Safety Leader

Send the Right Message: High-tech emergency communications

Getty Images / Tera Vector / Andrew_Rybalko
Getty Images / Tera Vector / Andrew_Rybalko

In providing  or installing an emergency communication system (ECS) or mass notification system (MNS), the goal is to prepare for any emergency, fire or life safety situation—while following the mandates of the authority having jurisdiction and the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, NFPA 72.

You need to respond quickly, target messages to locations and workers and deliver information they can see, hear and understand to facilitate speedy evacuation to an area of safety or lockdown pending further instruction. Adrenaline runs high during emergencies, so communications must be preplanned and automated as much as possible. 

Top-of-mind must-haves for safety leaders looking to deploy an ECS or MNS: 

A thorough understanding of how the technology works before specification

A solution customized to your environment, buildings, current infrastructure and systems and the workforce

An electrical contractor skilled in systems integration that can adeptly navigate signaling, audibility, fire codes, connectivity, wireless, cellular and the vastly different end- results now possible in applying and integrating the latest ECS technology

“Unified notification makes emergency messaging more powerful through multimedia connectivity and integration to devices like laptops, television displays and more,” said Doug Hoeferle, global director of customer marketing at Honeywell Fire, Saint Charles, Ill. 

Predicted threat analysis

Today, there’s more information available from integrated systems for predictive threat analysis, Hoeferle said.

“Using one means only of broadcasting emergency communications is not a good idea. We’ve incorporated direct-to-recipient notification on mobile devices. We’re also seeing a trend in deploying and utilizing wide area and long-range speakers for notification. When you need to communicate with children on a playground or baseball field or large outdoor areas you need enhanced intelligibility,” he said. 

ECS and MNS can drill down to the environment and the population. 

“In the example of one customer, a distillery in Kentucky, they have an extremely busy and distracting environment with people spread across the location. They use a supervised voice alarm system with backup for emergencies and also have the flexibility to leverage MNS for tours and daily communications,” Hoeferle said. “The facility manager seeking a solution needs to be certain the system works for everyone (for example, the hard-of-hearing), and that’s where digital displays and colored notification lights come in.”

Virtual reality sets the stage

Even virtual reality (VR) can now be part of emergency communication and response system. SafetyNet VR software-as-a-service from AK Preparedness, Seattle, trains users how to respond to a wide range of emergencies using the mobile app and VR.

“When dealing with disasters and emergencies, simplicity is critical, and people need tools that are quick, easy and intuitive,” said Robert French, principal. 

“You’re in a race to get timely, accurate information,” French explained. “The mobile app puts response steps on the phone and the system is text and emails, no phone calls. We don’t do a reply back by design. If you are a property manager of a big tower, and people are sending text messages back to you, there’s no way to manage that data. We focus on speed to message—the heart of an emergency alert is notification of a problem and what occupants should do. Let’s say it’s a building in Manhattan and a water pipe bursts. You don’t want people getting in elevator cabs with water pouring in, so we get accurate information out to avoid that.” 

Monitoring providers are expanding into the ECS and MNS product category, leveraging their experience and working with first responders and 911 operations. EMERgency24 Inc., Des Plains, Ill., a UL-listed central station and BluePoint Alert Solutions, Elgin, Ill., made a strategic partnership, releasing the Crisis Management Command and Control C2, which extends traditional alarm system devices and notifications. BluePoint Alert Solutions developed the hardware for notification within the facility using strobes, signage and voice annunciators. Emergency24’s software enables two-way, multimedia mass communication. Two-way texting/SMS and email notification informs building occupants or residents of an emergency, and a web-based platform lets first responders share information. 

“We’re notifying people of a problem, making them aware of the situation and initiating two-way communication,” said Dave Ochs, executive vice president—growth at BluePoint Alert Solutions. “Building occupants can check in with their status or indicate they need help. You know where they are and the number of people you may be looking for. In an active shooter situation, it takes minutes to call 911 and longer to notify the building. With C2, it takes 6 to 7 seconds to notify everyone in the building and responders.”

“The system is adaptable to anyone with a repeat population,” said Kevin Lehan, national sales and marketing manager, EMERgency24. “Users can segment contact lists by shifts and other criteria so it’s adaptable to the work environment and every situation, even medical emergencies.”

Systems integrators leverage ECs

For systems integrators, it all starts with a client consultation, gathering information on the desired end result and location specifics. 

