Various school shootings and natural disasters have thrust mass notification systems (MNS) into the spotlight. Such tragedies have pointed out the need to further examine systems and how they can be enhanced. And where there is a demand, there is a viable application as well as an opportunity for specifiers and installers.

Peter Ebersold, marketing director for Notifier, part of Honeywell’s Life Safety Group, Northford, Conn., said he has seen increased interest in MNS in the educational market.

“Interest is coming from not only colleges and universities, but [it] has also trickled down to secondary and elementary schools, as well,” he said.

Marc Ladin, vice president of global marketing at mass notification solution provider 3n Global, Glendale, Calif., agreed with that assessment.

“Over the last several years, we have seen the market expand rapidly, and post-Katrina, we saw mass notification get even more attention,” he said. “A lot of schools had to make rush decisions due to calls and concerns from parents.”

It may appear the number of potential customers is declining. However, many early adopters implemented rudimentary systems, and those adopters are now realizing their original systems were not adequate. Also, some of the systems installed are now ready for upgrades.

“The fear was there, and people felt they had to get something,” Ladin said. “Most did their buying and deciding based on price, which is why so many opted for the text-message-only solutions. But now they are looking back and seeing the limits of these systems and are reevaluating their need for a more comprehensive solution.”

Beyond upgrading and reinforcing existing systems, there is more work to be done for contractors, especially those who understand MNS. For example, most text-only solutions cannot be upgraded; thus, there is an increasing need to switch to other solutions as school administrators determine their systems need to be more robust. Furthermore, many users with basic systems are beginning to fear potential backlash if a tragedy occurs and they are ill-equipped to handle it.

What can a contractor do to update, upgrade or even formulate a client’s MNS? Ebersold said there are a variety of ways to approach mass notification. One of the first options to consider is adding emergency voice evacuation to an existing fire alarm system. From there, the choices and options are almost endless, including “giant voice” speaker arrays for outdoor notification, amber strobes, LED signs, and e-mail and text-messaging systems.

According to Ebersold, one can send emergency communications digitally over an Internet protocol (IP) network that already connects buildings. Another option is to use one dedicated IP network for mass notification and another for other IP functions.

On an IP network, most MNS activate a live or prerecorded message and then digitize it. It is converted back to analog for broadcast through speakers.

Getting out the word

There are a variety of options to distribute messages in an emergency. In fact, those in the industry agree that the more comprehensive solution offerings account for a variety of transport mediums. This type of solution ensures people learn, in real time, what is going on.

Another option for getting the word out, according to Ebersold, is to use existing video systems and displays. One could use the emergency system to interrupt the normal broadcast to scroll messages, either text-only or text and voice, across the screen, grabbing more attention. Ebersold said the forthcoming NFPA 72 will walk users through options.

“If cell phones are turned off or inaccessible—like in the case of an athletic team being outside on the practice field—people may not receive the message in a timely manner,” Ebersold said. “The same goes for an indoor-only intercom or paging system. The mass notification system should be extended outdoors, so people in campus quads, outdoor malls, parking lots and athletic fields can be informed, too.”

More building owners and campus administrators are revisiting MNS. Reassessing what they have and what they should have is creating new interest. Contractors can benefit from mass notification system installation business. Not only are there still entities that have nothing in place, but those with rudimentary systems are seeking other enhanced or replacement solutions.

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at jennifer.stong@comcast.net.