Emergency messaging explained

New guidelines to help installers and end users in all 'rapid onset events'
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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

QUINCY, Mass.—Emergency communication systems (ECS) were developed because a fire alarm alone is not always sufficient to tell building occupants what to do in case of an emergency. But what exactly should an ECS message say? There have been no guidelines for that—until now.

The Fire Protection Research Foundation in April announced the release of such guidelines. They are designed to help system designers, building managers and emergency personnel create and disseminate the most effective messages to tell people what to do in case of an emergency, said Amanda Kimball, a research project manager for the foundation, an affiliate of the National Fire Protection Association, based here.

“This is for all type of emergencies not just fire; we’re talking about rapid onset events,” Kimball told Security Systems News.

The new “Guidance Document: Emergency Communication Strategies for Buildings,” contains guidelines for the planning, design, installation and use of emergency communications systems, but also discusses ways to test messages to make sure building occupants understand them and react appropriately. The document also includes sample messaging for five different emergency scenarios ranging from a fire in a high-rise building to an active shooter at an airport.

Kimball said the foundation did the research and produced the guidance report after both the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the NFPA 72 Technical Committee for Emergency Communication Systems identified some “knowledge gaps” related to emergency messaging.

Up until now, Kimball said, “there hasn’t been specific guidance on what to say in the message.” The new guidelines now provided a “checklist” of what should be included and they give “users and the designers some specific language that they can implement into their systems,” she said. The guidelines apply to both audible and visible messaging.

Suggestions include using short, simple language, with verbs that are in the present tense and in active, rather than passive, voice. The word “must” is better than “shall” because it creates more of a sense of urgency, the guidelines state.

In the high-rise building fire scenario, the fire on the 10th floor of a 20-story building requires a phased evacuation. That means one message must be sent to occupants of floors 9-11, who need to evacuate, and a different message sent to other building occupants, who should remain on their floors. The guidelines describe how the different live voice messages should be disseminated at the same time to different floors.

The suggested message for those who should remain in place is: “Attention. This is your [building safety officer, Joe Smith]. A fire has been reported on the [10th floor] of the building. Please wait on your floor. At this time, you are safer remaining on your floor than leaving the building, because this building is designed to confine the fire [e.g., locally OR to the 10th floor only]. Do not use the elevators for any reason. We will give you further instructions if the situation changes.”

Such a message might have been helpful in an apartment building fire in New York City in January, in which a man died while trying to escape down a smoke-filled stairway instead of remaining safely in his apartment. His building had no ECS and his death sparked a call to mandate such systems in high-rise apartment buildings in the city.

There’s still more work to be done on developing ECS messaging guidelines, the report notes. For example, the report suggests further study to determine the optimal length of an emergency message and how many times it should be disseminated during an emergency.

According to an April 21 NFPA news release, the guidance report is based on a review of 162 literature sources from a variety of social science and engineering disciplines. The project was primarily funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Kimball said industry sponsors—Siemens, Tyco SimplexGrinnell, UL, xMatters, Bosch, Eaton Cooper Notification and UTC—provided additional support.

She said the messaging guidelines at this point are just suggestions but that eventually, “we’re trying to work toward more specific [messaging] requirements in the code, based on research.”