The evolution of mass notification systems: Part 1

Industry experts discuss emerging technologies, markets and implementation challenges

Editor's note: This is part one of a two part series on the topic of mass notification systems. Part two, which will explore the subject of voice intelligibility, will be published later this month.

Though they have been around for a number of years, mass notification systems have become a key component in the modern security and safety plans of many education and corporate campuses.

Most people in the industry credit headline grabbing events, such as the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres with raising awareness and creating a need for the technology. These school shootings even led to the passage of the Clery Act by federal lawmakers, which require colleges and universities to immediately notify students and staff members about emergency incidents on campus.

However, according to Mike Flannery, director of commercial hardware for ADT, the evolution of mass notification technology has been gradual.

"As early as World War II we had the air raid sirens that everyone drilled to in school. Those things are very binary. You hear a loud noise, it's an air raid siren, and you know something bad is going to happen, but you don't know exactly what it is and you don't know exactly what to do," Flannery explained. "That's where the modern mass notification technologies are much, much better because you get information, not just that something bad is about to happen. "

Following air raid sirens, giant voice systems were deployed on military bases to make various announcements, which is where Flannery says the "idea of mass notification came to fruition." In the 1980s, voice evacuation technology was added to fire alarm systems and the technology has continued to develop to the point where today's university or corporate security chief can choose a myriad of solutions, such as digital signage, cellphone text alerts and computer pop-ups, to create a comprehensive system.

With so many technologies to choose from on the market, implementing a system that fits the needs of the application has become a huge challenge.

According to Flannery, one common sense thing that the people in charge of selecting technology for their respective systems needs to understand is the commonality of the population they're trying to protect, whether they are in office spaces scattered across the country or in a centralized location.

"If they're all in cubicles and have computers in front of them, you probably want to use an interior audible system coupled with something like a desktop pop-up alert system," he added. "These two technologies in conjunction with one another would be very reliable in that kind of scenario."

A problem with having so many disparate MNS subsystems, however, is the interoperability of technology.

When college campuses first began using mass notification, Robert (Bob) Lang, assistant vice president for strategic security and safety at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, said that many campuses utilized a single technology such as text or voice messages. Now, however, they are using a combination of these alert mediums. To help streamline the process, Lang said he would like to see a "one-button" type of approach to sequentially activate these systems.

"I think a lot of people are starting to realize that you can have all these bells and whistles, but if they don't work together you're going to have two or three different systems setup and with that comes two or three different individuals running them," Lang said. "If you were in a real emergency and you were shorthanded, you're going to need someone that's knowledgeable on all of the systems and be able to set them off within a reasonable amount of time."

At Kennesaw State, Lang said they take a layered approach to mass notification. The first two layers consist of a hosted notification solution that sends alert messages via cellphones and e-mail, as well as a signal siren and voice over warning system. The third layer of the school's mass notification solution is a PC/Mac popup warning, which they can use to override whatever a computer user on the university's network is looking at to show them the alert.

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