Mass notification is an area that has received a great deal of attention in recent years. Unfortunately this is largely due to tragic incidents that have exposed the vulnerabilities of certain populations and environments (specifically on university campuses), consequently emphasizing the need for better communications and alerting. Fortunately, a number of solutions are available to address these needs.
With numerous products flooding the market, however, it is often a challenge for campus decision makers to define a particular facility’s mass notification system (MNS) needs and then move forward with the design of an effective solution.
The Origins of MNS
The term mass notification originated from the Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC), document 4-021-01 titled Design and O&M: Mass Notification Systems, created by the United States Department of Defense (DoD). The UFC outlines the design, operation and maintenance of mass notification systems required on all DoD properties, including posts for the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy.
The UFC defines mass notification as “the capability to provide real-time information to all building occupants or personnel in the immediate vicinity of a building during emergency situations. To reduce the risk of mass casualties, there must be a timely means to notify building occupants of threats and what should be done in response to those threats. Pre-recorded and live-voice emergency messages are required by this UFC to provide this capability.”
The UFC recommends the use of a combined fire alarm and MNS, particularly in new construction of military facilities, where the building fire alarm control panel forms a single combined system that performs both functions. For smaller buildings, the public address (PA) system may also be integrated with this combined system, providing the PA system can be supervised for integrity.
Notification Codes and Elements
Initially seen as a “military solution,” MNS are gaining popularity among many nonmilitary occupancies. The 2010 edition of NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm & Signaling Code includes the lengthy Chapter 24 that outlines requirements for the design and installation of emergency communications systems (ECS) within commercial facilities.
While recent events such as the Virginia Tech campus shootings and severe weather incidents have raised demand for emergency communications systems (ECS) for commercial properties, the new National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) codes have begun to set a precedent of utilizing fire alarm systems to support the added duties of a supervised and more survivable ECS.
To serve as more than a common fire alarm voice evacuation system, NFPA 72 requires: “Security personnel should be able to effect message initiation over the MNS from either a central control station or alternate (backup) control station. Where clusters of facilities exist, one or more regional control stations might also exercise control.” It also requires that the MNS should offer a “dynamic library of scripted responses to various emergency events that would be easily customizable to meet the needs of the individual customer.”
To service this need, distributed messaging units commonly referred to as Local Operator Consoles (LOCs) are typically tied to the fire alarm/ECS network and placed throughout a facility or campus to provide authorized users a means for initiating live and prerecorded announcements, and even text messages.
Distributed recipient notification systems such as E-mail or reverse 911 systems offer alternative methods for alerting occupants. However, these technologies are not supervised for faults or breaks, nor do they encompass a more “survivable” design that would enable the ongoing delivery of accurate communications even if one or more parts of the system’s network are down. Likewise, there are no codes or standards currently in existence that require these systems to be regularly tested and maintained to a specific level of performance.
NFPA 72 makes clear that distributed recipient notification systems such as text messaging or E-mail shall not be used in lieu of required audible and visual alerting ECS. This is due to the possibility of delivering conflicting information such as a text message directing a person to remain in place, while the fire alarm system in the building provides the evacuation message. If the fire alarm evacuation system is activated before the occupants received the message, there could be confusion.
For the same reason, NFPA 72 requires a building’s fire alarm and ECS to be integrated and programmed to allow all ECS functions to supersede the fire alarm. This priority setting avoids the situation of a fire alarm evacuating a building while a message to “shelter in place” is sent through the same facility’s ECS.