Get the Word Out

On December 1, 1958, a fire at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago killed 92 students and three nuns. A lasting image etched in memory is of Richard Scheidt, the firefighter who carried 10-year-old victim John Jajkowski from the school.

Scheidt died in April in Chicago at the age of 81. After the incident, he recalled how the fire was roaring through the building as he and 13 rescue squads (the city’s entire fleet) arrived. Scheidt and his team of firefighters broke a hole through a second floor wall to find a smoky classroom full of unconscious pupils at their desks and the rescue quickly turned into recovery.

That fire changed the codes in the city of Chicago forever. In fact, the city adopted it own construction standards, including a Fire Code.

Imagine if that scenario played out today. Educators would receive text messages of the fire and school administrators would be piping in via SMS specific evacuation procedures. Early warning detectors and visual and audible annunciators surely would have routed the students out. LED signs would direct occupants to safe areas of egress; English and Spanish voice warnings would assist as well. First responders would arrive with an accurate picture of where the occupants were and how to save as many as possible. Fewer lives would be lost, if any.

Mass notification and emergency communications have transformed the fire protection landscape into a proactive early warning solution. All this innovation is good, but it doesn’t make it any easier for the integrator to know what to install and why. However, the saving grace is that much of the new warning notification is digital and based on the Internet and we seem to be getting better at using that medium all the time.

Tim Cooney is the president and owner of Falcon Fire Alarm Systems Inc. in Summerville, S.C., and a Notifier distributor-installer. He’s been in the market for 18 years and is a NICET certified specialist. He knows that fire alarm integrators need to have engineering expertise and have to stay focused on the rapidly changing market.

Falcon Fire Alarm Systems serves the historical area of Charleston, S.C. One recent installations was at the U.S. Custom House in Charleston where technicians installed a Notifier ONYX NFS2-640 intelligent fire alarm control panel with eight-channel digital voice control. The system is integrated with energy management and elevator systems and also LED displays. The Custom House was built in the late 1800s and is home to South Carolina State Senator Jim Demint, Department of Homeland Security offices and the South Carolina State Port Authority.

Cooney has been involved with first responders and the local alarm association, all in an effort to make sure he can stay ahead of current and proposed changes. He has seen an increase in the number of fire systems integrated with mass notification and emergency communication and said the advent of digital propelled the category into popularity.

“We are seeing more notification systems integrate with access control. There’s just so much integration between systems and a trend toward voice evacuation in lieu of horns to direct occupants out safely. We are going to see more wireless mass communications emerging in the near future,” he added.

LED signs

Visual annunciation and notification continues to come on strong. In Washington, D.C., smart LEDs hang in each Metro commuter station. Visible from more than 100 feet away, the signage alerts passengers of delays or train status. As a train enters the boarding area, messages flash, accompanied by a strobe effect on the ground and an audible tone to alert hearing or sight-impaired riders.

On September 11, 2001, as smoke and noxious fumes filled the Metro tunnel from the fires at the Pentagon, the smart LEDs carried a special message to inform passengers and staff of the situation. Both pre-programmed and ad hoc messaging was supported across the networked LEDs and was delivered in real time to thousands of commuters. Officials learned the system of smart LEDs was one of the only passenger notification systems between Washington, D.C. and New York City available at that time.

To be most effective, notification should be applied in layers to the communications infrastructure. For example, SMS/text message alerting is a popular notification technology, but cell towers are unreliable and can be overloaded during an emergency. Emergency managers must also account for those who have not registered their cell phone with the school system, or who do not have access to it at the time. These limitations and others can be addressed by adding other notification solutions, such as “smart” LED signs, according to Berkly Trumbo, director of Emergency Communication Systems for Inova Solutions, Charlottesville, Va.

“A mixed media approach to emergency communication will garner a higher degree of effective response than a one-dimensional approach,” Trumbo said. “Supplementing audio alerts with visual alerts is an important step toward creating a complete program for mass notification.”

One of the barriers to the market is perception by the general public. Integrators like CDW Government Inc. (CDW-G), Parrish, Fla., discovered through market research users are unclear about what constitutes a mass communication system.

Houston Thomas, CDW-G’s public safety business development manager, said the study, This is a Test – This is Only a Test: Updating America’s Emergency Alert Infrastructure, found that more than half of Americans did not know if their city even had had a modern mass notification system.

