Fire, Life Safety

What is a unified mass notification ecosystem?

Fire and life safety professionals need to leverage notification assets to get the emergency message out to the affected group as soon as possible
By Isaac Chen CCIE, MISSP, and Michael Amorello, WELL AP, WSP, San Francisco August 5, 2019
Figure 2: A prototype system topology for the next generation mass notification system. Courtesy: WSP

Learning objectives

  • Identify the current mass notification system challenges and learn about next-generation system integration and automation solutions. 
  • Learn about the operational concept of mass notification systems over an open ecosystem. 
  • Review use case studies of next-generation mass notification systems.  

The main goal of next-generation unified mass notification ecosystem is to send the right message to the right people at the right time. 

Afire and life safety system manufacturers create more advanced and interactive technology, the systems we rely on during emergencies have evolved. As mandates and codes were developed at the most basic level, the International Fire Code and the International Building Code established the details of the emergency systems required for facilities.  

NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code describes practice and procedure for adhering to the IFC and IBC codes for detection, signaling, communication solutions and emergency evacuation plans for natural or man-made disasters.  

To alert everyone within the shortest time when an emergency occursfire protection engineers need to leverage all available notification assets to get the emergency message out to the affected group as soon as possible 

In any organization, buildings, cities or regions, there are many devices and systems installed to help keep people safe and informed during an emergency. However, most of those are siloed systems, with no communication channels nor protocols available among those systems. When all devices and systems can be tied togethera consistent message can be sent out to all people via different channels in the proper format and received in the shortest amount of time. 

Moving beyond well-known emergency signals like sirens and flashing lights, modern systems are beginning to leverage the mass communication capabilities of personal computers, Voice Over Internet Protocol headsets, desktop displays, mobile devices, cable TV override, digital signage and blue-light emergency phone systems (commonly found as a security alert service on college campuses and other public spaces) to provide ongoing information on current threats and recommended responses. Mass notification areas can be localized to a single building or be broadcast more widely to a community or region. Standardization and protocols are currently two of the main challenges to address. 

Figure 1: The next generation of mass notification systems will integrate all of the applicable safety codes into the decision-making process for generating message content and distribution. Courtesy: WSP

A unified platform 

A unified mass notification ecosystem is an open platform that allows all components, devices, systems and data sources to securely communicate with each other and send a consistent message out to groups of receivers within a specific location or region.  

There are numerous benefits to building a unified mass notification ecosystem and several best practices that have been shown to create a consistent and effective approach for organizations to follow.  

Typically, a unified mass notification ecosystem requires five main functional blocks to be successful: 

1. Data sources, including:

  • Field data sources, including automatic and manual data inputs, such as chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosives sensors, outdoor and indoor airquality sensors or panic buttons. 
  • Remote data sources, such as emergency operations centersthe Federal Emergency Management Agency, national emergency alert system, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration alerts or pre-approved cloud sources. 

2. Decentralized software system and database, which includes application programming interface. 

3. A unified data communication platform, which includes:

  • An IPconverged network (if in building or on a campus). 
  • Data communication protocols.  
  • Secure message exchange protocols. 

4. Organization concept of operations or standard operating procedure, such as mass notification message validation and approval (decisionmaking) policy and procedure. 

5. Field notification devices, equipment, information technology assets and innovative alerting endpoints (includes mobile, portable, text, audio-visual and other forms). 

A converged data communication network and open standard data exchange protocol are the foundation of this ecosystem. transmission control protocol/IP-based converged network will be a mandatory building and campus infrastructure. The extensible markup language-based common alerting protocol is an effective simple protocol for exchanging public warnings and emergencies among alerting technologies. CAP allows a warning message to be consistently disseminated simultaneously over many warning systems to many applications. However, there is one current caveat: Although CAP supports encryption and signature, it also contains some cybersecurity vulnerabilities, so it is imperative that it is always used within a secured environment. 

We are witnessing the emergence of more software as a service or cloud-based, distributed recipient mass notification systems and personal (or group) alerting systems in the market. There have also been a lot of dynamic zone or groupbased mass notification systems developed over both the public and private cloud. The seamless integration of those SaaS systems with the existing notification system will be another interesting market to watch emerge within the next decade.  

