Higher education, higher protection

In response to the shooting incident at Virginia Tech in 2007 and other similar events, the call for providing better forms of emergency communications on a university campus is growing at a rapid pace.

By Jon Kapis, ET, Rolf Jensen & Assocs., Bothell, Wash. September 13, 2010

In response to the shooting incident at Virginia Tech in 2007 and other similar events, the call for providing better forms of emergency communications on a university campus is growing at a rapid pace. The Jeanne Clery Act has new requirements for reporting emergency events to a target audience in a timely manner, and the National Fire Alarm Code (NFPA 72 2007 edition), National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code (NFPA 72 2010 edition) have added design requirements for systems providing emergency notification. The key here is that the target audience may be within, or in close proximity to, the building where the emergency action is taking place.

The development of enforceable codes has lagged behind this need, while at the same time new technologies masked as mass notification continue to barrage consumers. All of this has resulted in many end users, stakeholders, building/fire officials, and vendors asking the same questions: “What have we done? What more do we need to do? What is required by code?”

Dispelling the myths

The first step is to dispel the common myths that exist in the various industries and market sectors that would use an emergency communication system, such as higher education, healthcare, military, and industrial manufacturing.

Mass notification is not a product; it is a concept that invokes one or more products being used to provide emergency communication messages to a target audience, in a timely manner. The use of a mass notification system is determined by careful planning through the development of a risk analysis, which in turn is used to develop a design plan and the emergency response plan for each facility.

One size doesn’t fit all

Every application for a mass notification system is unique to the environment in which it operates. Those who worked to develop the applicable codes, which are in Chapter 24, “Emergency Communication Systems,” of the 2010 edition of NFPA 72, seemed to understand this best by requiring that a risk analysis be provided for each application of a mass notification system and that each mass notification system be specific to the anticipated risk. Because one size doesn’t fit all, there are very few prescriptive code requirements to follow.

This fact further supports the need for the risk analysis to be prepared much in the same way as for any other performance-based design. After all, a mass notification system is a performance-based design system. The risk analysis also sets the groundwork for the design of a mass notification system and the development of the emergency action plan, which outlines how the mass notification system will be used as well as how the user will respond to different emergency events.

Fire alarm systems versus mass notification systems

While many parts of a protected premises fire alarm system can be used in conjunction with providing emergency communications, such a system may not be a total solution. A fire alarm system or fire alarm system network may provide a communication pathway for the pre-recorded or manually activated voice messages to multiple buildings or areas within a campus environment. Existing fire alarm audible and visible notification appliances may be used for signaling, but there is a catch. Where existing notification appliances originally intended for evacuation or relocation are to be used for non-fire emergency events, the devices may be field modified by one of the three following methods:

  1. Replacement of the manufacturer’s approved escutcheon or trim plate
  2. Covering of or removal of the word FIRE using the manufacturer’s approved method
  3. Installation of permanent signage adjacent to or below the notification appliance that indicates it will operate for fire and other emergency conditions.

When the existing fire alarm visible notification appliances are re-used, training of the building occupants must also be addressed. For example, one must consider how to get specific information to the hearing impaired about evacuating the premises or area. With the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines, we have spent the last two decades educating the hearing impaired and others that the white flashing strobe light is a symbol for fire evacuation. If the use of the white flashing strobe is deemed unacceptable by the end user for alerting the target audience about non-fire emergencies, an amber lens or other visible or visible/textual notification appliance may be used.

In the past, problems have been associated with using a fire alarm system for something other than reporting a fire event. These include using the fire alarm system for paging purposes for non-fire events and for monitoring other systems or components, and determining what signals take priority. Historically, a long-standing principle within the National Fire Alarm Code prohibited the fire alarm system from being used for anything other than monitoring and annunciating fire alarm signals. Changes in the 2007 edition and 2010 edition of NFPA 72 make it possible to integrate the fire alarm system and use it as part of an overall emergency commu-nication system for fire and non-fire emergency events. Additionally, the changes in the National Fire Alarm Code permit the fire alarm evacuation signal to be overridden or, for certain events, to have a higher priority than a fire alarm signal, with the approval of the local authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). All of these issues should be clearly defined in the risk analysis and other supporting documents.

Text-based messaging

Many facilities have considered a text-based messaging system as a mass notification system that satisfies the requirement for providing emergency communications. According to some reports, individuals in such facilities have acknowledged that they were not aware of or did not receive the alerting message for up to two hours after the event had transpired. While this is not an indication of the end user’s equipment reliability, the 2010 edition of NFPA 72 has clearly indicated that text-based messaging systems and other systems referred to as Distributed Recipient Mass Notification Systems should not be used in lieu of audible and visible alerting mass notification systems but should be integrated wherever possible. The required timeliness of messages may be different for different audiences based on their responsibilities. The risk analysis should inform these decisions.

Challenges faced by higher education

Mass notification challenges for institutions for higher education can be greater than for industries with similar campus style environments. The initial challenge is to provide a safe campus for education and residency for the students, faculty, and visitors. The ability to promote a safe campus is paramount to attracting students’ and their parents’ interest in a particular college or university. As a result of this movement, as well as compliance with the Jeanne Clery Act, colleges and universities have invested thousands of dollars in various types of communication systems for the reporting and alerting of emergency actions on or near the campus. Many of these systems were not previously mandated or governed by enforceable codes. The adoption of the 2010 edition of NFPA 72 and the amendments to the Jeanne Clery Act have changed the requirements for how mass notification systems shall be designed, installed, maintained, and tested.

