Sending Stronger Signals

Published On
Apr 15, 2020

Emergency communication systems (ECS) and mass notification systems (MNS) are kindred spirits because they have the same general goal of notifying people of a potentially dangerous situation and getting people out of harm’s way quickly. ECSs and MNSs benefit from technological advancements and innovation in integration, IP connectivity, software and the ongoing deployment of 5G broadband networks, although they are different when it comes to codes, standards and regulations.

In our highly connected, overly distracted world, it’s paramount that emergency communication technology notifies people of a potentially harmful incident in real time or as close to real time as possible.

Communication needs to be intelligible and direct occupants to a safe area or to shelter in place while minimizing agitation and fear.

The overriding critical foundation and philosophy of security—the concept of layering safeguards, technologies and processes to minimize risk or prevent business disruption—also applies to ECS and MNS.

Today’s solutions leverage software and the cloud, which further allows the system to be tailored to the event, campus or venue. Mobile platforms are another part of a holistic solution, which incorporates audio, visual signaling, digital signage announcements and other integrated notifications or alerts.

In the past, ECSs and MNSs were proprietary, distinct systems that couldn’t talk to other sensors, devices or systems. Now, network integration, open protocols, application programming interfaces and software provide a broader, all-encompassing and increasingly targeted approach to mitigating risk. Many systems have the ability, through software and network connectivity, to integrate with other devices or endpoints on-site. ECSs and MNSs have become aggregators of technology by lending additional capabilities that allow a solution to be customized to the client, location and other specifics.

Planning for mass notification

According to Lance Holloway, director of vertical technology at Stanley Security, Indianapolis, a high volume of individuals in an arena, traveler’s portal, corporate high-rise, healthcare or educational campus will dictate the nature of MNS planning.

“If the target demographic is transient, then on-location signage and response workflows are critical. If those being notified are more static, such as a university or corporate campuses, then mobile notification becomes a powerful option,” Holloway said.

However, mobile and network options require registration and programming preparation, Holloway said.

“Unfortunately, there may still be some individuals on-site who were not registered or didn’t have access to their phone at the time of an incident. A layered approach with clear, localized signage, localized audible and electronic alert pushes is always recommended, in addition to solid training and socialization,” he said.

Holloway added that technology is assisting with proactive warnings and integrated mass notification, which gets people out sooner, especially in outdoor spaces.

“Technology has afforded the need to leapfrog the existing product solution availability. More specifically, social media has become the instinctive go-to during a major event. Any incident-management-response program and technology should have a well-defined capability to ingest and organize social media against geotags, keywords and key individual accounts,” Holloway said.

No emergency is the same, and every mass notification has unique challenges and risks, especially in the case of a stadium or people attending an event, said Doug Hoeferle, senior product marketing manager at Honeywell Fire, St. Charles, Ill.

Getting crowds to take notice

At a crowded sporting event, “integrating different systems on premises is very important to mass notification in this example. Systems can be integrated through the public address, digital signage and televisions to have the same consistent messaging or alert. There are additional challenges outside the stadium or event area, like parking lots and green spaces that may require long-range speakers,” Hoeferle said. “These speakers may work well outside. But in malls and atriums with tall ceilings, it’s a challenge to cover those areas because sounds need to be audible but not damage or negatively affect hearing with levels.”

Honeywell’s software-based, open-architecture unified notification platform (UNP), released in December 2019, resolves sound concerns. Partnering with British security company Ultra Electronics, UNP leverages HyperSpike speakers with wavelength technology that allows the solution to cover a large area and retain audibility while meeting OSHA requirements to protect hearing.

“It takes multiple cues to get people to respond to an emergency message,” Hoeferle said. “If people can’t confirm or see danger, they automatically think it’s a false alarm. Having different layers of notification—audible, visual, app push, text alert, etc.—is critical. In the case of Virginia Tech [school shooting in 2007], it took hours for emergency messages and other notifications to get through. Now, they have many different layers of communication, including speakers in classrooms, digital signage, social media, website home page alerts and more. Any method you can use to communicate and get a consistent message out faster will result in lives saved.”

Singlewire Software also focuses on quick and consistent notification messages delivery with a software platform designed to reach the masses through as many devices as possible.

“Speed and reach matter,” said Paul Shain, president and CEO of Singlewire Software, Madison, Wis. “Reliance on a single mechanism for communication is a bad strategy. SMS messaging gets overloaded, as was the case in the 2017 shooting in Las Vegas. You need multiple modalities to reach people. The IP network is where most devices now live, so there are all kinds of different endpoints available for mass notification, such as conference room screens, VoIP telephones, or signage to get people’s attention.”

Shain said Singlewire’s InformaCast alert platform is an “aggregator of alerts” and controls various network endpoints through software, which becomes the ecosystem for notification.

“Users can leverage the infrastructure and resources that already exist and are in place to bring mass notification to an area,” Shain said. “Digital signage is an important element, especially for outdoor venues. In many cases, the event management won’t know attendees’ cell phone number if they don’t subscribe to an app or register, so they can instead be reached through digital signage and overhead speakers. People are becoming increasingly situationally aware and may register at an event for security updates or text messages to cellphones.”

Currently the market for ECS is divided with one faction focusing on mobile only.

“We take a different approach. Mobile is good but not enough,” he said. “You need mobile and on-premises network notification. There’s definitely more opportunity for the electrical contractor to provide cabling and power to have the infrastructure that will support it.”

Shain said that IP networking has afforded the ability to control almost anything.

“Companies continue to implement low-cost sensors and surveillance, and we have the ability to stitch it all together,” he said.

He added that the proliferation of the 5G network has interesting implications for ECSs and MNSs.

“As 5G rolls out, we’ll probably bring more video into the equation,” Shain said. “5G and other tools will improve situational awareness and knowledge for first responders as well, so they are better prepared ahead of a response.”

ECS markets are connecting the dots with integration and network connectivity that’s enhancing the value proposition of communication solutions and bringing more responsive security and risk management to outdoor and campus environments.

About the Author

Deborah L. O'Mara

Freelance Writer

O’MARA writes about security, life safety and systems integration and is managing director of DLO Communications. She can be reached at or 773.414.3573.

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