Five Ways to Bring Your Emergency Communications Up to Speed
Today's advanced communications systems provide considerably more automation and control than in the past.
- By Joanne Pekich
- May 27, 2013
Sometimes safety measures fail, even in the most careful workplaces. People get injured and even killed, hazardous materials spill or leak. Events that are out of your control strike your site -- tornadoes, flooding, wildfires. Too often, people become violent at work. In 2011, 458 workplace homicides claimed victims who included 60 back-office management professionals, which is not a vocation that is traditionally thought of as high risk.
In a shooter situation, people may have 10 seconds to take shelter behind locked doors. When faced with a tornado warning, people have on average a little more than 10 minutes to move to safety. When an incident occurs, fast, effective emergency communications can make the difference between a relatively contained event and a major catastrophe that includes multiple injuries or loss of life, destruction of assets, and a public relations disaster.
Emergency communications technology has taken a leap forward during the past five years. Today's advanced communications systems provide considerably more automation and control than in the past. If you haven't upgraded your systems in a few years, here are five modern communications capabilities that can help you respond significantly more rapidly and effectively in an emergency.
Prerecorded Voice Alerts
Voice alerts have become the standard for emergency communications, because they provide actionable instructions -- people under pressure don't have to try to decode the meaning of a siren or tone. Although PA systems are sometimes used in an emergency to deliver live voice instructions, prerecorded voice alerts provide several advantages:
- Efficient resource use. It's important that emergency instructions repeat multiple times over a period of minutes, to help tamp down on confusion and panic. Repeating instructions over a live PA system ties up a team member who could likely be used elsewhere in an emergency. Recorded messages typically repeat automatically over a predetermined period of time; you can click a mouse or press a button to activate the alert and then move on to other urgent tasks.
- Location flexibility. Most older PA systems tie the announcer to a single microphone location. In an emergency, you may need to broadcast emergency instructions to your site from different locations, on site or off. Advanced network-based communications make it possible to operate emergency systems using many different devices from almost any location.
- Communications clarity. Some voices are more understandable than others at high volumes; recorded voice alerts use highly intelligible, professional voice announcers. Recorded voice alerts can also be provided in different languages without the need to designate a multilingual person to do live announcements. Because every emergency is different, it is impossible to plan out every recorded voice announcement you may need. With text-to-speech technology, you can create and send incident-specific alerts in seconds. The system automatically converts typed, incident-specific emergency instructions to intelligible voice directives.
Remote Location Targeting
A significant step forward for emergency communications is the ability to rapidly broadcast emergency instructions to everyone at a specific trouble spot. Advanced, facility-based emergency communications systems now make it possible to almost instantly activate the emergency communications system in a single building or floor -- from the other end of a large facility or campus, or even from off-site. This can substantially improve emergency response:
- Speed. Alerts and instructions at a large or multi-building site are broadcast much more rapidly. Responders no longer need to go to each building or area to manually sound the alarm and announce emergency directives.
- Precision. Everyone at the scene of a localized crisis can be alerted without disrupting others at the site. For example, from your computer screen, you can almost instantly broadcast an alert that evacuates everyone in one building because of a water main break or instructs everyone on a single floor to shelter in place until a small hazmat spill in a hallway is cleaned up.
- Simultaneous, targeted emergency directives. Different emergency instructions can be broadcast to different locations simultaneously. For instance, a tornado alert might be preconfigured to include several sets of instructions targeted to specific areas: instructions for parking areas that tell people to avoid driving and shelter indoors; a directive for the manufacturing floor that reminds people to safely power down equipment before moving to safety; and a general alert to everyone else to proceed immediately to designated tornado shelters. Instructions can be broadcast simultaneously with one button press or mouse click, or triggered automatically by outside data feeds.
Automatic Emergency Alert Activation
Every comprehensive emergency plan includes guidelines on how and when emergency alerts and instructions will be communicated. However, in an actual emergency, designated people may be absent or unsure about what to do. Increasingly, technology is used to automate emergency communications, using sensors and other monitoring devices to provide objective data. This considerably streamlines and accelerates emergency response.
For example, in research and industrial facilities, communications systems can now be tied to gas and other hazardous materials detectors, When the sensors detect a designated level of dangerous gas in the air, the emergency communications system automatically alerts and instructs everyone to evacuate the building. Similarly, communications systems tied to National Weather Service data streams can rapidly instruct everyone at a site to shelter in place if a tornado has been sighted in the area.
Emergency Call Tools with Built-in Location Identification
Emergency call tools continue to be an important part of an effective emergency communications system, despite the prevalence of cell phones. Cell phone networks tend to fail during widespread emergencies, often leaving people in need with no way to reach help. In addition, it can be difficult to identify the location of a cell phone caller, especially inside a building, which potentially delays emergency response.
Organizations with many people and large sites to protect are increasingly taking on the responsibility for responding to on-site crises, with safety and security personnel trained and equipped to manage a wide variety of emergencies. Facility-based emergency call tools give people a way to speak with these facility responders immediately to report a problem or request help. Advanced systems transmit the call location automatically, so responders can deploy help immediately if needed, without having to figure out where the caller is. This is especially important in areas where landlines tend to be unavailable: on manufacturing floors, college campuses, and in parking garages and labs.
Independent Backup Networks with Automatic Switchover
Modern emergency systems rely on communications networks to transmit alerts and calls for help. These systems typically operate on a site's Local Area Network, using wired Ethernet and/or wi-fi. In the same way that important electrical systems need batteries in case power goes out, critical network-based systems need backup communications to help ensure they will continue to operate if local networks fail during a crisis. Not all backup networks are equal; for example, both voice and data networks tend to get overloaded, so they aren't reliable in high-demand emergency conditions.
Ideal emergency networks are independent of other communications channels. Modern technologies such as wireless mesh networks provide an independent backup option so you can still use your emergency communications system even if cell networks, landlines, and the Internet fail.
As we're continually reminded, an emergency can happen anywhere at any time. Modern emergency communications technologies provide a fast, powerful way to rapidly coordinate the emergency response of hundreds or even thousands of people and minimize the confusion and delay that can cost assets, reputation, and, worst of all, lives in a crisis.