This WEBS LED Tower from Talk-A-Phone has LED illuminated signs that can display critical information relayed to it. Once the emergency call button is pushed, the text automatically changes on the LED display, attracting attention to the scene. It can also receive custom text messages by security personnel.

It’s 2010 and mass notification has gone mainstream. For the first time, it’s included in the NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, 2010 edition, specifically dealing with its design, installation and use.

What’s now included? According to the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code Handbook, a mass notification system should now include two forms communications, “one from Tier 1 [sirens, indoor and outdoor loudspeakers, electronic signage, etc.] and a secondary method from one of the other tiers,” which includes short message service (SMS) text messaging, emails and location-specific audio broadcasting to name a few.

Many university campuses rely on a “Personal Tier” of communications to contact those in distress, e.g. SMS text messaging and automated dialing systems, according to Samuel Shanes of Talk-A-Phone. It is certainly good to send a message blast to individuals on the emergency contact list, Shanes says, but what about those recipients who don’t notice the blast or are not registered on the list at all? It is because a single form of communications might not be sufficient that experts and NFPA 72 emphasize multiple notification layers, he suggests.

Instead, says Shanes, a mass notification system should not only be versatile enough to contact individuals regardless of where they are, but also able to reach out to pre-defined areas regardless of whom is situated there. And those two types of notifications serve different purposes and should be approached differently.

New Campus Regs, Too

Another change in mass notification this year includes new federal regulations published by the U.S. Department of Education that take effect on July 1. They implement laws enacted in 2008, including amendments to the Jeanne Clery Act that were adopted in the wake of the shootings at Virginia Tech and other campuses. 

For one, the regulations distinguish between a timely warning notification and an emergency notification, which previously were often confused with each other. Campuses are not required to issue immediate (emergency) alerts if there is no immediate threat to the health or safety of students and employees. However, it must provide an adequate and timely follow up. 

A campus security department is also required to establish and release, in its annual security report, procedures on how it determines the content of a notification and who is notified. So not only is a university required to confirm that there is a significant event, decide on the content of the notification and execute it, but it also must define an appropriate segment or segments of the campus community to receive a notification. 

Further, the regulations also stipulate that not every emergency situation requires a mass notification. If the emergency procedures are being followed and it is determined by the responsible authorities to the best of their professional judgment that the notification would hurt the safety of a community, such notification does not have to be issued. The regulations also specify the testing requirement of emergency response and evacuation procedures, which should be performed at least once per calendar year and be fully documented.

According to Shanes, while the new regulations will take time and effort to comply with the new law by the set deadline, it is a change for a better and safer life on campus.

Making the Change to VoIP

When it comes to emergencies, and in the case of Virginia Tech, a much improved communication and evacuation plan may have saved lives. Many universities are already making strides to improve their emergency communications, like the University of Washington in Seattle, which is considering use of warning sirens, or like University of Memphis, which plans to install a system that will act as a campus- wide intercom.

Another system that is taking a proactive approach is the University of Texas System (USTA), which has pushed the importance of audio communications to ensure it is doing everything possible to be prepared if such an event should occur. 

For example, at UTSA, all AlphaCom exchanges are in the process of being upgraded to the latest VoIP technology from Stenofon. The new technology will connect to the University’s IP network and allow for future expansion possibilities. The IP communication solution is an integrated audio platform that provides voice, image and data links by using standard Ethernet network architecture. Ultimately, it allows integration of all streams into one cohesive solution. Additional features include standard intercom calls, archive logging of events and real time audio announcements.

Zoned Communications for Fire Emergencies

Beyond education, a mass notification system is helping residents in a residential care facility. The Van Duyn Home & Hospital (VDHH) Residential Health Care Facility in upstate New York is the only county-run nursing home in Onondaga County, and it offers care for residents of Syracuse and the surrounding areas. The facility’s property includes one main building, where all residents live, and two small outbuildings for auxiliary services. 

Kelly Neish, director of hospital safety and security, is responsible for preparing the facility and staff for possible emergencies, such as fires. Her job is not easy when you consider the fact that most residents of VDHH have varying degrees of physical incapacity. In addition, the home offers special care for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

Unfortunately, VDHH was working with an older fire alarm system that was draining resources to maintain, says Neigh. She wanted a new system that would provide fast, consistent protection and that would give her the ability to provide intelligible voice instructions throughout the facility. 

Local security and life safety systems integrator, Syracuse Time & Alarm Co., Inc. (ST&A), overhauled the system and ensured it complied with code requirements. ST&A implemented an E3 Series Expandable Emergency Evacuation system, manufactured by Gamewell-FCI, as the heart of the new fire protection network. 

It also included a fire alarm EVAC (emergency voice audio communications) system that is flexible to meet future needs. 

Beyond general EVAC capabilities, the system has selective paging for mass notification. A newly installed phone system will soon be integrated with the fire alarm EVAC system so that Neish can make public address announcements to particular floors or the entire building just by dialing the floor’s extension from a desk phone.

Redundancy and Survivability

Another benefit of the new system is distributed intelligence. Older and less sophisticated systems typically rely on a single fire alarm control command center in which all system intelligence is housed. If damaged, all fire alarm communications cease. 

Survivability and intelligibility are key components of the new system, says Mark Simpson of ST&A. Rather than depending on a central command center to make decisions, the decision making is done by (fire alarm control) panels on each floor. Most importantly, he says, the installation uses high-fidelity speakers and 100-percent digital communications. If you can’t understand the message, you might as well use horns.

Six Tips to Selecting a Mass Notification System

When you need to deliver time-sensitive information to hundreds or thousands of people, a mass notification system can help get the word out quickly and effectively. But how do you know which system is right for your organization? Here are six questions to ask before you choose a mass notification system, courtesy of Everbridge.

1. Who operates the system – you or the vendor? With a vendor operated system, you pay a fee for service. But if you operate the system, you purchase the hardware and license the software from the vendor, which must be updated regularly.
2. Is the system designed to contact the people you need to reach? Contacting known individuals is different from blanketing an area with phone calls or emails or text messages.
3. Is the system scaled to your current needs and scalable to your future needs? Scale is important when you have lengthy contact lists and short notification timeframes.
4. Is the system completely reliable? Mass notification systems prove their worth during catastrophic events. Look at the system’s availability, robustness, security and track record.
5. How flexible is it? If you can’t be confident that a system will easily adapt to your scenarios, then you have to add additional costs to your estimated cost of ownership, such as custom programming and training.
6. What is the pricing structure? Is it usage-based pricing, administrator-based pricing, or subscription-based pricing? Whatever way, you need to know.