What’s notable about MNS

By Patrick Lynch, Associate Editor May 1, 2009

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Our panel discusses the importance, application, and necessary improvements needed for mass notification systems in hospitals, college campuses, and commercial buildings.

CSE: What situations require the use of mass notification systems (MNS)?

Ray Grill: Currently, the Department of Defense is the only entity that requires MNS to be installed in its facilities. MNS can be appropriate for a facility or area that is susceptible to hazards that may require the occupants to take some action (or stay in place) to prevent them from being impacted by the hazard.

Mark Suski: Any facility that has multiple buildings—a college campus—or a building with an extensive footprint—a hospital or shopping mall—should have a MNS to notify occupants in the event of an emergency. The armed forces have been installing MNS on military bases for many years in the form of speakers and public address systems. In recent years, it seems the most common need for MNS has been on college campuses as a result of hostile attacks. Currently, there are no mandates or requirements that guide the installation of mass notification systems. The Higher Education Opportunity Act (H.R.4137) requires all educational facilities to have the capability to immediately notify all personnel in the event of an emergency, but the Act does not elaborate on how it is to be accomplished.

Tom Giannini: Mass notification systems are widely used on college and university campuses to help provide effective communications during emergencies of all types. Any place of assembly where large groups of people gather is a prime location for intelligible voice mass notification solutions. The 2010 edition of NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm Code will include a new chapter (Chapter 12) providing a complete set of requirements for emergency communications systems, including requirements from other chapters by reference.

CSE: What technological developments have improved the availability, operability, and effectiveness of MNS?

Suski : Internet and Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) technologies have made a significant impact on MNS. Most manufacturers of control equipment provide internal components or external modules that allow the control panels to be networked together through existing Internet connections. Most colleges have installed fiber or other wiring to network campus computers, connecting the systems to a central mainframe. New technology allows the control equipment to use the existing Internet network, reducing installation costs.

Ebersold : The widespread use of TCP/IP based Wide Area Networks or Local Area Networks are driving the effectiveness of MNS. WAN/LAN permits geographically dispersed facilities to easily communicate with each other during an emergency. Mesh radio networks are an existing technology that could improve the interoperability of MNS if they were more widely used.

Giannini : The intelligibility of voice communications, especially those delivered through fire alarm systems, is higher than in the past due to current code requirements. Through improved voice communications, vectored messaging can be broadcast to personal notification devices, thereby helping to improve management and evacuation during emergencies. The use of fire alarm voice-enabled systems represents an advancement that leverages existing life-safety infrastructure for emergency communications. Fire alarms are required in all occupied buildings. Even those buildings that lack voice-enabled fire alarm systems can be upgraded efficiently and cost effectively.

Grill : Changes to the 2007 edition of the National Fire Alarm Code recognize the use of fire alarm systems for mass notification. This would allow an owner to get a MNS for a minimal premium over the cost of a fire alarm system, and in some cases with no premium depending on the design of the fire alarm system.

CSE: What are some of the collaboration issues that exist on MNS projects, such as getting early responders and owner-operators to the table?

Ebersold : The most significant roadblock to the timely, efficient design of a MNS is correctly identifying the stakeholders who should have input regarding the design and emergency operation of MNS. Then getting the stakeholders to determine exactly what elements of MNS are best suited for emergency events at a particular facility remains the biggest roadblock.

Suski : Performance of a risk or threat assessment is one of the most important stages of MNS planning, but it’s often forgotten. An assessment should be completed early in the planning stage to determine what threats and risks clients face. An assessment accomplishes the following:

  • Identifies risks

  • Brings all parties to the table to discuss important issues

  • Ensures the system will satisfy all of the needs of the end-user

  • Identifies risks and threats so the system fits the needs of the facility (not a “one size fits all” approach).

It is important to ask questions and consider all possibilities:

  • Who will be in charge until the police arrive on the scene?

  • Does the risk warrant an evacuation or lock-down?

  • How would people be notified—loudspeaker, paging, or text messaging?

  • What are the evacuation routes?

To best assess and address risks, hire a professional to perform an assessment and to develop an incident plan.

Giannini : We always recommend meeting with all the stakeholders in a customer organization to ensure all constituencies and needs are addressed. Campus environments typically require this type of approach to find a comprehensive solution that appropriately manages risks and emergencies. This communication protocol can ensure that the emergency communications solution addresses the needs and interests of the entire stakeholder team.

Grill : The biggest challenge can be getting the various user groups within an organization to agree on approach. Conflicts over infrastructure and resource management can impact decision making. Early responders should be included in the development of a MNS.

CSE: Among college campus, office building, hospital, etc.—for which have you found the integration of mass notification systems to be the most difficult, and why?

Giannini : We have not found integration of different types of MNS to be difficult. The key issue is helping customers understand why a layered technology approach is in their best interest. Many customers believe a single technology, such as personal notification systems, will meet their mass notification goals and requirements.

