The evolution of mass notification systems: Part 1

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.

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."

While educational institutions and corporations have been the traditional adopters of mass notification systems, Trumbo says that federal regulations such as the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards or CFATS is helping drive adoption of MNS solutions in other markets.

In addition, Jarman said that hospitals and hotels appear to be another emerging market for mass notification solutions.

"(Hospitals and college campuses) have an institution with a mission and a staff to deploy that mission and the mission includes the ingress and egress of the public into and out of the facility," Jarman explained. "In both cases, in higher education, as well as in healthcare, there is a certain amount of stress and opportunities for people to be under duress or strained and they sometimes interact poorly or dangerously with staff."

In terms of integration, David George, director of marketing communications at System Sensor, says that the industry is starting to look at using fire panels as the "backbone" for connecting MNS devices with other critical building systems.

"Fire alarm systems are being multi-purposed for emergency communications systems also because that infrastructure is already there," explained Christa Poss, marketing manager for the audible/visible business unit at System Sensor. "Maybe it has to be retrofitted to include a voice evacuation system or maybe it has horns instead of speakers, but the backbone is already there. That's definitely where the industry is headed."

Despite the advancements that manufacturers have made in mass notification technology, George said that industry still has some work to do on interoperability.

"I still think we're quite a ways away from that (one-button approach) being integrated between different options," George said. "How do we get the word out? When do we get the word out? What do we say? A lot of that depends on some of (the organization's) disaster planning. Also, I think it depends on better integration of the different systems. "
Poss added that industry should also be educating end-users about the importance using different mass notification technologies.

"It can't just be one mode of communication," she said. "Sometimes I think that is the missing link, that they don't know that a fire alarm system can do more, that you can use your existing signage for other reasons, so maybe that's a piece of it as well. "

Flannery also emphasized the importance of not relying of on a single technology. Although technologies such as text messages and even outbound robo calling are very popular, Flannery said if there is a cell tower near the scene of the emergency that gets overloaded then you could run the risk of your warnings not getting out if you don't use another notification method. However, he also indicated that mobile devices hold a lot of potential for emergency communications.

"The future that I see, and we're starting to see the emergence of this now, is to message out to mobile devices using apps," Flannery said. "There are apps that you can download that allow to do a couple of things like be tracked in a cooperative type of setting because maybe you're a lone worker or something like that. You can be alerted, so messages can be pushed down to you through this app that resides on your smartphone or mobile device. You can also message back. Some of these devices have panic button-type functionality where you can message back to a command center."