Emergency notification systems: Best practices for specifying in schools

The installation of fire alarm and ECS can have a significant impact in preserving life safety within schools and campuses. Here are the portions of NFPA 72 to watch.

09/22/2013


Learning objectives

  1. Understand which building and fire codes are required for notification in schools.
  2. Learn about emergency communication and mass notification systems in the context of NFPA 72.
  3. Determine how design considerations, funding restrictions, and operational needs affect the design and installation of ECS.  

Figure 1: Emergency call points can duplicate as mass notification soundpoints. Courtesy: Valcom Inc.The events over the past several years have reminded communities of the necessity to be able to broadcast rapidly changing information to countless occupants, families, and employees. The tragedies at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary, Hurricane Sandy, and the tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., and Moore, Okla., are just a few reminders of catastrophic events where emergency communication systems (ECS) can have a significant impact on saving lives. With the multitude of potential emergency situations that could be encountered, fire alarm and ECS that give specific directions depending on the type of emergency help provide a higher degree of awareness in responding to these events. 

Whether it is an elementary, middle, or a high school, the 2012 International Building Code (IBC) and 2012 International Fire Code (IFC) require a manual fire alarm system with emergency voice/alarm communication systems in all new educational occupancies. Similarly, many colleges and universities have incorporated requirements for voice systems into their campus/owner standards or are voluntarily incorporating voice communication as part of ongoing upgrades. These voice fire alarm notification systems can serve as a platform to provide instructions during an emergency.

What is an ECS?

As jurisdictions adopt the latest building and fire codes or owners voluntarily install an ECS, designers should continue to familiarize themselves with the provisions of NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. ECS are “systems for the protection of life by indicating the existence of an emergency situation and communicating information necessary to facilitate an appropriate response and action.” Table 1 shows the types of ECS that are identified by the code.

Presently, select building and fire codes within the United States require an emergency voice/alarm communication system to be provided in new construction educational (Group “E”) occupancies. The 2012 IBC, 2012 IFC, and 8th Edition of the Massachusetts State Building Code are some examples. As local jurisdictions begin to adopt the 2012 IBC/IFC, there will be a move toward ECS in schools. Existing educational occupancies are not required to upgrade their existing fire alarm system to incorporate ECS unless a new fire alarm system is being installed. 

Whether an ECS is required or being installed as a voluntarily system, the design and installation must comply with all of the applicable requirements of NFPA 72 and shall also incorporate the client/owner requirements, objectives, and goals.

NFPA 72 requirements

The NFPA 72 requirements on mass notification systems are based on the U.S. Dept. of Defense Uniform Facilities Criteria. Within NFPA 72, Chapter 24 on ECS is the primary reference for the design of ECS in educational occupancies in addition to the other applicable sections of the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. ECS are intended to account for anticipated risks and deliver information specific in nature to the respective parties in response to an emergency situation. The system must also incorporate the requirements of the owner as well as the items outlined in the risk analysis. 

NFPA 72 defines a risk analysis as “a process to characterize the likelihood, vulnerability, and magnitude of incidents associated with natural, technological, and manmade disasters and other emergencies that address scenarios of concern, their probability, and their potential consequences.” Typically a designer performs a risk analysis for the mass notification system to tailor a design to a specific facility and includes the following:

  • Maximum occupant load for all occupiable spaces
  • Type of occupancy
  • Perceived danger
  • Effects on occupant behavior
  • Rate of hazard escalation
  • Types of emergency hazards/events
  • Occupant notification for given events.

If the ECS is expected to be used for mass notification, a risk analysis should be developed as part of the design process. Identified risks would then be incorporated into the emergency response plan for the facility in order to plan for a smoother future expansion of the system. For example, the identified potential risks could impact the locations of system equipment. Modifications to address these concerns after a fire alarm system is installed could be very costly. 

Creating an emergency response plan 

Following the identification of the potential risks for a facility, the designer, owner, and/or various other stakeholders will need to collaborate in developing/updating the strategy for responding to each of the incidents identified in the risk analysis. Requirements for the emergency planning and preparedness (including fire safety and evacuation plans, lockdown plans, drills, and training) as outlined in the IFC will also need to be adhered to.

The plan should not only identify required actions in response to an emergency, but shall address emergency message content, the process to initiate notification, priority of activities/ announcements/ messages, level of security, response personnel, response equipment, and training/ drills. This is an essential piece of implementing an ECS such that appropriate instructions, directions, and information are provided to respective parties at the appropriate time.

As part of the emergency response plan, an approach for incorporating parties not directly intimate with the emergency situation must also be included into the strategy. As an example, in the Sandy Hook Elementary School incident, the neighboring fire station was used as an assembly point for parents, children, and first responders, which helped authorities manage the various parties who attempted to respond to the scene during the active emergency situation. Additional resources related to emergency response/management plans for schools are provided by the U.S. Dept. of Education.


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