Be on Alert

Shutterstock / MSSA
Shutterstock / MSSA
Published On
Mar 15, 2020

The Department of Homeland Security reports approximately 255 amusement and theme parks and 135 water parks operate in the United States. The parks vary in size, and annual attendance ranges from 100,000 to more than 10 million.

I am sure you have visited one of these venues, so you inherently know the difficulty of communicating during an emergency. Because some parks are the size of small towns—in some cases, they replicate a small town—it’s complicated to communicate different messages or address all the potential threats.

In addition, most of these parks have high ambient noise levels due to loud music, thrilling rides accompanied by screams and people speaking loudly in large groups in an outside environment. Many other public spaces, such as airports, nightclubs, stadiums, outdoor music events and movie theaters, also present communications challenges.

Many of these venues have experienced fires. Here are a few examples.

  • The deadliest fire in an assembly occupancy in the United States was the Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago on Dec. 30, 1903, which resulted in 602 fatalities.
  • In the early evening hours of May 11, 1984, a rapidly spreading fire destroyed the Haunted Castle amusement facility at the 200-acre Six Flags Great Adventure Park in Jackson Township, N.J. Eight visitors, who were unable to immediately exit the structure, died in the fire.
  • On April 11, 1996, a fire in an occupied passenger terminal at the Dusseldorf, Germany, airport killed 17 and injured 62.
  • On May 28, 1977, a fire ripped through the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Ky., and eventually killed 165 people.
  • In the late evening hours of Feb. 20, 2003, a fast-moving fire spread through The Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., which ended in 100 fatalities and more than 200 injuries. It’s the fourth deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.

In many amusement and theme parks, personnel must monitor weather conditions to ensure they can transmit adequate warnings to all guests to take cover. Additionally, given the recent history of shootings and terrorist threats, these venues all need a comprehensive emergency-response plan and a mass notification system (MNS). Emergencies, by their very nature, do not occur as scheduled events. An MNS, used to mitigate risk by reducing the margin for human error, will not provide the only solution to the risks anticipated. However, the MNS will become an integral component of any emergency plan the owner develops.

The MNS communicates information about emergencies including, but not limited to, fire, human-caused events (accidental and intentional), other dangerous situations, accidents, and natural disasters.

NFPA 72–2018 defines an in-building mass notification system as one “used to provide information and instructions to people in a building(s) or other space using intelligible voice communications and including visual signals, text, graphics, tactile, or other communication methods.”

That definition certainly applies to the buildings defined above. However, there are a large number of other open-space venues where emergency messages need distribution.

Before you begin designing an MNS, you need to understand the code requirement for a risk analysis. For example, Section 917 of the 2018 edition of the International Building Code (IBC) requires college and university campuses to conduct a mass-notification risk analysis in accordance with NFPA 72. This code section applies when constructing a new building on a multiple-building college or university campus that has a cumulative building occupant load of 1,000 or more. Where the risk analysis determines a need for mass notification, the owner must provide an approved MNS in accordance with the risk analysis findings.

The NFPA Life Safety Code goes further in its 2018 edition by requiring a risk analysis be performed in almost all occupancy types besides colleges and universities. For all affected occupancies, prior to the MNS design, the owner must develop an emergency-response plan based on that risk analysis.

The completed emergency-response plan must comply with NFPA 101, Section 4.8, and the MNS design must reference the findings in the emergency-response plan. The plan identifies the characteristics of the MNS design and performance requirements.

Section 9.14 of the Life Safety Code and Section 917 of the IBC do not require mass notification systems because they only provide direction for the risk analysis. Where the risk analysis and resulting emergency response plan identifies a need for a MNS, the system designer must use the design and installation requirements of NFPA 72.

The registered professional designing the MNS must submit the emergency-response plan, risk-analysis report and accompanying documentation to the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). The AHJ can also require an independent review of the emergency-response plan, risk assessment and the accompanying documentation by one or more individuals possessing expertise in risk characterization for accidental and intentional hazards.

In comparison to a fire alarm system, designing and installing a MNS is a far more complicated and challenging endeavor. To become successful with such systems, you must fully understand the complexity.

All the above presents a backdrop to, and initiates the use of, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. Many readers know that NFPA 72 dedicates Chapter 24 to emergency communications systems. This chapter has many of the installation requirements for an MNS. However, you should not use Chapter 24 as the only source for MNS requirements.

For example, the audibility and intelligibility requirements of Chapter 18 also applies to MNS. The annex of Chapter 18 advises, “In very high noise areas, such as theaters, dance halls, nightclubs, and machine shops, sound levels during occupied times can be 100 dBA and higher. Professional theaters or other entertainment venues can have road show connection control units (see Section 520.50 of NFPA 70) to which troupes can connect their light and sound systems, which can be controlled by the systems. In less formal applications, such as many nightclubs, designated power circuits could be controlled. Diligence needs to be exercised to ensure that the controlled circuits are used.”

Depending on the risk analysis, you may also need to review the system wiring and apply the survivability requirements as outlined in Chapter 12. Given the focus above on large open space environments, you must install the MNS in buildings and in the outside areas of the occupancy, too. NFPA 72 covers that subject as well, under the definition of wide-area mass notification systems.

As stated in the code, wide-area MNSs intend to provide real-time information to outdoor areas and could have the capability to communicate with other notification systems provided for a campus, military base, municipality or similar single or multiple contiguous areas.

Your clients may want to use a wide-area MNS as the only one on their property. Don’t let them fall into this trap. When they ask this, remind them that when an emergency occurs, those in the buildings will need to come out to listen to an emergency message. Using only a wide-area MNS will inadvertently put occupants at risk. It is clear you need both an in-building and a wide-area MNS to meet the requirements.

As described above, when you encounter a client who wishes to use the in-building fire emergency voice/alarm communications system (EVACS) for their MNS, you will have to meet multiple requirements that extend beyond the normal requirements. When allowing the use of the EVACS for this dual purpose, it can use the same speakers throughout the building and outside areas with different messages depending on the emergency. Knowing that the code permits this arrangement will help guide clients to cost-effective system designs and installations.

This is what you need to ensure code- compliant installations in amusement parks and public spaces.

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker, writer and expert in the life safety field, has been a principal member and chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24, as well as a former principal member of NFPA 909 and NFPA 914. He is the...

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