Mass Notification Systems

Many high-rise buildings have fire command systems with communication capabilities. Traditionally and sometimes by code, these intercommunication systems havebeen used only in fire emergencies, but recent tragedies have highlighted the need for mass notification communications systems for use in any type of emergency.

A mass notification system (MNS) is both a communications system and an emergency management tool that provides real-time instructions and information to building occupants or nearby personnel during an emergency event or situation. This is a fairly new concept being driven by, among other entities, the United States Department of Defense.

The DoD published the Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC), which requires that antiterrorism features be included in all force protection plans and that mass notification systems be installed in all DoD facilities worldwide by 2007. The MNS must be capable of providing real-time information to all building occupants or personnel in the immediate vicinity of a building during emergency situations.

The primary function of an MNS is to provide communication globally or locally, and it may accomplish this in a number of ways.

• It may convey general information.

• It may notify occupants that an emergency exists elsewhere.

• In an emergency, it can provide life-saving instructions.

• In a broader context, it can be used to trigger a worldwide alert to reduce the risk of mass casualties.

The MNS is intended to provide instructions and information to people in

• Specific spaces

• Specific building floors

• Specific buildings

• Specific sites

• Campus of buildings

• Geographic regions

• Globally to everyone

The MNS provides intelligible voice communications via loudspeakers and may also interface to

• Voice evacuation systems

• Visible signal systems

• Telephone systems

• Cell phones and pagers

• Radios and wireless devices

• Digital video/graphic signage

• Computers (pop-ups and text messaging)

• Other communication systems

Voice-enabled fire alarm systems can form a part of a larger MNS. Proposed amendments to NFPA 72 will permit fire alarm systems to be a portion of an MNS and will permit an MNS message to override a fire alarm message.

The Air Force petitioned NFPA to develop MNS standards. The military found that they could not use approved fire alarm systems for mass notification while remaining in full compliance with NFPA 72. The next edition of NFPA 72, under Annex G, will guide the use of the fire alarm system audible and visual strobe devices for the purpose of mass notification. Mass notification systems' interface to strobes is now required by the UFC.

Plan and Design

The planning and design of an MNS must start with a threat and needs assessment that identifies specific and potential hazards and their estimated probabilities, much as a fire or security protection risk assessment does.

For government base-wide MNS applications, the design must be done by an FPE or NICET-IV. For a building MNS, the design must be done by an FPE, NICET-IV, communications engineer or electrical engineer. A starting point for the classification of hazards can be found in NFPA 1600, Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs.

Some businesses in the private sector are creating their own approach to mass notification, to avoid potential conflicts with fire protection systems and to negotiate acceptance by the AHJs. Some of these systems are referred to as global personnel alerting systems (GPAS), campus personnel alerting systems (CPAS) or building personnel alerting systems (PAS).

The future of these systems is exciting. In their simplest form, they will be used to alert employees in a particular or adjacent space of an emergency. In a broader form, they can be used to communicate with an entire worldwide operation to trigger a global alert.

GPAS or MNS systems are full-featured, function-rich message broadcasting applications that can communicate with digital paging systems to accomplish global personnel alerting. The goal is to leverage existing IT computer networks and equipment to provide robust and highly reliable messaging capabilities to worldwide facilities using intelligible voice, text and graphic communications.

Lauris Freidenfelds is a vice president of Sako & Associates Inc., a leading security and media technology consulting firm based in Chicago . He can be reached by phone (312-879-7230) or e-mail (