Within the college/university system, many stakeholders should be included in the design, installation, maintenance, and operation of a mass notification system. Stakeholders may include representatives for the board of regents, protective services, environmental health and safety, facilities, plant engineering, student services, housing, IT, building managers, capital projects, and local police and fire services. Obtaining feedback and concurrence from all of these entities can be a daunting task, but it is necessary for successful system implementation. These stakeholders are also important when looking for funding for various methods used to provide emergency communications. Many of the same technology components or infrastructures used for IT or media technology, for example, may also be integrated into the mass notification system.

Another challenge faced by higher education is the diversity of building use and occupancy types. The system features needed to provide mass notification in buildings used for classrooms, labs, assembly, or residency may greatly differ from one another, and the approach to where and how an emergency action will be handled must address these differences. The unique qualities of each building must be accounted for in the risk analysis in addition to the occupant notification scheme. Textual and graphical visible notification appliances that supplement the visible alert signal may be necessary and must be located to ensure readability by the building occupants or inhabitants of the protected area. These locations must be coordinated within the emergency action plan. The analysis also should address whether multilingual messages will be used.

To further complicate matters, mass notification systems are often interfaced with other building systems to provide control of air-handling equipment, doors and door locks, elevators, and other building systems as determined by the risk analysis. The effect of shutting down an air-handling system for a building composed of labs that are engaged in long-term experiments may be detrimental. The experimental processes and procedures within the labs needs to be assessed in detail for a clear understanding of when it is or is not acceptable to shut down building systems. Signal priority levels and manual overrides also play an important part in the mass notification system operation.

Pitfalls and other considerations

Campuses may eagerly embark on the notion of being able to provide a “safe campus” without understanding all the implications. Campuses often seek and are granted funding from state or federal resources through the submission of a project proposal or funding grant application request. In some cases, these documents may over-commit the campus to provide system features and function beyond applicable fiscal resources. It is important to thoroughly review the design intent after a risk analysis is performed, and prior to establishing or committing to budgets, to avoid surprises.

Likewise, design professionals hired to develop construction documents that include the term “mass notification system” as a building system prerequisite may also be caught off-guard. It has been a design industry trend to defer the design of a fire alarm system to the installing contractor under the guise of design-build contracting. Because of the similar functions between a fire alarm and a mass notification system, the thought process has often been the same. However, if the local AHJ, while reviewing the contractor’s shop drawings, notices that the fire alarm system is being integrated with the mass notification system to form a single system that performs both functions, then the requirements of Chapter 24 will apply.

– Kapis, operations manager is based in the Seattle office of Rolf Jensen & Assocs. Inc.

Proactive versus Reactive

Whether you are an end-user, architect, designer, material provider, installer, or AHJ, the message is the same regarding mass notification: be proactive and not reactive.

The following eight simple steps can help ensure the successful implementation of a campus mass notification system.

1. Analyze the threats to the facility and its occupants. Know what you are up against.

2. Gather input on how your facility operates on a daily basis. Researching this input will help to determine the overall sequence of operation for both manual and automatic response to an emergency event.

3. Develop a risk analysis and basis for design. The preparation of the risk analysis and the basis for design will become the foundation for the overall plan of implementation. This document should also be routinely reviewed to see if the threats or the way in which the facility operates have changed.

4. Develop an emergency action plan (EAP). The EAP pulls together how the facility and target audience are to respond to the various events, who will be the system operator, who has authority to initiate manual response in lieu of automatic functions, and who are the decision makers for crisis management. This may also be referred to as an emergency management plan.

5. Design the mass notification system. Once the initial four steps are complete, design of the system becomes clearer. The type and location of equipment, as well as the infrastructure to tie together various components to form a single system, can be assembled in place.This is also the time in which existing systems should be reviewed for continued use as part of the overall mass notification system.

6. Create a phased implementation. It is well recognized that the implementation of an overall campus-wide mass notification system will not be completed in a single project phase. Fiscal limitations and timing may extend well beyond one or two years. The key is to identify and phase in an approach that reaches the largest target audience, and then build upon that platform.

7. Train staff and conduct drills. Equally important in the planning process is the ability of specified users to understand how the system works and when it is to be used. The target audience must know how and where they can seek the necessary information and instructions for response to an emergency event. Because campuses have a high number of transient or temporary occupants on a yearly basis, repeating drills is as beneficial to the target audience as it is to the user of the system. It is also required under the Jeanne Clery Act. Training and drills should follow the EAP and be supported with classroom training, tabletop training and live drills.

8. Conduct periodic system reviews. Because times change and we are faced with new challenges and technology, it is good practice to conduct reviews of the mass notification system on a periodic basis. Doing so will include a review of the risk analysis, design plan, AP, and procedures. These documents should be considered living documents and subsequent to change.

Refer to this list anytime someone uses the term “mass notification” to ensure that the proper steps have been taken in implementing the most complete solution for your campus. It is never too late to go back and fix the problem; it just becomes more costly to be reactive than to be proactive.