Nick Schoch, branch supervisor for Systems Technologies, Merrill, Wis., said every system design is unique to the customer. Systems Technologies is the low-voltage division of Pieper Electric Inc., New Berlin, Wis.

“We were recently awarded a project on a healthcare campus that included a variety of facilities. We implemented a software-based solution with InformaCast by Singlewire Software [Madison, Wis.] to provide a robust system with announcements targeting different areas and zones that can be initiated by phone or PC,” Schoch said. 

The InformaCast MNS sends audio, text and images to mobile and on-premises devices. 

Customization is based on facility safety and security goals and working closely with the owner, Schoch said. 

“In one RFP, overhead paging was part of our contract work, but we questioned whether this was right for the user. We met with the owner and the engineer to drive an alternate design. In another example, we used a customer’s fire alarm system and AtlasIED IP-enabled solution to provide integrated voice communication and notification,” he said.

The challenge is the dynamics of each situation and facility. 

“ECS and MNS systems need to be extremely flexible and include key features that address customer issues. For example, at one food manufacturing plant with high noise levels, workers needed to be able to hear announcements or understand the meaning of colored LED strobes designated for evacuation,” Schoch said.

David Spielbauer, sales engineer/account manager for Systems Technologies, said customers want to provide notification of specific emergencies. 

“In Wisconsin, with heavily industrial customers, the ECS is competing with high decibel levels common with in-plant operations,” he said. “That’s where intelligibility or audibility comes in. Customers have paging systems but don’t know how to leverage them so communications are clear and understandable. In many cases with older facilities, you can use some or all of the installed speakers, horns and wiring.”

In one case, Systems Technologies deployed AtlasIED to repurpose legacy 70V horns with amplifiers and a head-end controller to automate and store recorded file messages. 

“We put ambient noise sensors in the field to raise the volume up and down if there’s noisy machinery. In a Green Bay manufacturing facility and warehouse with various ambient noise issues, we designed a system to automate notification of four conditions: fire, active shooter, weather incidents or chemical spill,” Spielbauer said. “Messages are prerecorded for each condition and there’s the ability for live paging announcements. We incorporated visual warning, a specific color of LED-strobe notification depending on the event.”

Cosco Fire Protection, Brea, Calif., specializes in fire detection, life safety and fire suppression systems, and they added mass notification solutions more than a decade ago. The company’s Cosco DAS division provides emergency responder radio coverage systems (ERRCS) and public safety distributed antenna systems (DAS). These systems help emergency service personnel such as fire, paramedics, police and other agencies communicate inside buildings and structures where service would otherwise be impossible. 

John Strohecker, vice president, said Cosco Fire Protection provides a complete solution—turnkey design-engineering, installation, testing, inspection and ongoing service and maintenance. In the case of mass notification systems, many clients are deploying one-way voice evacuation systems that are required in educational facilities and universities, he said.

Risk analysis

The solution design starts with risk analysis, mandated in NFPA 72, Chapter 24. 

“We develop a comprehensive risk analysis with the owner or owner’s representative not only for fire, but all kinds of incidents such as bomb threats, armed intruder or other events. We customize notification indoors and outdoors and use speakers outside buildings and walkways with messaging to relocate, shelter in place or other directions,” Strohecker said.

Cosco Fire Protection is an authorized distributor of Notifier by Honeywell, Northford, Conn., and also deploys HyperSpike speakers by Ultra Electronics, London, for intelligibility and sound quality. For those in close range to speakers, sound waves selectively cancel out high sound levels, yet carry messages clearly over distances.

“In the event of a fire, it evacuates with a prerecorded message with instructions to occupants. For earthquakes or other events, it’s a manual initiation system, where a security command center or office initiates a prerecorded message. The system is zoned so messages can be customized to the area. For example, it may notify to shelter in place in one area and to leave the area in another. Messages can be overridden with live voice communications. Messaging and configuration are also part of the risk analysis under AHJ control,” Strohecker said. 

With the ability to gather critical data and live situational intelligence, facility managers and safety leaders can achieve better outcomes with faster response times, leveraging the latest high-tech emergency communications with an assist from systems integrators who know how to put it all together. 

About the Author

Deborah L. O'Mara

Freelance Writer

Deborah L. O’Mara is a journalist with more than two decades experience writing about security, life safety and systems integration, and she is the managing director of DLO Communications in Chicago. She can be reached at dlocommunications@gmail.com...

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