Does Your Emergency Communications System Measure Up?

Known alternatively as Mass Notification Systems, Emergency Communications Systems or Critical Response Notification, the aim of this technology is to unite disparate telephone, fire alarm, text or instant messaging, e-mail, public address, digital signage and warning siren systems into a comprehensive, seamless environment. Do it right and you can control them all simultaneously through your network with a single mouse click. Do it wrong or take too long, and you put lives a stake. Fortunately a well-thought out system can reduce many risks.

“In the last decade, as a society we have moved forward in awareness, primarily due to natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, the increasing number of tornadoes in the past two years and, unfortunately, in workplace and campus violence,” says Ketan Joshi, vice president of New Markets and Corporate Development at AtHoc, a San Mateo, Calif. provider of mass notification systems for the security, life safety and defense sectors. As a top supplier to the federal government, AtHoc currently protects more than two million personnel throughout the U.S. Military, Dept. of Homeland Security and other government agencies.

Add oil spills to the disasters list. As the U.S. Coast Guard worked to contain the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it relied on a mass notification solution from AtHoc.
“The Coast Guard used an IP-based emergency mass notification system as an internal communications and response tool. By using network-centric alerting, we could quickly notify the community and process critical information much faster,” says Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Ted Kim. “The system’s ability to collect information from all alert recipients also gave us unprecedented situational awareness. The result is the ability to make better decisions and communicate the information quickly to all stakeholders.”

Mass notification is not just for emergencies, though that constitutes the vast majority of installations. At the Children’s Discovery Museum in San Jose, Calif., a mass notification solution from React Systems provides both critical emergency communications and exhibit interaction through digital signage displays, right down to personalized birthday greetings. As a side benefit, the museum believes that enhanced communication efficiency may help staffing overhead.

Create an Integrated System

The beauty of a brand new system is that all communications are integrated centrally using a network. However, most organizations are dealing with legacy systems that may not be on the network. Though centralized management is essential to speeding communications, a challenge remains in incorporating devices that predate IP-based networks and which were never meant to intercommunicate. Siloed systems unaware of each others’ existence, typified by telephone, e-mail and public address systems, have given way to newer products – voice mail, SMS messaging and PA systems with live, recorded or synthesized voice.

The good news is that so-called third-generation mass notification solutions reach and manage all systems simultaneously whether or not they sit on the network. From a single console, one person can disseminate messages via any modality. For older technologies that predate IP networks, such as warning sirens or PBX-based or public switched-network telephone installations, AtHoc and other vendors offer a variety of interface controllers. “We connect with IP and non-IP legacy assets,” Joshi says.

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