“Americans, however, are receptive to using a mass notification system during an emergency, with weather threats, terrorist threats/incidents and traffic incidents topping their notification wish list,” Thomas said. CDW-G, he said, has embarked on an awareness campaign ( and Mass Notification Toolkit to boost awareness.

“Emergency communication is more than just a notification process, it’s about awareness. And it’s clear that there is no one single technology accomplishing this, but a combination of many,” he said.

System engineering expertise and a thorough knowledge of codes and standards is essential in deploying the right solution for the customer, according to Dennis Mason, president and chief operating officer of Kings III of America in Coppell, Texas.

“From our perspective, there are a number of different facets to emergency communications. We deal primarily with elevator emergency telephones and help phones that may be at a pool side, area of refuge, parking lot, golf course, etc. We have our own engineers and some of our executives are on code boards so we know when perspective legislation is coming and when particular codes, such as the ASME A17.1 National Elevator Safety Code and local pool legislation changes so we can try to stay ahead,” he said.

Mason said the elevator market has seen significant changes in recent years and a new code would require dial tone to be monitored and if dial tone is lost an audible and visual signal required in the egress lobby. “We just completed engineering on a product to meet this code and will have it in production by the time the code is enforced which we think will be around June 1, 2009. There are also some recent code changes that require the phones be answered by a 24-hour service that is trained in handling elevator emergency calls. Of course some jurisdictions prohibit this call to be placed to a 911 emergency center so in that case, they need to be answered by a call center such as ours. The biggest recent change in emergency systems is the combination of telephones and intercom systems. They can be used as a local intercom as well as to call offsite for emergencies,” he said.

Mass notification and emergency communication is a terrific adjunct to traditional integration and a way to add recurring revenue from service and maintenance contracts. It’s a good niche for the integrator who can master it and all the solutions coming into the market.


Mass Notification Road Map

By Beth Welch

The 2010 edition of NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm Code® is expected to encompass a new chapter on mass notification, referred to as ECS (Emergency Communications Systems). The most significant part of this code requires the ECS to have precedence over a fire alarm system, ultimately leading to an integration of both systems.

The current draft of NFPA 72, Chapter 12 outlines some common system elements of which dealers should take note:

  • Local Operating Console (LOC) – Section “Mass notification systems shall include a system operating console(s) for authorized occupants to readily access and originate messages in emergency situations.”
  • Autonomous Control Unit (ACU) - Section “the building autonomous control unit shall monitor and control the notification appliance network.” At the ACU, authorized personnel can initiate delivery of pre-recorded voice messages, provide live voice messages and instructions, and initiate visual strobe and alphanumeric message notification appliances.
  • Fire Alarm Control Interface – Section “Where a fire alarm system is installed covering all or part of the same building or other area as the mass notification system, an interface shall be provided between the systems for operational coordination purposes.” This connection will allow the ECS to override fire alarm audio and visual notification appliances.
  • Interface to Other Systems and Alerting Sources – A variety of systems that “shall be permitted” to interface or connect with an ECS/MNS are discussed throughout the latest Chapter 12 draft, including air handling control, door control, elevator controls, public address systems and wide-area (outdoor) notification systems.
  • Notification Appliance Network – This network consists of a set of audio speakers, strobes, and text signs (when required) that are located to alert occupants and provide intelligible voice and visual instructions. A number of these devices must be installed in adherence to ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements too.

In conformance with the latest draft of 2010 NFPA 72 codes, manufacturers like Gamewell-FCI have developed high-tech, low-cost combination fire alarm/ECS solutions for new construction and renovation applications.

Beth Welch is the manager of public relations for Gamewell-FCI, Northford, Conn., part of Honeywell Fire Systems.


MNS and ECS Resources

These companies offer mass notification and emergency communications:

This list is based on independent research by SD&I magazine and may not be all-inclusive.



AtHoc Inc.—

Cooper Notification—





Federal Signal—

Fire-Lite Alarms—


Honeywell (REACT partnership)—

Inova Solutions--

King-Fisher Company—

MadahCom Inc.--

3n (National Notification Network) —


Potter Electric Signal Co—

Signal Communications Corp.—

Simplex Grinnell—

Spacenet Inc.—

STI (Safety Technology International)—

SWN Communications (Send Word Now)—


TOA Electronics Inc.—