Ebersold : Hospitals are the most difficult. Patients and staff may not be able to evacuate or relocate immediately if at all, so evacuation may not be an option. It may be necessary to alert staff to an emergency without notifying patients. That way, hospital personnel can respond to execute predetermined action plans without compromising patient safety.

Grill : Campus environments are typically the most challenging for a number of reasons. There is usually a mixed bag of existing equipment with different useful life expectancies. Integration of the equipment can be difficult or infeasible. There are various approaches that can be taken to get a MNS operating at a minimal level while establishing a plan to expand the performance on a capital investment schedule.

CSE: Which environment has been the easiest, and why?

Ebersold : Commercial buildings are the easiest. Typically, they have an existing fire alarm system that the MNS can tie into. Then, it’s just a matter of installing new and/or retrofitting existing notification appliances to meet the system requirements.

Grill : Industrial facilities and single-tenant office occupancies can be the easiest to implement MNS. A key part to having an effective MNS is the associated training that must be performed so occupants react appropriately to signals or messages provided thru the MNS. Occupants in these types of facilities can receive periodic training on the MNS program in order for them to be prepared to take appropriate action when instructions are given.

Giannini : Higher education is the environment that has seemed most adaptable to mass notification solutions (outside of the U.S. military).

CSE: Can real-time, Internet forums such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook being integrated into MNS?

Suski : The use of real-time Internet forums has helped enhance current mass notification technology; however, this technology should not be the focal point of the MNS for the following possible reasons:

  • Cell phones can have a limited signal.

  • Students and staff may not receive messages when they are required to silence their phones or PDAs during classes and meetings.

  • Not all people carry cell phones on their person.

Grill : I am not aware of these systems being used for MNS, and I would be concerned if they were being used. It is very important that the system be secure to prevent inappropriate or misleading communication that could cause people to put themselves in harm’s way.

Giannini : These forums definitely broaden the channels and venues that can be used for communications. Many people use these social networks as their primary means of data exchange and communication, so tying in mass notification messaging to these forums is important.

Ebersold : We have not seen or heard of social networking technologies being integrated into mass notification systems. Though these technologies may be used by people impacted by an emergency, facilitating fast, widespread communication; they are not life safety systems and should not be relied upon as such.

CSE: What barriers remain for the widespread use of mass notification systems?

Grill : While cost in many cases should not be a barrier, it is. Another factor is a lack of knowledge and experience in the development of the MNS program. The 2010 edition of NFPA 72, if approved in June 2009, will provide expanded requirements for MNS and more guidance on the development of a MNS program.

Giannini : The main barrier is education of the marketplace. As a society, complacency can be a nemesis that leads to poor preparation. If you wait until an emergency occurs to consider an emergency communication solution, it’s too late. In my mind, the real question is this, “Can any of us afford not to invest in mass notification solutions?”

Suski : There are two main barriers that affect the widespread use of MNS: budget and regulation. Installation in large structures can be expensive. Industries are weighing their options and seeking the most cost-effective system in these trying economic times. The technology exists to network control panels to activate speakers, strobes, beacons, and strolling signs, but it all comes with a cost. The second barrier is the lack of knowledge and regulation within the field. The concept of mass notification has been around for many years; but because of the recent workplace and college attacks, the interest for these systems has greatly increased. Most end users are not sufficiently educated on the wide range of technology available and do not know what types of notification systems would work best in their facilities. Currently, there are no specific requirements and codes governing the design and installation of mass notification systems. The Higher Education Opportunity Act requires higher educational institutions to have the ability of notify all students and facility in the event of an emergency, but does not provide any additional guidance on how or what type of notification should be made, i.e., text messaging, e-mail, spoken instruction via speakers, visual alarms via strobes, beacons, and scrolling signs. This results in systems being designed and/or installed improperly, which results in systems that are either inadequate or do not function as intended when needed.

Ebersold : One current barrier is the lack of a single, consistent code/standard on mass notification. But that will change when the 2010 edition of NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm Code takes effect. The 2010 Edition of NFPA 72 encompasses very detailed requirements for MNS. Another barrier is the wide range of communication technologies that are being marketed as MNS. With so many options, those responsible for selecting and purchasing a MNS may become overwhelmed or confused. One must gain a thorough understanding of the pros and cons of all the systems and solutions available and select the one that best suits the needs of their own facility


Peter Ebersold

Director of Marketing, Notifier, Northford, Conn.

Tom Giannini

Dir. Security and Emergency Communications Marketing, SimplexGrinnell, Westminster, Mass.

Ray Grill , PE, FSFPE

Principal, Arup, Washington, D.C.

Mark Suski

Senior Designer, Schirmer Engineering, Glenview, Ill.