The evolution of mass notification systems

Though it was initially developed as a tool for the military, mass notification systems have become an integral part of security operations for business offices, government buildings, as well as college and public school campuses.

To help clarify some of the regulations and best practices for implementing mass notification solutions, a group of industry experts discussed the topic during a webinar hosted by SIW on Thursday. The panel of webinar speakers included; David Nielsen, senior program manager, mass notification emergency communications for ADT Security Services, Derek Mathews, senior staff engineer, life safety and security for Underwriters Laboratories; Ruth Lovelace, director of emergency management and safety at University of Mary Washington; and, Matt Wolff, physical security manager for Fifth Third Bank.

According to Nielsen, the government has done a good job of hardening those facilities that would be among the top targets for terrorists, but he indicated that managers at businesses and other institutions need to be aware of attacks that may and probably will occur at places considered to be soft targets.

"The mantra is hope for the best, but plan for the worst," he said. "We live in an era where we have to think differently."

While there has been a litany of terror incidents that have changed the way we think about mass notification solutions, the bombings in Bali in 2005 introduced yet another element for security managers to consider. Being that that the attacks intentionally forced people in the streets where more bombs were detonated, those deploying emergency communication equipment must now take into account all possibilities surrounding an event, not just simply evacuating a building.

"We have to communicate with intelligibility and speed," Nielsen said.

Advanced warnings of impending natural disasters or dangerous weather situations are also important events that mass notification systems can be used to inform people of as evidenced by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

In fact, it was a weather event that Lovelace said demonstrated to her the urgent need for a MNS solution at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. She said a close call with a storm system that spawned a tornado that killed several people at the University of Maryland served as reminder of how important emergency communications can be to saving lives.

"I thought if I had a tornado bearing down on our campus at this particular moment, what would I do?" she asked.

Though the Clery Act requires colleges to implement communication systems for emergencies and to develop procedures for staff and students to follow during an incident, Lovelace said that there are many things that security managers need to be aware when they are implementing a campus or company-wide mass notification system.

Among the things to consider are:

- Consequences of activating the system (false alarms, possibility of a second attack in the case of a terror incident)
- Policy and direction for activating a system (will certain personnel be authorized to activate and will they have to cut through red tape)
- Management of the system during activation
- Managing the aftermath of an evacuation
- The durability and maintenance of a mass notification system
- Community awareness and expectations

The proper deployment of mass notification devices has become so prominent that Underwriters Laboratories is currently working on developing a standard for equipment manufacturers, according to Mathews.

Following guidelines established by NFPA 72, UL has formed a technical panel made up of parties with a "vested interest in market," such as manufacturers, installers and integrators, as well as authorities and regulatory bodies, to work on Subject 2572 which will eventually become the organization's new standard for MNS devices.

Though it is not a standard yet, Mathews said that manufacturers can obtain a certification for their solutions under Subject 2572 and then resubmit them once a formal standard is established.

To listen to the entire webinar, which will be available after 1 p.m. EST on Aug. 27, visit