Mobile applications, an increasingly fluid workforce and improvements in product integration are changing the landscape of mass notification systems (MNSs) and emergency communications. The technology is more responsive and better directed in messaging to the masses.


Keeping a close eye


Pinpointing exactly where our mobile society is at any given time to best communicate has emerged as a separate discipline called critical event management (CEM)—a centralized offering that can help organizations dynamically assess, respond to and manage the resolution of a wide range of threats and disruptions that affect daily operations, said Imad Mouline, chief technology officer, Everbridge, Burlington, Mass.


Everbridge’s CEM platform includes the Safety Connection, which integrates many different systems, including building access control and others to provide a more accurate picture of an employee’s location within the building.


“One of the biggest changes is mobility,” Mouline said. “By 2020, some 72 percent of workers will be mobile, and we need to be able to send notification based on where they are to make sure they are not directed into harm’s way. It’s no longer just about where people live or work, and that’s because of the evolution of a mobile workforce.”


Location awareness and knowing who to target with the appropriate response has become critical.


“We take location information from a variety of services, such as mobile phone location services, Wi-Fi hot spots and physical access control systems,” Mouline said. “In an emergency, we disseminate specific information to individuals. The system quickly filters those individuals who may need to be evacuated or take shelter in place. The information can also be provided to first responders, so they know if there are those who haven’t responded to the ‘Are you OK?’ request.”


As with any successful security plan, a layered approach often works the best.


“You layer technology for the best protection,” said Brian Carlson, manager of channel marketing for Honeywell Security and Fire, Gamewell-FCI by Honeywell, Northford, Conn. “If you have a certain way of getting the message out, such as internet protocol or cellular, what if that doesn’t work? There needs to be different ways to communicate in case one fails or becomes overloaded.”


While mobile apps continue to play a role in mass notification, they should not be relied on solely in an emergency.


“Relying on a single method in an emergency could result in a large portion of the targeted population not receiving the message,” said Marla Moran, commercialization and product marketing manager, Eaton, Sarasota, Fla. (Eaton’s North American headquarters is in Cleveland.) “Utilizing a multilayered MNS approach produces a reliable and robust design to achieve an organization’s emergency communication objectives—to successfully reach the affected audience with the right message at the right time.”


Listen up


Moran refers to major technological changes as the “three key I’s of mass notification—intelligibility, internet of things [IoT] and interoperability.” 


Due to today’s complex and sophisticated threats, there’s an increasing requirement for MNSs to provide clear, concise and intelligible voice messages that communicate how people should respond in an emergency, whether it is to evacuate a building or shelter in place.


“This has resulted in increased demand for speakers (voice communications) instead of using horns (tones only) to communicate vital and specific information in an emergency,” Moran said. “The IoT will also aid organizations in integrating different technologies and anything that can be connected will be.”


No more isolation


Carlson agrees that integration between products is increasing.


“Traditionally, you had different systems strategically placed and somehow they had to work together, but it was unwieldy,” he said. “That became a challenge for building owners looking for full integration and communication between different products because each system had to be accessed individually to make an announcement. Now, manufacturers and developers are creating software interfaces between products so users can go to one location and make announcements inside the building, outside and at the perimeter.”


Until recently, there was no specific manufacturing code covering MNS design, but now Underwriters Laboratories’ UL 2572, Standard for Mass Notification Systems, “covers discrete electrical control units, communication units, transport products which manipulate the data packets, interfaces, and accessories for mass notification systems to be employed in accordance with the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, NFPA 72.”


“What’s interesting is that this UL standard did shake up manufacturers and push products to be designed to be more reliable, intelligent and intelligible, ultimately serving the best interests of the customer,” Carlson said.