Mass notification goes mainstream

Recent interest spurred by factors such as codes and extreme weather
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Monday, February 6, 2012

YARMOUTH, Maine—Military installations and college campuses are the two verticals best known for having mass notification systems. However, as that facet of the industry develops and grows, mass notification increasingly is in demand by a more diverse market, according to industry experts.

In upstate New York, for example, industries ranging from an ice cream-making plant to an aerospace manufacturer have added mass notification systems. In the Midwest, commercial buildings are showing greater interest since weather disasters such as the tornado that devastated Joplin, Mo., last May. And demand for mass notification is growing in K-12 schools and healthcare facilities all over the country, sources tell Security Systems News.

“It’s a new industry basically,” said John Wojdan, president of Buffalo, N.Y.-based Great Lakes Building Systems. “There are a lot of facilities yet to be tapped.”

In the past few years, Great Lakes, a Notifier by Honeywell distributor, has taken advantage of situations where it has been called in to upgrade a fire alarm system, using them as opportunities to convince customers to go with a more robust solution that includes a mass notification system.

One instance was at a plant owned by Moog, a worldwide aerospace manufacturer headquartered in New York. Great Lakes noticed the 300,000-square-foot plant had only a telephone system, which didn't always function, for emergency events, so it persuaded Moog to include mass notification along with its fire alarm system.

Great Lakes made similar successful upsells at Perry’s Ice Cream Co., an ice cream manufacturer in the Buffalo area, Wojdan said.

Why would an ice cream plant need a mass notification system?

“When you make ice cream, you need a lot of refrigeration apparatus and refrigeration apparatus is operated by ammonia,” Wojdan explained. “Ammonia is very toxic. If there’s an ammonia leak in that facility it can be catastrophic and deadly.”

Great Lakes also is adding a mass notification system to a food processing facility owned by upstate New York-based Steuben Foods, he said.

“They have some ammonia sensors there and also certain processes they want to monitor too,” he said. “So we’re not only going to use it for life safety, but also for a typical process in their production that could curtail or even ruin food if it shut down.”

The projects for both food businesses have been under way for about a year now, and are being done in phases because they’re taking place in working facilities, Wojdan said.

He said the first phase involved updating the fire alarm system and adding voice communication, “with all the appropriate amplification, amplifiers, digital voice communication and so on, and then the next step is to interface (with) the ammonia sensors that they had on site and develop a second tone, a second alert status with strobes.”

The third phase, which Wojdan said should be completed this spring, will be “to integrate that into a React system.” That computer software system allows for sending emergency alerts on multiple channels, including desktop computer displays for text messages and emails, he said.

Because mass notification is a relatively new part of the industry, Wojdan said, everyone has his or her “own verbiage to go along with it.”

For example, he said, “I like the phrase ‘critical response notification,’” which he said seems to fit best in industry applications, while mass notification is a more common term for educational solutions.

Scott Lord, executive officer of Kansas City, Kan.-based All Systems, which provides fire alarm, mass notification and security solutions for a wide range of verticals, agreed there are a variety of terms.

He said that generally in the industry, “mass notification can mean anything from a really good paging system to text messaging.”

But technically, he said, “mass notification is an in-building and exterior notification system that requires strobes and intelligible voice.”

Mass messaging, on the other hand, is the use of global emails, texts and cellphone messages—means of notification technically considered ancillary to mass notification in terms of life safety, he said.

There’s also the term emergency communication system, or ECS. “You kind of see both terms [mass notification and ECS] being used interchangeably,” Lord said.

Mass notification has a military origin, he said. In the 1996 terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, where American military personnel were housed, the fire alarm system proved inadequate to tell occupants of the building what to do in that type of event, he said.

“The only thing to communicate to everyone in the tower was the fire alarm system, and so the problem was that we had many people trying to evacuate the building and walking into the area where the bomb had exploded. … There were many lives lost simply because we couldn’t properly communicate with people in the building,” Lord said.

Afterward, he said, the Department of Defense concluded that “we need an alert system that can be intelligible that will allow us to be able to combat situations … that have to be handled differently than what we’ve seen from a fire perspective.”

