Tornado Alley is a colloquial term for the area of the United States where tornadoes are most frequent. The term was first used in 1952 as the title of a research project to study severe weather in parts of Texas and Oklahoma. Although the boundaries of Tornado Alley are not clearly defined, its core is northern Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska.
In the heart of Tornado alley, building codes are often stricter than those for other parts of the U.S., requiring strengthened roofs and more secure connections between the building and its foundation. Other common precautionary measures include the construction of storm cellars and the installation of tornado sirens. Tornado awareness is also high.
That’s where mass notification systems come into play, as well, as is the case with MillerCoors’ Fort Worth, Texas, brewery, which is located in Tornado Alley and sees about 25 tornadoes each year. The brewery employs 105 employees spread across 150 acres, and it brews 9 million barrels a year. It houses an on-site refrigeration system with 150,000 pounds of ammonia to assist with the brewing process.
The combination of the two – its location and the fact that it handles dangerous chemicals – spearheaded a recent decision to set up a mass communication system.
Jack Moss, Environmental, Health, Safety and Security Manager at MillerCoors Fort Worth, said “We had a gap in our mass communication system; we didn’t feel confident in the system that we had could communicate across 150 acres to our 705 employees in the event of a tornado or a chemical spill.”
The new system in place, WAVES from Cooper Notification, is designed to protect, alert and inform employees of what to do in an emergency. Covering large geographic outdoor areas, like the one at the MillerCoors brewery, it broadcasts crystal-clear voice messages, tones and sirens. It also includes a range of visual devices, including strobe appliances and LED signage. At MillerCoors, the WAVES system sends three loud blasts across the campus. Based on the situation there’s a prerecorded message, so for example, three loud blasts to alert about severe weather or a chemical spill.
There’s no doubt that the brewery’s employees hear the system, Moss says. “The first time that we activated it, the city of Fort Worth talked to us about code compliance for noise. But we owe so much to the public because we house so many chemicals. Our old PA system would sound in zones, and you couldn’t hear it and reach 100 percent of the employees. Last fall we tested the system, and we had 100-percent participation. Our employees took shelter in 14 minutes on the first shift, eight minutes on the second shift and in nine minutes on the third shift.”
In another example of notifying a large amount of people, the CenterPoint Energy Tower building in downtown Houston recently replaced an existing fire alarm system with a mass notification system to fit its growth plans.
The CenterPoint Energy Tower is a 47-story mixed-use skyscraper that is considered to be a Houston landmark. It has a six-story extension with a large opening for visual interest. The building also features a basement with underground tunnels leading to other high-rise buildings, a full cafeteria-style dining room, a shopping area, a loading dock and three floors of underground parking garage space.
As part of a recent and overall restructuring of the CenterPoint Tower, it was time for a fire alarm and communications upgrade as well. The CenterPoint Tower required a retrofit of a new fire alarm network and mass notification system to complement the major restructuring and restoration of the infrastructure of the building. The solution had to be designed to provide mass notification for emergency and fire communications to all building occupants and personnel. The building’s original competitor system reached the end of its life due to chip failure.
The retrofit entailed a direct one-to-one replacement of the preexisting fire alarm equipment with FleX-Net Intelligent Fire/Mass Notification solution and CLIP protocol detectors/modules from Mircom branded solutions while utilizing pre-existing cabling.
Mircom branded solutions is a systems monitoring tool that gives visualization of on-premise emergencies. That visualization tool is important, as firefighters and first responders rely on a tactical display to assess dangers and threats in a facility that could be compromised by terrorists or weather emergencies.
The system installed at CenterPoint includes a touchscreen monitor custom fitted into a BB-5008 enclosure with a FleX-Net main panel. The system provides easy configuration and customization of alarm devices, including up to 500,000 addressable devices and event logging of up to 500,000 events.
7 Things to Consider When Choosing a Mass Notification System
SunGard Availability Services, which provides disaster recovery, cloud services, managed services, IT consulting and business continuity management services, offers seven considerations to use during an evaluation of emergency notification systems:
- Performance. Your organization may need to alert tens, hundreds or thousands of people affected by an event. Look at a notification system’s track record of actual performance during real events. Examine: how many messages are sent through the network per month and year? What is the system’s capacity potential across multiple notification touch-points simultaneously, such as voice, SMS and email messaging? Compare the results to assess the performance capabilities that you need.
- Reliability. A solution provider’s guarantee for network uptime is a critical consideration. Anything less than 99.99 percent may not provide the reliability you need. Reliability also needs to extend to message delivery. What’s the delivery performance service level agreement? Do they provide a guaranteed minimum throughput in a timeframe specified by the customer? Does the system capacity model allow for the ability to ‘‘burst’’ beyond your service level? Can the vendor delivery platform manage the capacity needed to meet your requirements?
- Business continuity management integration. In most organizations, people come and go – and staying synchronized with those changes is a difficult chore. An emergency notification system should integrate and synchronize with employee, team and call list information already created and stored in your business continuity management software. This approach not only eliminates the need to keep two data sources, but also helps ensure your organization is working from a unified continuity planning strategy.
- Security. From employee contact information to the messages communicated during a crisis, content held within an emergency and mass notification system is likely confidential. A system must have state-of-the-art security capabilities, such as a geographically redundant infrastructure that includes data encryption and reliable network security. Look for third-party certifications such as ISO/IEC 27001 to ensure your vendor has an established program in place to manage information security controls.
- Communication options. You will most likely need more than one communication path to reach all the people in your organization – particularly if you operate globally. You should ensure that your emergency and mass notification system has a range of message delivery options, including personal devices such as email, smartphones, pager (one-way or two-way), mobile phone/landline, SMS and fax, as well as mass alerting devices such as sirens, loud speakers and digital display boards.
- Interactive communication. Two-way communication is essential in a crisis, allowing you to communicate to your employees and they back to you. Employee responses can help you ensure their safety and make educated decisions – such as activating back-up personnel plans if employees are unavailable, which can limit downtime and revenue loss by speeding time to recovery.
- Global Capabilities. Many organizations operate internationally, and it is essential for these companies that emergency and mass notification capabilities span the globe. A notification system vendor should be able to manage carrier to carrier and country to country complexities. Considerations should include reach (the specific countries supported), voice/text management (global delivery complexities as it relates to voice and SMS communication) and languages (ability to record messages or have recorded prompts and TTS languages). Look for a notification system provider that has the global delivery experience and expertise managing multiple international standards and protocols.