Tech Boot Camp: Mass Notification Promotes Safety, Efficiency and Timely Response

Published: February 28, 2006

When a disaster happens or is imminent, campus officials must be able to quickly and efficiently alert everyone concerned in time to avert death, injury and loss of property. At the same time, those in authority must contend with issues common to emergency management from a facility standpoint, including the preservation of data and the proper shutdown of all critical computer systems.

Unfortunately, when an emergency is about to happen or is unfolding, time usually does not allow individual contact with each and every dormitory, classroom, nurse’s station or administrative office. To foster a safe and incident-free outcome as well as provide real-time information to all building occupants or personnel in the immediate vicinity of a building during emergency situations, preplanning and a number of advanced, high-tech mass notification systems are necessary.

Interest in Mass Notification Systems Is Growing

“Second to the federal government, universities are the largest application we’re seeing for mass notification systems,” says Gerry Ross, business development manager with SimplexGrinnell of Westminster, Mass. “Universities are concerned about security usually because their student’s parents want to know what added measures have been taken to safeguard their charges.” Ross says that larger high schools and private institutions are also installing or asking about mass notification.

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There are two elements to a comprehensive campus mass notification program. The first is mass notification for real-time public address. The other is a comprehensive, electronic mass notification system that empowers campus officials to efficiently alert all stakeholders with minimal effort.

Real-Time Public Address Systems Alert Those in Immediate Vicinity

The first tier of the mass notification process involves alerting people in the immediate environment that an emergency is imminent. These systems can quickly notify people of threats or broadcast messages from law enforcement or other public authorities to large gatherings on how to respond, greatly reducing the risk of death, injury and property damage.

ADT offers a portable system that can be moved from one place to another. According to the company, its system can provide intelligible verbal messages that can be heard up to a quarter of a mile away. An optional 360° camera can be installed atop a 30-foot retractable tower to allow authorities to view the area. Rapid deployment is essential in certain situations, and the ADT system is specifically designed for this task.

Wheelock of Long Branch, N.J., offers a similar system called the SAFEPATH Supervised Audio Facility Equipment system that integrates communication with life safety and emergency management. This system is able to alert campus occupants of fires and other emergencies.

Wheelock also offers wireless emergency warning system, a fully cable-free system that uses radio technology instead of metallic wire. Deployment can be temporary or permanent, and the system can be monitored with a radio. It can be computer operated or activated through a simple pushbutton switch.

Other systems use an ordinary telephone to input and trigger mass notification messages. Gamewell-FCI, a Honeywell Security company, offers the E3 Series that combines fire detection and notification with mass notification.

“National Fire Alarm Code (NFPA 72) is currently being revised to include an annex on mass notification systems. This is because fire alarm systems are by their nature a very robust and survivable basis for mass notification,” says Gamewell-FCI’s director of marketing, John Weaver.

Survivability is essential when campus officials expect to operate a mass notification system during or after a disaster. Additionally, all of these life safety-connected systems must meet UL-864, 9th Edition, as well as NFPA 72 code requirements.

Electronic Notification Sends Messages to PDAs, E-mail, Cells

The second part of the mass notification equation involves electronic mass messages. Using this method, word of an impending disaster is sent to all campus stakeholders through a high-tech electronic communication system that simultaneously sends a programmed text message to all concerned over any number of services and devices, such as pagers, PDAs, cell phones, E-mail and more.

According to Mark Ladin, vice president of marketing with 3n of Glendale, Calif., if only one contact path per person is known, it is less likely an emergency message will reach them in a timely manner. To improve the chances of a message getting through, 3n simultaneously attempts to contact each campus stakeholder using as many communication paths as possible.

Most systems have the ability to target specific groups, such as dormitories or campus buildings, or to do an all-send to every stakeholder.

“The bottom line is by having an automated mass notification system, you do not have to worry that you’ll miss someone. You can get them somehow, no matter where they are,” says Ladin.

All of this is made possible because Americans like to be available through the magic of radio devices. Students, in particular, are quite fond of text messaging. The E2campus system from Omnilert of Leesburg, Va., for example, takes advantage of this fact by sending emergency text messages to recipients’ cell phones.

When an emergency is imminent, electronic mass notification enables campus officials to send word of the situation to the entire student body and faculty with a single action. This frees up the rest of their time to deal with the issues at hand.

No Rock Is Left Unturned When an Emergency Situation Occurs

Mass notification systems have other benefits besides warning everyone of an emergency situation. They also can be used to warn stakeholders of snow days and the cancellation of extracurricular events, such as a concert or sporting event.

This approach assures that money spent on a new mass notification system provides a value-added service that can be used every day or on occasion as the situation dictates, not just when something bad is about to happen.

Al Colombo has spent more than 30 years in various capacities of the electronic security industry. He can be reached at (330) 867-4401 or al.colombo@bobit.com.

For the complete version of this article, please refer to the March/April 2006 issue of Campus Safety Magazine.

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