Emergency notification systems: Best practices for specifying in schools
While it may not be important to the design of an ECS, there are a number of items that a designer should consider discussing or making their client aware of in order to help lend way to a smoother transition to an ECS. Many of these considerations should be conveyed throughout the design process so there is ample time prior to the acceptance and implementation of an ECS for a client to prepare and discuss operational needs with the respective parties.
In most cases an ECS is continuously evolving and developing; thus, the below considerations may need periodic reexamination:
- Will the emergency response plan and procedures need modification to incorporate the vast capabilities of an ECS for numerous predetermined emergency scenarios?
- Initial system training will likely occur for only a select number of key personnel; however, what other staff will need to be trained to operate the system and how much training will need to be conducted so users are competent?
- Who will complete the ongoing inspection, testing, and maintenance?
- How will drills of the ECS be conducted and by whom?
- Who are the key personnel to respond to system malfunctions and alarms?
- Do operational guidelines need modification to incorporate an ECS?
- If the ECS is capable, do students, faculty, families, etc., need to opt in (sign up to receive) or opt out (are automatically signed up and must request removal) of receiving messages via text, e-mail, etc.?
- Has testing identified deficiencies that would require future improvements?
Once the administration has decided that an MNS is needed for a facility or campus, the owner must understand that deploying an MNS throughout a school is not going to occur overnight. As a member of the staff, you have been tasked with deploying an MNS. Where should you start? What should be your first steps? A strategic initial stride should be to determine what existing systems and information could be used as part of a MNS. Some key personnel who can aid in gathering this information may include:
- Principals, deans
- IT administrators
- Local fire and police departments
- Facilities staff and individuals who maintain the buildings.
Potential systems that could be used for mass notification purposes could include the following:
- Paging system
- Fire alarm
- Message boards
- Visual displays
- Cable TV system.
In additional to the various systems that could be used for MNS, other building systems that might be necessary to support these ECS include: generators, uninterrupted power supplies, communication networks, and access control. The state and capacity for future expansion should be evaluated for future needs.
Furthermore, if the school does not have a data set of contact information for staff, students, and their families (including phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and physical addresses), begin the collection process for contact information that may include:
- Phone numbers: Home, work, cell
- Email addresses: Organization and personal
- Physical address: Home and work.
An important consideration is how the accuracy of this information is verified and updated on a reoccurring basis.
Now that you understand what existing systems could be used, investigate the capabilities and understand the reliability of these various existing systems since they will be used as an ECS.
Following the completion of the risk analysis, the information gathered on the existing systems may aid in mitigating some of these identified risks. For instance, an active shooter on a campus is a risk in which it is unlikely that power would be interrupted. Thus, secondary power may not be necessary for the existing systems for this identified risk. Alternatively, if there is a risk of severe weather and a goal of the MNS is to notify individuals after an emergency, a secondary power supply should be included in the design, if not currently provided by the existing systems, to achieve this goal.
The remaining risks identified in the analysis should be ranked in order for the initial build-out of the MNS to consider events with a high probability and the number of individuals that could be impacted by the particular threat. The owner should collaborate with the team in looking to integrate the existing systems to help minimize the initial capital costs while maximizing emergency communications for the threats identified in the risk analysis. Future funding for new communication methods may need to be considered in order to provide notification for higher ranking identified risks.
Integration of multiple systems is important for a mass notification in order for the emergency response team to have the capability to communicate the emergency message simultaneously through multiple layers of communication. Integrators have come to the rescue and created a system where authorized individuals can communicate to all of their various systems through a single interface. Messages can be predetermined/prerecorded so that specific information can be broadcast in a matter of seconds to all of the connected systems. This eliminates the potential for conflicting information and relying on an individual to provide live instructions to numerous system platforms.
A thorough evaluation and selection process is necessary before selecting an integrator, and engineers should consider if the vendor has previous experience with integrator installations that use similar equipment already in the school or campus. The importance of the risk analysis and emergency response plan should be considered during the design of the ECS in order to prepare for the integration, acceptance, and operation of the system.
Andrew Woodward is a senior fire engineer with Arup. He is a principal member of the NFPA 72 Technical Committee on ECS. Robert Accosta Jr. is a fire engineer with Arup and serves as an alternate member of the NFPA 72 Technical Committee on Notification Appliances for Fire Alarm and Signaling Systems. Their experience with fire alarm/ECS spans university buildings, museums, transportation centers, industrial facilities, hotels, and commercial structures.