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.
By Andrew Woodward, PE, Arup, Robert F. Accosta Jr., Arup September 23, 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.

Mass notification

Mass notification systems (MNS), as referenced in Table 1, are systems that provide real-time information/instructions to people in a given area or building in the form of voice communications, visual signals, textual/graphical/tactile communications, or other methods with the intention of aiding in protecting lives during an emergency situation (Unified Facilities Criteria 4-021-01). These systems should consist of multiple methods or layers to ensure that the appropriate parties are notified of the emergency situation at the right time, as shown in Table 2.

These layers, or combination thereof, shall be used to address threats identified in the risk analysis as well as the emergency response plan as deemed appropriate by the design team. The use of multiple layers can aid in increasing the reliability of the notification system. It is important for designers to understand the owner’s goals in specifying the notification layer(s) for the different potential emergency scenarios.

Figure 2: Mass notification alerts distributed via personal computers can be tailored to the specific facility. Courtesy: Siemens Industry Inc. Building Technologies DivisionThe sequences of operation and activation methods for MNS are considerations for the team to integrate into the design. NFPA 72 leaves the decision of whether in-building MNS should be manual or automatically initiated to the designer. Regardless, upon activation, visible notification must be active in addition to the pre-recorded message or live voice announcement. The priority of messages/announcements, including differentiation between fire alarm and mass notification, is to be compliant with the emergency response plan and shall consider that a fire event may no longer be the highest priority.

Another thought to be considered by the design team is whether the activation shall be password-protected or if manual means such as panic button are permitted. NFPA 72 does not limit the designer to one way or another; however, the secure access method must be in accordance with the risk analysis and emergency response plan.

Notification

Many of the requirements that are applicable to fire alarm notification appliances also pertain to mass notification. When designers use strobes for both the fire alarm system and MNS, NFPA 72 requires:

  • Appliance must be clear or nominal white in accordance with ANSI/UL 1971
  • Appliances must be stamped/imprinted with “ALERT” or no marking (note these appliances are not permitted to be labeled “FIRE”)
  • Colored lenses are to have listed effective intensity labeled and spacing shall be reduced in accordance with the listed effective intensity accordingly. 

If there is a potential for a fire alarm system to be used for mass notification, the designer should specify visible appliances that are marked with “ALERT” to minimize the future cost impact to the owner. 

Textual, graphic, and video displays are also permitted to supplement the required strobes in accordance with NFPA 72. These displays are allowed to be used for nonemergency purposes as long as emergency notification overrides the messages. 

The design team must ensure the mass/voice notification system is designed to meet the intelligibility requirements of NFPA 72; information/instructions that are provided but cannot be understood provide little value during an emergency situation. 

Additionally, designers will now need to incorporate the requirement for instructions to be posted on the use of microphones to make live voice announcements into contract documents. The purpose of this requirement is to better inform the user of proper practices in order to reduce the possibility that the intelligibility of the announcement will be compromised due to poor technique. If live voice messages will be broadcast by authorized individuals during an emergency, an owner should consider providing these individuals with training and practice on use of a microphone.

Fire alarm control interface

Where separate fire alarm system and MNS are installed and protecting the same building or portion thereof, an interface between these systems must be provided for the purposes of coordinating communication. As part of the integration of the systems, a listed barrier gateway is required to be used to prevent the inadvertent interference with the fire alarm system reliable operation. This interface is required by NFPA 72 to:

  • Indicate failure at impaired control unit
  • Provide indication at fire alarm control unit that MNS is active
  • Cause the deactivation of fire alarm notification, as required for active MNS
  • Prevent fire alarm from disabling notification to special suppression pre-discharge
  • Alert supervising station, as required, that MNS has overridden fire alarm. 

The designer of a fire alarm system in educational facilities should consider providing the components necessary to interface with a future MNS. Providing this interface adds a minimal increase in cost during the installation. Installing a fire alarm interface after the fact is costly and generally requires an electrician to install the components, a fire alarm technician to program the new equipment, and trained staff to complete a reacceptance test of the new and existing functionality.

UL and the use of a PA system 

Figure 3: Nonemergency messages overridden by emergency occupant notification on visual message displays. Courtesy: Valcom Inc.When specifying products and manufacturers in contract documents, designers must be aware that NFPA 72 now requires MNS control units to be listed for their purpose. Non-listed devices are permitted to be used for the activation of a MNS if no such listed apparatus is available and the failure will not disrupt the MNS operation. 

