The soaring cost of gasoline may keep some vacationers closer to home this summer, but for those who venture out, chances are they’ll find the proverbial summer road construction somewhere along their route. From to , those orange cones will decorate highways and byways as construction crews repair roads and, as is happening more frequently, installing intelligent electronic signage, used for mass notification purposes, along the roads.

In the last few years, mass notification has become increasingly important as campus violence, natural disasters (i.e. Hurricane Katrina), child abductions (Amber Alerts), hazmat emergencies and other threats to life safety have permeated our society. Events such as these have emphasized the importance of reliable and practical notification systems, which can reliably and feasibly inform, direct, relocate or evacuate people in an emergency situation.

In fact, mass notification is now required in U.S. Department of Defense facilities as outlined in its Unified Facilities Criteria and in part, states that real-time information must be provided to all building occupants or personnel in the immediate vicinity of a building during emergency situations and instructions as to what to do in response. Additionally, the Clery Act requires that educational institutions receiving federal Title IV student financial aid funds must provide the campus population with timely warnings of crimes that are threats to students and employees.


Existing Data Incorporated in Developments

Developments in mass notification system technologies have allowed the use of existing data and voice networks to deliver messages and pertinent information as well as the added benefit of implementing a wide variety of other technologies, including sound and PA (public address) systems, alert beacons, strobes, computer interfaces (e-blast and pop-up messaging), reverse 9-1-1, commercial radio broadcasts, cable TV, PDAs, cell phones, pagers and, more commonly, the aforementioned electronic signage displays. These technologies are infinitely faster, more accurate and effective and are frequently less expensive than manual systems.

The systems are also frequently employed in a multi-tiered approach to communicate via different channels to multiple populations and to help ensure that clear and accurate emergency information, in real-time, is provided – first to those in the immediate environment and then to all those with a direct interest. The multi-tiered approach can additionally serve as a fail-safe plan, so if an emergency message is first distributed to mobile phones, but cell phone towers are down, the system will also send to pagers, e-mail, faxes and PDAs. The message can also be displayed on large screen digital signage displays and LCDs, or broadcasted through sirens, annunciators or loudspeakers to help ensure that all individuals in the area are made aware of the situation. In this same redundancy vein, data is often stored simultaneously off-site and backup sources of electrical power are available as well as alternate means of accessing the system, such as through the Internet, by phone via live operators or by phone via Integrated Voice Response.


Effective Use Means Early Warnings

In applications such as healthcare facilities, military installations, office complexes and educational institutions, a mass notification system also usually integrates the fire, security and communication systems for enhanced value and performance. For instance, video surveillance systems can allow security personnel to visually evaluate a situation prior to making any decisions regarding evacuation. And many addressable fire alarm control systems already incorporate a number of mass notification features, including pre-recorded and live voice messaging, flashing strobes and more powerful speaker clusters to deliver intelligible voice instructions. The fire and life safety systems are additionally backed by stringent codes and standards to enhance their use in mass notification systems and, further, because fire systems are supervised, any faults are automatically detected and reported.

Used effectively, mass notification systems using digital signage and displays can provide the early warning needed to maximize the safety of students and staff. With display systems located in every classroom and common areas such as the library, cafeteria and on-site retail operations and connected to a campus-wide communication network, critical and timely information of any nature can be narrowcast instantaneously across the entire campus. And while mass notification systems are geared toward emergencies, they can also be used in an educational environment as a communication tool for non-emergency situations, using the campus wide network and display technologies, such as digital signage. Examples are numerous and may include notices for weather advisories, school closings, event cancellations, parking lot closures and other day-to-day campus activities.

The possibilities for and benefits of mass communication systems are increasingly becoming mainstream due primarily to large screen electronic signage. Its usage in this capacity enhances and helps to ensure the overall effectiveness of emergency plans and it seems to have unlimited potential for leveraging other digital technologies.