The Unified Facilities Criteria that the DOD came up with in May 2002 defined the requirements for mass notification systems.

But Lord said a problem from a civilian perspective is that the military code required the mass notification system to take precedence over the fire alarm system—allowing for the fire alarm to be shut off to get intelligible messages to a building’s occupants.

That contradicted the National Fire Protection Association code at the time, which said the fire alarm had to be the highest notification in any building, he said.

However, that changed recently, Lord said. “NFPA 2010 is where we actually saw a complete change, where they added six chapters to the code, defining the emergency communication system and providing that the emergency communication system, the mass notification system, is the highest priority.”

And he predicts even more change will come with the 2014 International Building Code, which he believes “is going to define that new buildings, new structures, will have mass notification, so it’s going to become a standard, like fire alarm.”

The expectation that mass notification eventually will be required is driving some new demand from K-12 school districts and commercial buildings, at least in terms of future planning, Lord said.

“Not a lot of them really are pulling the trigger as far as putting a project together, but a lot of them are sitting there and saying, ‘What do we need to be looking at? If we remodel a wing on this building, what’s the best thing we ought to do, because we believe this is something we’re going to have to do soon,’” he said.

Lord said another factor sparking demand has turned out to be the weather disasters in the Midwest. “It’s sad that the interest has piqued ever since we had the issues in Joplin, Mo.,” he said. “Before, everyone had heard about [mass notification] but most said, ‘We’re waiting until the fire marshal comes and tells us we have to do it.’” But now, he said, they’re saying, “We don’t want to be one of those next buildings.”

Of course the traditional markets for mass notification—higher education and the military—continue to be robust.

Time and Alarm Systems, a Gamewell-FCI distributor based in Mira Loma, Calif., is actively pursuing the military and community college markets, said company president Keith Senn.

“Community colleges are big right now,” he said.

He said one community college project that the company is working on right now involves integrating the campus lighting systems with the emergency communication system.

“We’re actually integrating those systems so, if they have something occur at night, we then turn on the lights on the campus,” Senn said.

He said what lights are turned on depends on the situation, but it could be pathway lighting or lights in a particular building. “If there’s a gunman on campus or something like that and we can turn on some lighting in certain areas, the emergency responders could have a better opportunity to apprehend that suspect or deflect what’s going on,” he said.

In San Antonio, Duane Hannasch, president of Fire Alarm Control Systems, also a Gamewell-FCI distributor, said universities are a key vertical for his company when it comes to mass notification.

For example, he said a current project is at private Trinity University in San Antonio. “As they do their dormitory upgrades, and even the new ones [dormitories], they’re going with voice evacuation, even though it may not be required. They’re being proactive on that side to try and get ahead of the curve there,” he said. “And we’re talking to them about putting in the giant voice exterior solution and then combining the outside signal with the inside signal so that way they’ve got the entire campus covered, inside and out.”

Hannasch said his company urges campuses to use their mass notification systems for non-emergency events, so staff can become familiar with how their system works.

“We try to encourage them to use it for other things. Say they have a big soccer game or football game going on on campus, there’s no reason the guards can’t go on there and make the announcement, ‘The parking lot’s full, go park in another parking lot,’” he said.

That way, Hannasch said, staff members get used to operating the system, “so it’s not like when there’s an emergency someone looks at it and says, ‘What do I do?’”

He also said that since 2005, his company has installed 85 mass notification systems for the military.

He said that at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, for example, “we just finished what they call a BAT, a Big Area Tent. This tent is 18,000 square feet, it’s just nothing but a tent, but we put a mass notification system in there because this is where the troops can go and relax,” Hannasch said.

He said the tent, with canvas walls and roof and plastic room dividers, offers soldiers such amenities as pool tables, pinball, Wii, Nintendo and Xbox. It’s temporary for 14 months until a new activity center is built. But he said it must have a mass notification system because of military regulations that require places where defense personnel gather to be protected.

In 2012 and beyond, Hannasch believes the demand for mass notification systems in K-12 schools will grow because “the new building codes, the uniform fire code, they’re putting more emphasis on emergency communication systems in schools.”