Although notifying large groups of individuals simultaneously is not new, it is relatively new to combine emergency communications for non-fire alarm emergencies with fire alarm systems. A siren that warns of an approaching tornado is an example of a simple mass notification system. Integrating fire, security and communications systems to provide emergency notification to large groups is becoming common and, unfortunately, necessary. The key is getting the right message to the right people as quickly and accurately as possible with the maximum amount of flexibility.

Fire alarm and mass notification integration was initiated by the Air Force, which approached the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to interface mass notification systems with fire alarm systems about four years ago. The Air Force’s intent was to provide a means to notify individuals basewide of impending emergencies. Mass notification systems are now required on all Department of Defense facilities.

The mass notification issue has become vital for our nation’s college campuses. Most institutional buildings already have a fire alarm system, and it is then possible to use the emergency voice alarm communications system (EVACS) for any emergency that requires notifying many people simultaneously. This can produce a great cost savings for building owners. However, EVACS are typically used in single buildings. How do occupants of other buildings or those outdoors get notified?

System integration helps. This type of system integration is assisted by modern technology that provides for other means of notification. Systems that send e-mails, telephone or text messages; Internet alerts; and visual signaling or visual textual devices, such as scoreboards or message boards, can be used in conjunction with voice messaging to accomplish the goal.

The subject of mass notification has become a hot issue in the fire alarm industry. In NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code, mass notification systems were first introduced as annex material in the 2007 edition. It provides guidelines and recommendations for use when mass notification systems are integrated with fire alarm systems.

Using the existing EVAC system makes sense. Not only does this save the cost of installing additional voice systems, but the wiring for these systems is supervised, providing an additional level of assurance that the system will work when needed. Proposed changes for the 2010 edition of NFPA 72 include a new chapter, Emergency Communications Systems (ECS). This chapter will include information for mass notification systems as well as requirements for emergency voice alarm communication systems and other one- and two-way ECS.

Also proposed for 2010 are new chapters containing requirements for emergency control-function devices: survivability and installation of the circuits. The intent is to make it easier for users of mass notification systems or other non-fire alarm systems, to find these requirements without having to dig through chapters intended only for fire alarm systems.

Some technologies include using an alternatively colored strobe light (amber is currently required by the ECS chapter for mass notification systems to distinguish it from the clear for fire alarms), alternate audible horn signals to differentiate between fire alarm and other emergencies, and voice communication. Inputs to trigger the system could originate from security system “panic” buttons, fire fighter phones, fire alarm initiating devices or manual activation. Closed-circuit television can be integrated to view selected areas to determine the status of an emergency.

In addition to signals in buildings, there may be a need to broadcast messages outside, possibly campuswide. These systems could include sirens similar to tornado warning alerts, voice messaging, message boards, visual signals, e-mails or text messages. Signals can be transmitted either across cabling, fiber optics or wirelessly. Different messages could be sent to different areas simultaneously, depending on the current need. An existing requirement in the 2007 edition of NFPA 72 allows mass notification signals to override fire alarm signals. This is a significant change from the past, where fire alarm signals were the highest priority.

Many manufacturers can deliver either the entire integrated system, individual systems or portable systems, while the installation and integration of these systems falls within the expertise of the electrical and low-voltage contractor. Keeping the public informed of emergencies is both vital and required.

HAMMERBERG is currently the president/executive director of the Automatic Fire Alarm Association Inc. headquartered in Jasper, Ga. He serves on a number of NFPA committees, including the NFPA 72 Technical Correlating Committee and the Protected Premises Technical Committee. He can be reached at TomHammerberg@afaa.org.