevent and/or respond to a potential threat. (Graphic: Status Solutions.)
Situational awareness is a mindset and overall approach, not for causing fear but rather, for creating time for stakeholders to prevent and/or respond to a potential threat. (Graphic: Status Solutions.)

So it’s not just grandma’s alert button anymore, as manufacturing facilities, hotels and resorts, K-12 schools, and colleges/universities adopt mobile duress technology.

The first few minutes of an emergency are critical in determining outcomes, so it’s imperative that accurate and detailed information quickly reaches true first responders—management and employees on site—as well as outside emergency services, if needed. Alerts must be delivered to the people best qualified to respond, so driving information to as many screens as possible is key.

Turning mobile devices into command and control centers through preprogrammed, intuitive dashboards gives users more time to respond to, or move away from, a potential threat. Facility stakeholders can respond to situations as they unfold, initiate alerts and associated response plans more effectively, and escalate/notify others as necessary.


In any given facility at any given time, multiple life safety and security systems are at work. However, these usually operate independent of one another, in silos, and unmonitored systems generally only provide local alerting in the form of buzzers, lamps, or annunciation panels. A fire alarm goes off when smoke is detected, but it doesn’t tell where the fire is or where the nearest exits are located so the safest evacuation route can be determined. But today’s smarter networks and devices, plus the right software to tie all of them together, make it easier and more cost-effective to create a safety and security bubble over a single facility, wide area campus, or entire enterprise.

With expertise in computer-telephony integration and robust middleware, disparate alarm and communication systems work in concert to ensure that key personnel, select groups, or entire populations receive specific information about an unfolding situation and how to respond. Therefore, existing alarm and communication systems don’t have to be replaced. Legacy technology investments can be unified and sometimes expanded to ensure critical information reaches responders, both on-site and off, or other audiences based on predefined protocols, or modes and actions (e.g., if this, then that).

Alarm and communication interoperability/unification takes a facility from reactionary and piecemeal to holistic and strategic in terms of emergency alerting and response management. Standalone alarms are converted into detailed alerts delivered to the right people on the right devices so they can address an unfolding situation.

A life safety or security alarm also can be video enhanced, adding another level of specificity to alerts. Video paging through security camera integration enables live video to be pushed to desktops and mobile devices. Video will be a game changer for both awareness and analytics; there is the possibility of using facial recognition to determine whether or not someone is supposed to be in a certain area, and whether they’re recognized as a staff member, legitimate visitor, or intruder.

Automated Situational Awareness

Originally a military term referring to a pilot’s operational status and knowledge of immediate threats, situational awareness now also refers to real-time knowledge about what’s happening in and around a given facility/campus/enterprise. This knowledge is made possible by integrating disparate networks, devices, and systems for one awareness experience through centralized monitoring, alerting, and reporting. With a common alerting engine, triggering events can be harnessed to drive awareness transactions, aka alerts, with specific details about an unfolding situation.

The world’s communication infrastructure has moved from rudimentary to super charged—from radios, handsets, and pagers to smartphones and tablets, a proliferation of screens for sharing information to keep people safe. Being able to read, hear, and see what’s happening in and around an organization enables the right things to be done in response. Then response times and protocols can be analyzed to identify problems and improve safety compliance.

Gas explosion, terrorist attack, armed intruder, tornado—these types of events prove the need for right-now awareness. Of course, no one wants to believe that an incident with mass losses will happen, but what if it did? Knowing the environment and what could be dangerous in and around it can reduce impacts and enable faster response. Automated situational awareness helps stakeholders possibly prevent and/or respond quickly to any number of potential safety threats.


MacLeod is president of situational awareness technology provider Status Solutions. With degrees in both biology and forestry, he combines the scientific method with 25 years of business acumen to bring new technologies to market. Before co-founding Status Solutions in 2001, MacLeod spent more than a decade in the telecommunications industry, including serving as president of Comdial’s enterprise solutions division.