The Facility Technologist: Getting The Word Out

The latest server technology is at the heart of the most effective and efficient Mass Notification Systems. (Photo Credit: System Development Integration)

By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the March 2011 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Whether it is in reaction to malicious threats or natural disasters, facility managers (fms) are increasingly focused on the need to communicate quickly and effectively with building occupants, local government, and emergency responders. This is particularly true in educational facilities, where recent campus shootings have sparked a nationwide interest in how schools communicate these threats to their staff and students. [For related articles, see “Mass Notification Decoded” and “Bomb Scare,” also featured this month.]

The most effective forms of technology for communicating with a large group of people are Mass Notification Systems (MNS). This approach combines computers with existing communications infrastructures to relay information to a large group of people very quickly. It uses a central server to manage sending messages to multiple communications infrastructures based on rules, call lists, or custom lists.

The delivery methods of communication vary and can include a recorded voice message broadcast over telephone, radio, or loudspeaker; e-mail or text messaging; or digital signage. With the click of a mouse button, hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of people can be notified within a few minutes.

This kind of rapid communications capability is impossible without mass notification and could be the difference between life and death in an emergency. When a tornado is approaching, or when an attacker is on the loose in the facility, there are often only a few minutes to inform people about where to find safety.

But, as with any technology, there are important considerations in choosing and implementing a system. The first step is to determine your needs by conducting a Needs Analysis. Create a list of what you need the system to do, and then rate these needs using a numerical scale, based on the following priorities: “must have,” “very desirable,” “nice to have,” and so on. Then score products you are considering by applying these rating levels. This exercise will help you make an objective decision and avoid being excessively swayed by salespeople or word of mouth.

One primary consideration is deciding if the system will be hosted in-house or by the product vendor. Many MNS vendors will charge a monthly fee and host all the equipment for you, eliminating implementation costs and technical challenges. This is an easy approach, but it will eventually cost more than a purchased system, because the monthly payments never end.

Another key consideration is Capacity of the System and the number of people receiving alerts. You will need to calculate every user who should be alerted, not just the number of people in the facility. For example, educational facilities typically alert parents and other relatives, which can easily more than double the number of users. It is a good idea to add local government and public safety offices to educational facility alert lists so they too will be notified when you have an emergency, when you are evacuating, or during anything else out of the ordinary.

Another good idea is to coordinate with local government and public safety groups to find out if they have particular requirements or laws concerning MNS. If they do, find out who they want you to notify in an emergency. You can set filters in MNS so these groups are only notified in dire emergencies (and not when there is a new lunch special in the cafeteria).

If you are going to purchase and install the mass notification system in your facility, you will need to do some serious investigation of the infrastructure it will use, both inside your facility and at your phone company. If the system is going to be making phone calls, it will become a big load on your facility’s telephone system when it starts alerting and could cause you problems. This is why you will have to coordinate with your phone system supplier to test and ensure the system can handle it. As a side note, keep in mind that Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) causes problems for those MNS that may require some additional engineering. If the system will be sending e-mails or radio transmissions, you will also need to assess your e-mail system, network, and radio system to be sure they can handle the load as well.

Your local phone company must have the capacity to handle the extreme load. However, telcos don’t tend to design their systems for the kinds of demands that MNS place on phone systems. Sometimes, the discovery of issues in this area and the costs for upgrading your phone system make a vendor hosted solution more attractive. MNS vendors have massive, robust, redundant phone capacity to ensure smooth operation even when your facility is stressed.

You absolutely must test the system at full load to be sure it will work; do not rely on specifications that say it should work. I have seen the best intentions turn to disaster when systems encounter problems that “should not exist” because the specifications of the system say it can handle the load.

MNS are yet another tool for fms to use to manage their facilities more effectively. This is proven technology, but it takes a careful approach to be sure this sophisticated communications tool will be able to do its job when the time comes. With a bit of homework by the fm and a team effort including cooperation and input from the phone company and local first responders, MNS can be the perfect way to get the word out and keep people safe.

Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is a contributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Management textbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago, IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, and reliability of client business through technology.