Emergency Communications Technology

Over the last three to four years, mass notification has become established as a standard required functionality for a comprehensive security and life safety program. Once considered appropriate only in the limited domain of high-pitched tornado warning sirens, current systems offer the complete range of notification tools in addition to online collaboration sites acting as virtual emergency operations center.

Crisis management professionals clearly agree that the ability to efficiently and reliably communicate with the affected population and the responding agencies is foundational to rapid and efficient crisis resolution. Any limitations in the ability of the crisis management team to communicate with the responding agencies invariably results in an inefficient and uncoordinated response. Pragmatically speaking, an inefficient response means lives are lost.

At its core, mass notification is the collection of technologies designed to provide information in near real time in response to, and management of, an off-normal event.

Interior and Exterior Broadcast Loud Speakers

This option is an extension of the emergency duress telephone stations that have become an industry best practice in parking lots and institutional campuses. Traditionally used as a means whereby an individual can summon help when in — or perceived to be in — a threatening situation, features have been added to these devices that allow them to be used to broadcast prerecorded or live messages. This approach would be most applicable in the institutional environment, where it could be expected that a significant portion of the population would be outside and within range of the broadcast message. One example of this is the Talk-a-Phone (www.talkaphone.com) WEBS (Wide Area Emergency Broadcast System) family of devices that provide both interior and exterior audible notification options that serve as either stand alone units or can be incorporated into their WEBS towers.

An extension of this is what is commonly referred to as Giant Voice systems, referring both to a specific product as well as a group of exterior products that provide live and prerecorded voice and tone messages over large areas. This particular family of mass notification solutions has seen early adoption in the DoD environment but is also experiencing increased use in the institutional and petrochemical sectors. Several manufacturers offer these types of systems, including HSS Engineering (giantvoice.com), Cooper Notification (coopernotification.com) and SimplexGrinnell (simplexgrinnell.com). All of these large-scale exterior systems can be integrated into enterprise solutions that address interior spaces and other forms of mass notification. Current technology routinely uses spread spectrum wireless communication between the system head-end and the exterior notification devices. Many product offerings now include interfaces to traffic and weather alert notification devices.

Care must be taken in the selection, design, and implementation of both interior and exterior amplified voice delivery mass notification systems to ensure the intelligibility of the signal. There are several techniques available to measure intelligibility, one being the objective instrument based Sound Transmission Index (STI) defined by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) standard 60849. Most specifications for mass notification systems require intelligibility score greater than or equal to 0.70 on the Common Intelligibility Scale (CIS). General factors affecting intelligibility include signal-to-noise ratio (initial quality of signal), distance of the listener from the source, source directivity, reverberation due to varied device locations and sound reflections.

Digital Messaging

Not all mass notification is about delivered voice signals. Many systems targeted at the corporate and institutional clients use digital messaging means — either exclusively or in addition to the voice delivery systems discussed above. The most commonly discussed technique is the use of cell phones to either deliver a voice or SMS message. The efficacy of this technique is dependent on the likelihood of an individual being aware of the new message (high probability) and the availability of telecommunications infrastructure to deliver the message (possibly of low probability in the event of a crisis).

The decision to use SMS (text) messaging as a crisis management tool should be carefully considered — especially in international applications. Domestic users should also discuss the role of cell phone company front-end aggregators in the SMS delivery chain. Leading providers of these services include MissionMode (www.missionmode.com), Send Word Now (sendwordnow.com) and Everbridge (www.everbridge.com).

The other notification means include desktop popups that deliver content directly to PC desktops. Most vendors can use this tool to deliver a variety of messages to targeted audiences. For example, one group might receive a text message directing them to shelter in place while another group might receive an evacuation directive complete with a map showing the safest route. These popups can also include .wav files to provide audible information. Finally, most providers offer content delivery through e-mail and faxes. As with the other techniques discussed above, the availability of telecommunications infrastructure is a necessity.

Maturing Applications

As these tools have matured, so has their application. Early concepts of operation focused on the perceived need to inform all affected parties about an impending or ongoing event. Take for example a hostile event on a corporate campus. One approach is to attempt to inform the entire corporate population of the event and provide evacuation or safe shelter instructions. This is based on the concept that the crisis managers, holding information about the ongoing incident (the threat) can provide informed instructions to those individuals that are not immediately threatened. For example, if the incident is on the east side of the campus, all individuals should evacuate to the west.

What crisis managers have been reminded of through actual experience and simulations is that the first priority is to communicate with the immediate response and management team. This enables them to collect sound data to make and disseminate clear directions and alleviates a number of problems. First, establishing reliable communication with the crisis managers provides a means to more easily and efficiently direct the team toward incident containment and ultimate resolution. Second, the limited number of individuals involved greatly reduces the risk of communication loss due to unreliable or unavailable wired or wireless communication paths. Third, the unrest among the marginally affected population can be severe upon receipt of notification of a local and potentially life threatening incident.

Tools for Crisis Management

In general, the services and notification techniques offered by the industry players has become a fairly standard suite. The key is now in the added tools that can enhance the efficiency of the crisis management team. MissionMode is one provider that has developed a collaborative Web service that serves as a virtual emergency operations center during an event. This service enables the key crisis managers to post and share real-time actionable information on a common forum. In turn, decisions based on the information can be disseminated to the key players from the same platform. This site can also be used to host needed resources, such as crisis management plan documents for easy access and retrieval. The number of individuals expected to access this site during event is limited, thus increasing the probability of available telecommunication infrastructure.

This body of product offerings has matured significantly over the last three years in terms of cohesive integration, IP centric solutions and reliability. The standards bodies have also updated their documents to address the widespread application of these systems. However, the real changes are the supporting tools that are being developed to enhance the efficiency of our response to true crisis events. Ultimately, tools like these will provide life saving actions in a crisis situation.

Randall R. Nason, PE, CPP, is a corporate vice president and manager of the Security Consulting Group at C.H. Guernsey & Co. He has recently designed and conducted full-scale emergency response exercises for a federal agency, and is developing electronic security system-related technical manuals, mass notification specifications, and training courses for the U.S. Army.