On March 4, 1908, at the Lake View School in Collinwood, Ohio, 172 students and three adults died in the largest life-loss school fire in U.S. history. At the 13th annual National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) meeting in 1909, then-president C.M. Goddard addressed the event.

“We have done valuable work in formulating standards, but this is not enough,” Goddard said. “We must secure the adoptions of these standards. We must begin a campaign of education of the public.”

Casey C. Grant, P.E., program director for the Fire Protection Research Foundation, said professionals must do what they can to prevent such accidents.

“It’s up to us to remain vigilant and continue our untiring efforts to make sure that such a tragedy will never happen again,” he said.

According to the NFPA, in 2007, public fire departments attended 1,557,500 fires, and 530,500 occurred in structures. Every 20 seconds, a fire department responds to a fire somewhere in the nation. A fire occurs in a structure every 59 seconds, and, in particular, a residential fire occurs every 76 seconds.

In the world of education, threats come in many forms, not just fire, but also weather, crime and even terrorism. Many technology solutions not previously available are being used to alert the faculty, staff members and students.

Campus mass notification system

The goal should be building a flexible system using existing infrastructure that easily supports future expansion and implements mass notification systems (MNS) in a campus environment. The 2007 edition of NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code, includes provisions for fire alarm systems to accommodate MNS.

Note that a new NFPA Technical Committee on Emergency Communications Systems has been formed to further develop requirements for these systems. The next edition of NFPA 72 is expected to include significant revisions, including a new technical chapter providing mandatory requirements.

And this is ready to be put to use. Nearly every college in the United States has examined or is examining its ability to notify students and employees of danger. Some state legislatures have passed laws requiring their schools and universities to implement reliable and comprehensive mass notification systems. The Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990 requires all post-secondary institutions to make timely warnings to the campus community about crimes that pose an ongoing threat to students and employees. Above and beyond legislation, those involved in public safety have a moral and ethical obligation to provide the safest possible environment for students and employees.

One valuable lesson gleaned from our experience is to keep all processes as simple as possible. Generally speaking, the more complex the process, the more things can go wrong. When many colleges were built, little thought was given to the need for timely mass notification and the need for lockdowns or evacuations. As a result, they have been playing catchup.

Convergence in action

MNS implementation would not be possible without an active partnership between the safety staff members and college or university IT departments. The staff should also have strong relationships with hardware vendors and software firms to create a dynamic infrastructure.

Announcements heard in large campus common areas, outdoors and on athletic fields present a bit more of a challenge. Many colleges broadcast voice over Internet protocol announcements over loudspeakers placed in the library, cafeteria, student activities areas and gymnasiums. Outdoor speakers and notification beacons may be mounted in the center of campus and other locations, such as athletic fields. The notification beacons can interface with external audiovisual devices, such as sirens, strobes, televisions and scrolling marquees. These features aid in getting the message to disabled and handicapped people.

Training is critical for all parties to react appropriately once the MNS is activated. Authorities should also be actively engaged with students, faculty and staff members in training sessions that cover their reaction to campus emergencies.

Future enhancements to the existing emergency notification suite of applications could involve instant communication with students, faculty and staff, using mobile phones and personal digital assistants. Many universities are looking into building systems where students can receive emergency text announcements over their mobile phones.

Safety is too important to ignore.

BISBEE is with Communication Planning Corp., a telecom and datacom design/build firm. He provides a free monthly summary of industry news on www.wireville.com.