Navigating the Complexities of Emergency Notification Systems Integration

Manufacturers, software developers and integrators are working hard to develop ways campus alert solutions can interoperate and notify campus constituents in a more timely fashion.

Campuses have been shopping for and acquiring emergency notification equipment at a record pace. Everything from SMS text alerting to sirens to loud speakers to digital signage to social media and more have been on the radar of institutions — particularly colleges and universities — looking to improve how they communicate with students, faculty, staff, patients and visitors during a crisis.

Although there remain many campuses that still need to purchase basic mass notification equipment, many others now have several systems in place. The problem? These different systems are often proprietary and usually have separate activation processes, which slow down the delivery of emergency messages to their intended recipients.

Many campuses are now looking for ways to consolidate their emergency notification delivery methods into a single activation portal.

Vendors Are Developing Interoperable Equipment
Some institutions have adopted platforms that deliver messages to multiple endpoints, including mobile phones, digital signage, E-mail, social media and broadcast television. Although these platforms have been proven to work well during emergencies, some campuses are hesitant to rely on one vendor or platform for all of their mass notification needs. Also, campus officials prefer to incorporate their legacy alert systems into whatever integration platforms they purchase.

With this in mind, some manufacturers of fire alarm equipment are moving in the direction of open standards, which should help with the integration of disparate emergency notification systems.

Related Articles: GPS Integration: The Next Step for SMS Text Alerts?

“We are putting all of our energy into developing IP-based interoperable solutions,” says Ted Milburn, who is Cooper Notification’s vice president of marketing.

Gamewell-FCI is taking the same approach, claims John Weaver, who is the director of marketing for the company.

“One of our basic design criteria is having a forward migration path,” he says.

Weaver and Milburn note that fire systems in particular require a certain amount of proprietary technology. Both Gamewell-FCI and Cooper don’t want to jeopardize the security, survivability or supervision of their fire systems by connecting with other building systems that are not as robust as their own. Despite this, Milburn and Weaver say their companies’ fire technologies have gateways to interact with other communication and building systems.

Milburn and Weaver also claim that due to recent code changes (NFPA 72-2010) and enforcement, as well as the overall survivability of fire systems, it makes sense for this equipment to take control of the mass notification process.

Integrators, Software Providers Can Help
But figuring out all of the technical aspects of integration can be challenging for campus officials who aren’t IT experts. That’s where a middleware company can help institutions tie together their proprietary and open systems.

“Some manufacturers are very open, and we participate in their developer programs. Others are very closed, and we backward engineer everything,” says Mike MacLeod, who is the president and co-founder of Status Solutions, a provider of middleware. “In our business, whether the manufacturers are cooperative or not, we just need to harvest the triggering events and drive the requisite awareness transactions. We’ve had a lot of practice at this.”

A good integrator can also help, but campuses should vet these contractors (and all vendors for that matter) carefully. Do they have experience installing similar systems? Have they been certified by the manufacturer? This is important because it indicates the installing contractor will know how to work on the specified system and have access to parts.

“Also, don’t get tied into a proprietary provider where you don’t have an alternative source in case you have a problem,” Weaver warns. “If you have a problem with the provider from a service standpoint, you don’t want to be locked into it because there’s no option in the territory for some other representative to come in. We believe in supporting our distributors but also having them compete effectively in their market place to best serve their customers.”

MacLeod recommends campuses turn to their current voice, data, burglary and fire alarm integrators for assistance.

“Our dealer partners come from all of those areas, so there is a strong likelihood that a campus is already doing business with one of our partners,” he says.

Milburn, however, claims that the onus for integrating these systems is not on the installing contractor, but on the manufacturer.

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About the Author

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Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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