The evolution of mass notification systems: Part 1

Industry experts discuss emerging technologies, markets and implementation challenges

Lang said he believed that there is pressure on the manufacturers of mass notification systems to make the technology more user-friendly.

"The technology is moving forward," Lang said. "Different companies are creating (MNS solutions) because they see it as a niche, almost as a cottage industry on early notification and early warning systems. There are a lot more people out there doing a good job."

He also cautioned other security managers from falling for sales pitches about certain technologies or helping to serve as a developer's beta test.

"(Security executives) that have experienced an emergency know exactly what they want to have. Those that are relying on a salesman to come in and say 'any emergency you're going to have, we're going to be able to help you and fix your problem,' those are the ones that are really more succumbing to the sales pitch versus the experience you need to pick the right technology," Lang explained. "You want to make sure you have proven technology."

To avoid these pitfalls, Lang said that security managers need to be sure they ask the right questions about a particular solution and to also bring their IT teams into the conversation to determine how it should be integrated.

"If you don't have them onboard, you might wind up buying a pig in a poke," he said.

The advent of cellphones and the ability push emergency messages out to staff and student via mobile devices is another important evolution in the MNS market, according to Lang. Initially, these systems required users to carry a special cellphone or mobile device, but these systems are now able to push messages out to regular cellphones regardless of the user's mobile carrier. Despite these advancements, Lang said the technology is still not at the point where he would like it to be.

"I want to find the one-button approach that uses sequential activation of our notification and alert systems," he said. "It's pretty costly at this point, so we have backup upon backup of systems in place that allow us to make sure we have the proper people trained."

Inovonics President Mark Jarman says that organizations need to think about the implementation of mass notification systems with the end in mind.

"If you're going to do mass communication, there are a lot of different points that you want to touch," he said. "The security industry's ability to address these kinds of highly integrated systems is evolving, but it's not optimal yet."

According to Jarman, the emergence of mass communications and other complex systems has led to an influx of historically IT integrators entering the security industry.

Berkly Trumbo, national business manager of integrated security solutions for Siemens, says that an integrator really has to understand the culture of an organization to be able to provide them with an adequate solution for their application.

"There is no silver bullet," he explained. "If you look back after 9/11, (market research) predicted that by 2007, 75 percent of businesses would have a mass notification solution. We're not anywhere near that number. Then when we had the Virginia Tech tragedy in 2007, a large majority of colleges and universities ran out and purchased something, mostly web-based alerting... hoping that that was the right check-in-the-box and that that was going to be the end all solution and we found out that it's not because some solutions are more robust than others."

According to Trumbo, more educational institutions and corporate organizations these days understand the importance of having an MNS solution that fits their needs rather than just purchasing something to fulfill a requirement or regulation.

"We are identifying best practices more acutely and I think more people are committed to doing it right," he said. "There is a shift away from the attitude of 'let's check the box so we can tell our students' parents that we have a mass notification system' and it's more into how can we effectively communicate during a crisis on our campus or office environment."