However, all of those systems are running on their own platforms, making it difficult for them to communicate or integrate with other systems. A unified ecosystem provides the best system integration and automation platform for all security, life safety and other stakeholders. It provides numerous benefits to security and life safety service providers, such as: 

  • Less time for development (faster time to market). 
  • Less internal responsibility (for departments like IT). 
  • Much more scalable and flexible, depending upon an organization’s requirements. 
  • An increase in mobility and accessibility, allowing a notification to be launched through remote activation from the road via a smart device, in case an authorized person is not behind his/her desktop when an incident occurs. 
  • Resilience. 
  • Cost savings (capital expenses and operating expenses). 
  • Personal (including residents, visitors, vacationers and travelers) alert/notification via mobile devices. 
  • Real-time situational awareness and decision making. 
  • Intra-agency data and information sharing and collaboration (data, sound/voice, video). 
  • Data analytics and correlation. 
  • A system accessible by an authorized person anywhere, at any time. 
  • A system that can be supported by both fixed and mobile command centers. 

There are several trending and benefit areas of next-generation unified mass notification ecosystem: 

Context-aware solutions — Consider this scenario: You have disembarked from a commuter train and are walking through a transit center heading east to the parking structure where your car is locatedHowever, when you arrive at the ground lobby, your smartphone receives an automated text message alerting you that there was a chemical spill near the east side exit of the building. It’s a chemical hazard and it guides you to the alternative  — and safer  — north side exit to get your car. 

This type of alert could be used to protect people from any number of hazards and emergencies — flash flood warning for people traveling near a suddenly dangerous roadway or a wildfire alert where flames could be creeping dangerously close to a road or housing community. 

Multilingual alerts — To ensure that a message is readily understood, a unified ecosystem can be created to deliver audiovisual notification messages in multiple languages via third-party translation services. 

For example, imagine that you are managing a large retirement community that has residents who speak several different languages. The residents will have an opportunity to register their preferred languages with the community’s homeowners association or subscribe the multilingual alert service from third-party service provider. If there is an incident where suspicious activity is reported at or near the community, security personnel will be able to notify all the residents and visitors as quickly as possible, in a manner they will understand. 

The unified ecosystem also allows any registered third-party translating service providers to translate the emergency message from the primary and secondary languages to any other user-preferred or pre-selected language.  

Multichannel notification — Another scenario: You are on vacation with your family, enjoying the sunshine on a quiet beautiful rural Indian Ocean beach. A tsunami is coming in few minutes.  

Fortunately, you’ve subscribed to a global emergency communication system, completed your profile and the GPS is aware of your precise location, so the system knows you are currently in the tsunami risk zone and it blasts an emergency notification to you using all possible communication channels: cellular, text message, social media and all other reachable channels from the cloud. 

Two-way communication — During an executive lunch meeting at your office, the fire alarm suddenly blares. You begin making your way to the fire exit, only to find that your path is completely blocked by approaching flames.  

While retreating to the meeting room and closing the door, your mobile phone buzzes. A mobile emergency situation application has notified you of the fire and has prompted you to confirm that you have safely evacuated. You respond with the room number and floor of the building where you and others are trapped. This location is transferred to the fire department and firemen are connected directly to you over a VoIP connection.  

Two-way communication could also provide critical life-saving data to emergency personnel in the case of a widespread disaster like a wildfire, where rescuing survivors can depend upon precise location information. Suppose a warning is issued that there is a wildfire 15 miles away from your home, but you are riding on a commuter train that where the tracks are directly threatened by the blaze. The system is immediately aware of your location within the marginal zone, so the system sends you an alert explaining that a new fire was just confirmed by the authorities and that your train has been temporarily stopped while the wildfire severity and condition is under investigation.  

The app then prompts you with some questions: Did you suffer any injuries? No. Should we send updates to your emergency contact list? Yes. Based on your responses, the system notifies your wife and neighbor that you’re on a stopped train, you’re fine, but will be late getting home. Later, the wind direction changed and the fire severity reduced; the system sends an update notification to all parties when the train service has been restored and you’re on your way home.  

Special needs assistance — wheelchair user is on a commuter train that has just experienced an accident. As a global emergency alert system subscriber, a mobile emergency notification system provides him with directions to exit the train car, but his chair has been damaged and lost in the accident and is unusable 

Fortunately, this wheelchair has been fitted with “smart” technology and is immediately able to communicate its incapacitated status and location to the passenger’s mobile device, which sends a message to the approaching first responders via a secure highpriority service channel. Knowing that the passenger needs special assistance, a team of first responders arrive at the location and transports the person to a safe area. 

Third-party system integration — While working in your home office to meet a deadline for an important project, you’ve silenced your smartphone to avoid distractions, disabled all social media or text pop-ups on your computer and the door is closed.  

