The evolution of mass notification systems: Part 2

Voice intelligibility's role in modern day MNS solutions

Editor's note: This is part two of a two part series on the topic of mass notification systems. Part one, which examines emerging technologies, markets and implementation challenges for MNS, was published earlier this month.

At one time, the issue of voice intelligibility in mass notification systems was an afterthought. In the early years of the technology, the goal was to simply notify the populace of a designated area that an emergency event was occurring and in the case of an air raid or fire, this was usually accomplished through the use of a loud siren.

As the times have changed, however, mass notification technology, including voice intelligibility; have had to change with them. Modern day case studies show that certain situations, such as an active-shooter scenario or severe storm, require the use of voice messages to direct people to take specific actions.

Though voice intelligibility was not a big focus for MNS manufacturers at one time, Mark Kurtzrock, president and CEO of mass notification systems manufacturer Metis Secure Solutions, says that more people in the industry now realize the benefits of having voice warnings that are easy to understand.

"Initially, I think it was not a factor that people had considered. But, as more and more products have come on the market and more regulations have been put into place... quite frankly it seemed like an obvious solution that people hadn't focused much attention on," Kurtzrock explained. "It's not just about sending one message. Circumstances change, events are very dynamic and the ability to communicate clear information to people on an ongoing basis is really important. "

For example, Kurtzrock said that if an organization's corporate campus consisted of a research facility and several other office buildings, there could be an incident that forces the evacuation of the research building, but people in the other offices would need to stay put.

"There are a lot of systems that don't have a voice component at all. If you look at sirens or cellphone text messaging, where it's just a matter of a message coming across, it doesn't necessarily stop a person from what they're already doing, especially if they don't understand it," said Amy Baker, director of marketing at Metis Secure Solutions. "For example, if a siren is used for several different things, how do you know what that tone really means to you? How many people are really trained on what a tone means and do they know what to do when it occurs? Inside buildings, we've seen systems that don't have a broadcast voice and you can't reach as many people and you can't get into classrooms or conference rooms where people may have cellphones turned off."

Robert (Bob) Lang, assistant vice president for strategic security and safety at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, says their campus uses a voice siren system that can broadcast up to eight different messages. Lang said that they've only had to actually use five of these messages, which included warnings about tornadoes and an escaped prisoner in the area. The warnings and what they include are posted on the KSU website.

Initially, Lang said that they experienced difficulties with the intelligibility of warning messages from the siren system because they sounded like a "factory voice" or too much like computer text-to-speech translations. KSU found a simple solution for the problem.

"We had our baseball announcer record the messages for us," Lang said. "We believe they're more intelligible now and people can understand what is being said."

While some systems provide users with the ability to send out live voice messages, in most cases Kurtzrock said using canned, pre-recorded messages is the better option.

"When an event is going on, human nature is always a factor in any situation," he explained. "If people can simply go to a menu, select that message and shoot it out through the system, you're going to be assured that people are going to hear what they need to hear in the right time frame, as opposed to having to instruct and come up with that information on the fly."

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