A frequent query is whether the public address (PA) system can be used for emergency communications if such a system is not listed for this application. NFPA 72 does permit a PA system to be used for mass notification as long as the designer evaluates the PA system and determines it meets the performance requirements of NFPA 72 ECS chapter and the emergency response plan for the facility. 

Similarly, the building ECS is permitted to be used for nonemergency functions. This eliminates the need to install redundant public address and emergency communications systems, and can help reduce the construction cost for implementation of emergency communications.

ECS documentation 

As contractors continue to familiarize themselves with the requirements for ECS, design specifications shall consider incorporating the following NFPA 72 documentation requirements:

  • Owner’s manual
  • Record and as-built drawings
  • Written sequences of operation
  • Updated record of completion form
  • Record copy of the system specific software, where applicable
  • Copy of the site-specific software
  • Emergency response plan, with operational management procedures defined for management and activation of the system
  • Risk analysis, where applicable 

These closeout documents are vital for future modification and expansion of a system. Security of the documentation is important and should be considered as part of the design with the owner. Designers should ensure the documentation reflects the accepted system and is delivered to the owner following the system acceptance.

Design considerations

Figure 4: Notification provided within facilities as well as around buildings can use the public address system. Courtesy: Valcom Inc.Regardless of the type of fire alarm system and/or ECS being designed, the strategy should incorporate any owner/client specific requirements. As a result of the Higher Education Opportunity Act requiring (as of July 1, 2010) polices to “immediately notify the campus community upon the confirmation of a significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or staff occurring on the campus,” many higher education clients have incorporated emergency communications into their design standards and directives.

Specific requirements that may be incorporated into the design documents (where applicable) include:

  • Type of system to be designed
  • Capacity for future expansion (battery, conduit, number of points, wire size)
  • Fire alarm equipment allowance
  • Equipment installation height and spacing guides
  • Additional detection coverage beyond code requirements
  • Contractor qualifications
  • Conduit and wiring requirements
  • Circuiting requirements
  • Security (password protection or location of control equipment).

The design team should also consider the reliability, survivability, and level of redundancy that is to be provided by the system.

Funding restrictions 

In many applications, funding is the driving factor limiting the implementation of various ECS even when the desire and/or need for these systems is readily apparent. Funding is being reduced during each budget cycle, making schools do more with less. Many times the challenge becomes developing a long-term strategy that recommends how to incorporate ECS. Designers, engineers, and owners should understand that an ECS can include numerous technologies and equipment; however, the desired end product does not necessarily need to be implemented all at the same time. Some systems and/or parts may be implemented in phases as funding becomes available. Designers should consider the risk analysis and the most economical way of mitigating the vulnerabilities while working toward the desired end product.

So what can existing education facilities do in the short term to keep their facility, students, and parents better informed during an emergency? A quickly deployed option could be to use text messaging if the facility is able to collect and maintain an updated list of phone numbers. Additionally, the campus Internet protocol (IP) phones that are located in all of the classrooms could be programmed to broadcast a message through the speaker. Although improvements might be necessary to improve the audibility and intelligibility as well as secondary power capacity to operate during a power outage, this option may be less costly to building owners, depending on the existing infrastructure.

Other options for existing facilities may include upgrading the building fire alarm system to an in-building fire emergency voice/alarm communications system that is mass-notification ready, implementing reverse 911 calling/texting, installing high-power speaker arrays, or other ECS solutions. The cost versus benefits of the various technologies should be analyzed while taking into consideration the level of acceptable risk. 

Also, designers and owners shall consider if the educational facilities are “systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters” (based on the Critical Infrastructures Protection Act of 2001). Adding this classification could provide options for federal funding to support implementation of ECS. 

Operational needs 

Figure 5: Messages can be broadcasted through computer pop-ups to alert appropriate parties. Courtesy: Siemens Industry Inc. Building Technologies DivisionWhile 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? 

Existing facilities 

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
  • Telephone
  • Computer
  • 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.

Risks

Figure 6: A single MNS interface can be used to deploy notification to multiple systems and parties. Courtesy: Valcom Inc.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 

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.