During this time, there is an active shooter situation in your neighborhood. The incident is reported and an emergency notification is pushed to your phone, but you do not see it. Alerts have been popping up on social media channels and news websites, but you miss those as well. 

However, the web browser that you are using has been integrated with the emergency notification system and understanding that this is an extremely urgent message, it knows to override your “cone of silence” to show you this important alert with the location, time and safety precautions.  

Consider another situation where third-party system integration could be critical: You are camping in a remote river side area of a beautiful national park, which has poor cell service when it provides any at all. Although it is a wonderful spring day, heavy rains to the north resulted in an approaching flash flood from upstream, with fast, heavy water coming down at a dangerous speed of more than 10 feet per second.  

Suddenly, an unmanned aerial vehicle  a drone  built by a security technology company and operated by national park ranger appears over the camping area and announces that the flood water is coming soon and everybody should evacuate to the higher elevation area immediately.  

The fundamental technologies that would drive these future scenarios are all available today; a unified ecosystem that allows all individual software and hardware system integration is the foundation of this practice in the real world. 

5G and the internet of things  You are one of 65,000 fans attending an NFL playoff game in a new state-of-the-art stadium. During the halftime performance, a CBRNE sensor in the parking lot detects traces of materials used in dirty bombs. A message is immediately sent to a national emergency agency via a secure internet channel.  

While eating dinner with his family, the chief security officer receives numerous mobile alerts related to this discovery. He reviews and then validates this to be a credible threatAn emergency broadcast is triggered for the stadium security staff and all attendees, with detailed instructions for safe evacuation or shelter per location. A cloudpowered intelligent security surveillance camera system studies the crowd to identify and track suspects. Suspicious persons or objects are identified and communicated to law enforcement. 

Crowdsourcing and machine learning — During a local triathlon, several attendees have identified a suspicious unattended backpack placed next to a trash can near the finish line. Using an emergency preparedness mobile application, they snap a picture of the questionable item. Each of their photographs is sent to the application cloud for image processing.  

Through the use of machine learning analysis, the security alert algorithm notes the high number of similar uploaded pictures of the same object from a credible mobile app, triggering an alert to event security and law enforcement to the threatAfter a quick incident validation and approval process, the system broadcasts the moderate notification message to the people in the area and dispatches venue security to clear the area. 

Figure 2: A prototype system topology for the next generation mass notification system. Courtesy: WSP

Challenges and risks 

While manufacturers are working on developing a unified ecosystem, the current ecosystem still allows all vendors to develop their system on an open platform and exchange data and other system info via open protocols and standards. Multiple software and system databases need to work together and provide consistent information to recipients and all stakeholders. An understanding of relationships between vendors and stakeholders is one key challenge we continue to addressA lack of a general statistical framework for managing these relationships is another major challenge. To manage a successful unified ecosystem, a framework of service requests and responses and a balance of service benefits, are critical factors to include for the mass notification system community. 

The very qualities that make emerging technologies attractive and potent also make them troubling. In many cases, taking advantage of the potential of these technologies requires a mobile device and not everyone has one. Even if they do, they still have limitations — batteries run down and many people have privacy concerns because you must give up a lot of personal information to gain the benefits. Cybersecurity is also a critical issue — mass notification is an inherently powerful tool, so it can be powerfully exploited by those interested in causing harm.  

A next-generation, cloud-based mass notification system will give incident responders a holistic view and immediately deliver messages to the connected public, but also provide a location “heatmap” and a real-time flow map to incident responders. Next-generation mass notification system has the potential to provide much more than just mass notification; it will also become a more powerful tool for incident management and administrators. 

A system’s vulnerability increases with its versatility, but as we draw closer to a more secure and unified system that can function on multiple platforms and communicate warnings and action steps in a way that is easily understood, engineers will be able to provide clients and communities with a unified mass notification ecosystem that will transcend any warning network seen thus far.  

Figure 3: The global adoption of mobile devices has opened doors to new and improved methods for emergency notification delivery. Courtesy: WSP


Isaac Chen CCIE, MISSP, and Michael Amorello, WELL AP, WSP, San Francisco
Author Bio: Isaac Chen is vice president of building technology systems in the San Francisco office of WSP USA. He has served as an enterprise architect as well as an information technology and network architect for the past 25 years. Michael Amorello is a technology engineer of building technology systems in the San Francisco office of WSP USA, filling key roles in the development, design and execution of technology projects. He coordinates with all disciplines to facilitate effective communication and delivery of quality solutions for all stakeholders.