Relying on just one method of message delivery during an emergency could result in a large portion of the targeted audience not receiving the message.

Integrating Layered Solutions for Emergency Communications

Relying on just one method of message delivery during an emergency could result in a relatively large portion of the targeted audience not receiving the message.

In the past year, the nation has experienced many emergencies, including natural and man-made disasters. These unpredictable and violent events have affected the lives of millions and reinforced the growing need to design an emergency response plan (ERP) that meets the specific nature and anticipated risks of each facility and situation. For many occupational health and safety professionals, that means choosing a layered approach to emergency communications.

Although a multi-layered approach to emergency communications is not a new trend, there has been a renewed focus on developing a layered communications strategy that integrates many different systems into the overall plan. In fact, the 2013 edition of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 72 National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code introduced the concept of mass notification system (MNS) layers to ensure that emergency messages reach the intended audience.

To understand the approach, it is important to first recognize what is included in each of the four layers.

  • Layer 1: Leverages systems/equipment to notify those inside a building. This initial layer, known as in-building MNS, includes solutions that can integrate with a facility's addressable fire alarm system, allowing them to perform both fire alarm and emergency communications functions. These solutions provide those within the structure with an intelligible live or pre-recorded voice message that communicates what to do in the case of an emergency.
  • Layer 2: Communicates to occupants near the exterior of a building. The second layer, Wide-area MNS, is designed to alert those directly outside or nearby the structure. These solutions offer elements, such as traditional speaker sirens or high-powered speaker arrays, to clearly communicate emergency messages, expanding reach to outdoor areas. Certain solutions can be integrated with in-building or distributed recipient MNS to create one effective, multi-layered solution.
  • Layer 3: Alerts personnel through individual measures. After deploying MNS to alert a broader group of individuals, the third layer, distributed recipient MNS, focuses on an individualized approach by utilizing tactics such as text messages, automated voice calls, computer pop-ups, or emails. These are designed to directly target those affected to ensure proper messaging is reaching each individual.
  • Layer 4: Notifies personnel through public means. Finally, the last layer focuses on alerting the general public through targeted messaging of broadcast, radio, television or social networks. This final layer is designed to provide an even larger reach and ensure those near the affected area are alerted.

The initial risk analysis, according to the NFPA, should determine the layer or layers needed to meet a facility’s mass notification objectives. In most MNS applications, it is recommended that a Layer 1 system be combined with one or more of the other layers to provide effective emergency communications. The reasoning behind this is that relying on just one method of message delivery during an emergency could result in a relatively large portion of the targeted audience not receiving the message.

Integrating Layered Solutions at the University of Central Florida
From catastrophic natural disasters to threats facing college and K-12 students, the heightened demand for emergency communication systems has resulted in campuses and facilities across the country purchasing disparate MNS solutions. As the need for layers and redundancy grew, so did the number of different types of systems, including text messaging and outdoor giant voice. Administrators and facility managers in a range of industries began to realize that activating all of these different systems would greatly increase the time it took to get messages out, while also lengthening response time for key personnel.

"Integration enables faster notification through all of the MNS solutions, from outdoor warning systems to mass emails and from digital display signs to in-building notification systems," said University of Central Florida Director of Emergency Management Jeff Morgan. "We were looking for a one-button, simple solution. We know that our dispatchers can be overwhelmed in an emergency, and we wanted something easy for them to use, clicking the mouse a couple of times versus signing in [to] four or five different systems. The redundancy aspect allows us to reach out to faculty, staff, students, and guests in more than one way."

Since UCF has had its integrated MNS in place, the university has issued alerts for tornado/severe weather warnings and a shooting that occurred near the campus. Morgan said the system also was used during a bomb threat in one of the parking garages on campus. UCF was able to utilize its layered approach to send text messages to the entire campus community, in addition to its indoor MNS. Both instances warned students and staff of the situation and alerted them when the crisis had been resolved.

By integrating all systems into one user-friendly solution, UCF campus officials succeeded in developing an effective solution to communicate to students and staff via a single, secure interface.

The interoperable system allows users to focus on the emergency at hand and not become bogged down with utilizing multiple systems, Morgan said. "With the click of a mouse, our mass notification solution allows dispatchers to deliver live or recorded event-specific messages within seconds to sirens, indoor and outdoor speakers, as well as cell phones and email," he added.

Design Trends in MNS
Beyond integration, Internet Protocol (IP) and interoperability are also key technology trends that impact the design and implementation of an effective MNS. Understanding these latest MNS design trends will help occupational health and safety directors and facility managers not only ensure proper safety measures are communicated in times of crisis, but also allow for streamlined operations.

While distributed recipient MNS solutions currently leverage the power and reach of existing computer networks and the Internet, many systems are now offering the same integration for traditional MNS elements, such as outdoor giant voice or indoor voice evacuation systems. Taking advantage of IP-based infrastructure allows for truly integrated and interoperable emergency communications.

Enterprise system solutions also allow organizations to leverage existing systems and infrastructure such as their Local Area Network (LAN). Whether it is a wired or wireless IP solution, the delivery method to all indoor, outdoor, and personal notification devices can be agnostic across a wide range of networks. A facility may utilize its LAN in some areas but need a wireless IP solution in other areas where LAN is not available. The transportation mechanism for communicating emergency information can be independent of the device.

Another advantage of IP-based MNS solutions is that multiple sites and facilities located anywhere in the world can be tied together through a web-client server solution for managing global notification and system monitoring. This allows multiple points of command and control in order for administrators to have greater awareness of what is going on in the system, no matter where they are located. IP-based solutions are also essential to interoperable solutions.

Interoperable Solutions
Knowledge is critical in effectively responding to today’s emergency situations; more knowledge makes a staff better equipped to manage the situation. Through advanced IP-based technology, emergency communications professionals can now integrate a range of security systems, such as fire alarm control panels, video monitoring, and sensor detection, with emergency communication systems. This allows for complete, accurate, up-to-the minute situational awareness. Advanced Protocol Interfaces (APIs) with vendors can now provide full-featured bi-directional interoperability, allowing audible and visual emergency messages to become activated via either system.

Here is an example of how an interoperable, IP-based solution would help a facility and other stakeholders respond to a hazmat accident that occurs in the organization's test lab:

The incident would trigger a chemical sensor into alarm status, which then activates a camera to stream live video of the area and the mass notification system to notify personnel based on the facility's emergency response plan. The MNS automatically distributes alerts to the emergency management center via local speakers in the office, as well as text messages and voice calls to key staff who may be located elsewhere. It also alerts the safety manager and first responders on duty, stating that a chemical agent has been detected in Lab C. By viewing the video and the sensor status, the emergency manager confirms the threat.

With a couple of clicks, he sends a notification to all first responders in the facility; the city's hazmat team to assist with the accident; the facility's security staff to help with evacuations; and alerts to employees in the lab and surrounding areas via indoor speakers, LED display signs, and desktop alerts with different instructions for the different areas affected, based on the emergency response plan. Responding to this situation takes place within minutes, saving lives and reducing chaos.

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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