Emergency communications & mass notification

Emergency Communications & Mass Notification technology has caught fire in the security industry in the last few years. It has taken some time, but many vendors in this community have been working hard to overcome some of the obstacles to installing an effective EC&MN system. Security Technology Executive recently caught up with a group of vendors to share their views on where the technology is headed.

STE: What are some of the newest technological innovations that are impacting the EC&MN markets?

Samuel Shanes: With the introduction of layered mass notification platforms, timely and relevant message delivery took on a whole new meaning. Everyone realized there is no single technology that fits every situation. A systematic approach should be taken to prioritize and dissect message delivery medium (SMS, e-mail, RSS, LED signage, audio sirens) in order of importance and relevance.

Guy Miasnik: The last decade has seen a confluence of significant technological advances, and that technology build-up has come to the aid of physical security and public safety - taking first-generation mass notification PA systems and sirens through the 2nd generation of telephony/texting, to the latest, 3rd generation of net-centric mass notification, or turning an existing IP network into an emergency communication and mass notification system. IP networks enable notifying the masses with instantaneous yet tailored, two-way, unified communication reaching anybody, anywhere and anytime via any network-connected devices - computers, smart phones, tablets, IP Phones as well as basic SMS text messaging, pagers, emails, and phone calls.

Ted Milburn: Some of the latest innovations include both integrated Mass Notification Systems (MNS) and solutions that are interoperable with other life safety and security systems as well as complaint with the latest MNS requirements, including the National Fire Protection Association 2010 codes. With limited staff and multiple communication systems to activate, today's advanced MNS feature a simplified, single Web page to launch all of the different applications. Another trend is improving situational awareness and alerting time with interoperable life safety and security systems, such as integrating video, access control or third-party alerts like National Weather Service or Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with a facility's MNS.

Tom Giannini: The integration of multiple types of communications solutions is on the rise from our perspective. Many end-users are concluding that it is not possible to reach all of the personnel they need to support using only one type of emergency communications solution.

Steve Sipe: The demand for a Web-based, fully hosted mass notification system is at an all-time high. With budgets increasingly strained, end-users are looking for a communications provider that does not require the purchase or installation of equipment or additional phone lines. Innovation in emergency notification is also tracking closely with the recent rise in privacy concerns. Self-service opt-in portals are being developed to ensure that alerts are sent to the correct recipients in the preferred method and format.

Al Brummel: It is common knowledge that the use of multiple disciplines is encouraged to ensure effective management in these markets. A key consideration now is designing these tools to work together. VoIP technology and the Internet are providing a means by which all voice, SMS, CAP, e-mail and other methods of propagating an emergency notification can integrate and operate on a common platform. The challenge is to provide end-users with the ability to migrate or upgrade at a cost-effective rate.

STE: What different technologies and/or methods of EC&MN would be best for a complete, end-to-end solution?

Giannini: We always recommend a multi-layered approach to emergency communications as the best way for end-users to deliver emergency messages across their enterprise. Our strategy is to help customers leverage the investments they have already made in life-safety infrastructure, such as fire alarm systems with voice evacuation capability. Visual notification solutions such as LED message boards or flat screen information displays should be incorporated into the plan. An end-to-end solution can also include: High Power Speaker Array (HPSA) systems, also known as "Giant Voice" systems, for wide area exterior applications; and personal notification (wireless) systems, also known as text messaging subscription services.

Brummel: A complete, end-to-end mass notification system combines systems capable of multiple levels of communication. First and foremost is a Public Address system closely tied to an emergency phone. Having the phone control the public address amplifier minimizes energy draw and permits cost-effective installations, as one pair will operate both systems. Secondly, a user-friendly GUI enables the end-user to tailor multiple or group notifications and programming to their specific campus - both indoors and outdoors. Finally, Voice Call/CAP/SMS/e-mail systems provide secondary coverage.

Sipe: A comprehensive mass communication plan should include the ability to send alerts via telephone, e-mail and SMS text message and allow for real-time reporting on delivery status. The system should include mapping capability through a Geographic Information System (GIS) to enable users to select alert recipients based on their physical location. In addition, the ability to get an interactive response from recipients on a selective basis is critical.

Shanes: There are certain combinations of technologies that work best for any given situation. The question that one should ask is what type of events will have to be covered by the mass notification system? Weather emergencies and other events where location is irrelevant can be handled by a mass blast through a High Power Speaker Array or digital message delivery via e-mail or SMS. An intruder on campus event, on the other hand, would require a series of targeted broadcasts (audio or visual) to specific segments of a community.

Miasnik: Today's solution should focus on a network-based, bi-directional, rich-media communication. Such solutions should collect incident alerts from various inputs like fire panels, video surveillance and weather service and disseminate relevant messages - including situation-specific instructions and video clips - via multiple, redundant alerting channels. The end-to-end solution must also collect and report responses from recipients to ensure message delivery.

Milburn: Instead of relying on just one technology to communicate critical information in an emergency, multiple communication systems help ensure that information will successfully reach your audience. The "System of Systems" approach to emergency communications include sending text messages and e-mails, distributing automated voice calls, broadcasting alerts over indoor or outdoor mass notification systems, using display signs, desktop alerts and social media.

STE: How can end-users overcome the problems with e-mail and text messaging delays, or overwhelming the system, in a mass notification setting?

Brummel: The hierarchy of these tools and capacity constraints must be considered when looking at the overall picture. Several considerations: Use a remote or online hosted solution by which the host has contracted with the LEC/IXC carriers for large bandwidth capabilities and TDM capacity; or, for locally hosted solutions, purchase or negotiate a contract with the LEC for large bandwidth capabilities and TDM capacity.

Miasnik: E-mail and text messaging are just basic communication vehicles that are inherently not designed for an emergency mass notification scenario. Relying on them as the sole means of warning would be a mistake. The use of IP network technology - delivery to online computers, VoIP phone displays via direct and reliable communication protocols provides assured delivery within a designated time frame (typically 1-3 minutes to 10,000 users/devices). In parallel, integrating alternate devices such as sirens, radio transmission and display boards, further ensures message delivery.

Milburn: Under routine, non-emergency conditions, low-volume messaging will be transmitted through wireless carriers without delay and at a high success rate; however, in an actual emergency when volume is high, delayed messages or failure of delivering messages greatly increases. Selecting a dedicated notification system that offers direct connectivity with major wireless carriers, white listing with major ISPs, geo-dispersed, secure data centers, and multiple redundant servers, greatly improves reliability.

Giannini: Consider solutions that do not use aggregators to distribute their messages over public wireless networks. They can also focus the use of text messaging to constituents who are off campus, while using interior building and exterior solutions as the delivery method for on-campus constituents.

Sipe: The most important step is to test your mass notification system on a regular basis. This will identify any delivery or capacity issues before an emergency situation arises. Another important step is to pre-define recipient lists with multiple modes of communication. Rather than sending an identical alert to all recipients, the method of delivery should vary depending on proximity, urgency and level of involvement.

Shanes: Segment and prioritize. If the message is critical and needs to reach the intended audience instantly, use intrusive mediums such as audio broadcast. Text messaging and e-mail can be efficiently used as means to follow up with specific instructions, or to react to non-critical events.

STE: What technological advances can we expect in the next 5-10 years?

Miasnik: A smoke detector in the 14th floor coffee room goes off, triggering a camera to start streaming live video of the room to the security guard. With a couple of clicks on his smart phone or tablet, the guard confirms the fire by viewing the video, sends notification to the emergency response team and senior leadership, issues pre-determined evacuation instructions to the building occupants, turns off HVAC, releases all locks on the access control system, and sends a personnel accountability report to the fire crew on its way to the building. All of this happens in a couple of minutes, saving hundreds of lives. We won't have to wait too long before the technology rises to fulfill this dream.

Brummel: Continued integration and "cross talk" within the multiple disciplines using mostly open-ended systems that specialize and integrate seamlessly, providing complete turnkey solutions based on the requirement of a given application.

Milburn: In the future, security executives will see flexible solutions available that easily adapt to an organization's Risk Analysis and Emergency Response Plans (ERP) as well as a heightened convergence of the elements in the ERP - interoperable protection, sensor and alerting systems. By integrating these technologies, including fire protection, access control, accountability, video services, and Mass Notification Systems, a facility will greatly improve its' situational awareness, system management and emergency response time.

Shanes: Expect to see integration on a much wider scale. Every aspect of building infrastructure will be explored and potentially tapped in for message delivery.

Giannini: We anticipate improvements in the voice intelligibility of the solutions, the speed at which messaging is distributed and received, and the range of the systems. As personal communication devices become better able to receive data, voice and video, there will be a resulting impact on emergency communication solutions.

Sipe: We can certainly expect a greater level of interactivity in terms of alert delivery and response capture, especially with the rise in use of smart phones. Mass notification will become more of a two-way conversation. We will also see increased delivery capacity as local telecoms upgrade.

STE: Everyone knows that schools and universities are prime candidates for a mass notification system. What other markets could benefit from these systems, and how?

Sipe: Businesses of all sizes can benefit from a mass notification system for risk management and business continuity. It is important to remember that a mass notification system can be used for both emergency and non-emergency communications. Markets that can benefit from this fast, effective communication tool are retail centers, municipalities, government agencies, hospitals, utilities, and oil and gas companies.

Milburn: From warning personnel of a HAZMAT incident to evacuating an entire city for a natural disaster, the Mass Notification System (MNS) industry offers a variety of solutions to meet the specific needs of its diverse customer base. In addition to the education market, customers for MNS include corporate campuses, healthcare facilities, industrial and energy plants, retail stores, mass transportation hubs, and military and government facilities. Types of applications for these different markets vary.

Brummel: Any public market could potentially benefit from a tiered mass notification system, including corporate campus environments, malls and shopping centers, municipalities and any public venue. If implemented correctly, a robust public warning system with multiple levels of notification can reach far more than the standard wailing horns today.

Shanes: Corporate facilities, large industrial complexes, mass transit, retail and healthcare are a few examples where creative thinking can bring unexpected benefits when the system is used to spread functional and advertorial messages.

Miasnik: Besides the education market, any organization involved in protecting the masses is a great candidate for leveraging a mass notification system. AtHoc's IWSAlerts is used at more than 300 military and homeland security installations worldwide. State and local governments, the hospitality industry, industrial plants and large enterprises are just a few additional examples.

Giannini: Emergency communications and mass notification systems can be very useful in municipal or county government facilities, as a way of informing citizens of emergency situations, including severe weather notifications. In the military market, requirements have been put in place regarding emergency communication solutions in military bases globally. Large corporate environments or places of assembly such as casinos, entertainment venues, sports arenas and amusement parks are also well suited for having emergency communication systems as part of their life-safety programs.