Roundtable Q&A: Emergency Communications on Campus, Sponsored by Gai-Tronics

June 8, 2020
Take a closer look at the technologies and strategies helping integrators deliver emergency notifications for school and campus end-users
Editor's Note: This article is sponsored by Gai-Tronics

As we move into the summer, security integrators usually brace for a vast increase in security project activity on K-12 and university campuses. While COVID-19 may change some of the dynamics of this vertical market, it is generally believed that most of these scheduled projects will go on – especially in the area of emergency communications.

In an effort to help integrators keep pace with the trends and technologies that are integral to deploying an effective emergency communications system on a school or campus, Gai-Tronics has sponsored this exclusive Security Business Q&A discussion with Rick Rauenzahn, the company’s Senior Product Manager, as well as Andy Toscano, a Corporate Officer for JT Communications Inc., a California-based low-voltage contractor.

How has the transition from analog to IP communications technology changed the security paradigm for schools and campuses? How has it changed from a technology integration perspective?

Rauenzahn: The analog to IP transition in communications technology for schools and campuses has been slow to develop. Early on, many professionals in the education sector were leery about tying communications to a network that too often proved to be unreliable as servers tended to “go down” frequently. A common comment from those who opposed the transition was “I can only tell you that if the network goes down or we lose power, we still have telephone communications.”

In time, improvements in technology and the understanding of designing redundancy in a network have moved the transition forward. Coupled with the fact that many facility communications responsibilities were transitioned to the IT department, a much more flexible design capability has been made available. Installing an IP backbone to which most of the security and communications systems/devices can be connected, has made it much easier to integrate operations. This integration not only exists between IP devices but also between technologies such VoIP to 600 ohm audio devices.

How has mass notification for schools and campuses evolved in light of recent active shooter events?

Rauenzahn: Mass notification or emergency communications has been steadily evolving for the past 30 years. The Clery Act, signed in 1990, required campus security offices to report all crimes occurring on and near their respective campus. Emergency notification was added to this act in 2008, shortly after the Virginia Tech massacre. This event sparked the awareness of the need for mass notification provisions.

In the years immediately following the Virginia Tech incident, safety organizations began to include verbiage pertaining to mass/emergency notification in their written codes and requirements. These organizations include the Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA), Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), OSHA, and NFPA 72. These written requirements were the basis for the technical evolution of emergency notification.

To meet newly established requirements, many campuses utilized the quickest and most cost-effective method of notification – cloud-based systems that included texting and network seizure. Although this met the immediate requirements for some federal- and state-mandated notification compliance, it often required students to “sign up” for the program, something they were not legally required to do. This often resulted in a low percentage of coverage. Another question raised with these types of systems is how are visitors – those who infrequently visit the campuses – notified of an emergency? The technical progression also included the implementation of audio and visual alarms and messaging, including signage.

In recent years, it has become apparent that a layered approach using multiple subsystems is the best approach for campus-wide notification in emergency situations. These systems include an extremely intelligible pubic address broadcast system (a key element to providing real-time information), visual indication (in the form of strobes, lights, or digital signage), and cloud-based systems (reverse 911, text messaging or PC seizure). These individual systems have been available for quite a few years but the most recent trend in the evolution of a Mass Notification System approach is to combine them under a single point of control. 

What are some of the overlooked areas in schools or on campuses where emergency communications technologies would be a key addition?

Toscano: The intelligible, broadcasted word typically ranks at the top of the criteria list for any mass notification system, in both pre-programmed and live voice messaging formats. Many campuses rely on their facility fire alarm systems for emergency broadcast communications inside the buildings. In many cases, these systems are local to the building they support and do not provide notification coverage outside the buildings. Since outside areas of the campus are most commonly lacking notification coverage, they have been a logical starting point to address mass notification system broadcasts. The intent is to provide emergency notifications to personnel as they transition from one location to another.

Many outdoor emergency notification systems are installed in phases, based on an established budget and available funding. The first area to consider would be the “high-traffic” areas – locations where higher volumes of personnel will typically be moving. From there, system expansions can occur until all desired areas of the campus are covered. You would think that emergency notification broadcasts for the outdoor areas are now addressed, completing the Mass Notification system; however, the answer would be an emphatic no.

The importance of the fire alarm systems providing indoor broadcast coverage was mentioned. Now we have an outdoor broadcast system to address an area previously lacking coverage. Tying these two systems/areas together are sometimes an overlooked area of mass notification. It is important that everyone gets the message, at the same time, everywhere. The message may not be the same, but broadcasted information must be timely in all locations.

Installing compact addressable speakers in the ceiling like a regular speaker would be satisfactory for indoor mass notification applications, while emergency towers with broadcast modules would satisfy outdoor applications. Blue strobes and panic/HELP buttons could be installed in both environments for added mass notification coverage. Ideally, control of the mass notification system should occur from a single location, requiring multi-system integration. Interfacing existing systems with new systems and technology needs to be considered during system design. It may not occur until a subsequent phase of the project, but it needs to happen to complete the mass notification system.

The key to a successful mass notification system is proper planning, beginning with forming a multi-functional team comprised of personnel from various disciplines on campus – including security, safety, IT/communications, maintenance, teaching staff, and even a student body representation. Discussions of what is desired, as well as needed, will limit the possibility of missed areas of notification or functionality. After the assembled team has documented the desired functionality, invite one or more system providers to meet with the group to discuss what products are available to meet the desired criteria.

What are some best practices when it comes to creating service and maintenance contracts for this type of technology in the school market?

Toscano: Creating a service and maintenance contract depends on the needs of the campus as well as the technical abilities of the on-site support staff. Each contract is typically custom-tailored to meet the needs vs. abilities. Best practices for a service and maintenance contract include:

Timing: What is the timing of the required response? Must a failed component be repaired or replaced within 4 hours, 24 hours or 3 days? It is a best practice to service mass notification and emergency communication equipment four times per year. JT Communications physically audits and inspects emergency phones on campus to ensure optimal audio quality and visibility of blue light strobe functionality. Timing plays a large role in determining the origin of the support.

Monitoring: Current technology often provides the ability to monitor the operating equipment and notify personnel of failures. This monitoring capability is typically performed from a central location which might need to be local to the operating system/equipment but may be capable of being remote from the actual installation. In these cases, the equipment manufacturer may be able to offer a remote monitoring contract, eliminating the need to purchase the necessary support equipment.

Personnel: Will support be provided by on-site staff, the manufacturer or a third-party entity? Most manufacturers do not have local support across the country and rely on a third-party support team or are willing to train on-site staff to provide the necessary support.

Spare Equipment: What spares are needed or recommended, and where will they be maintained? Are spares inventory kept on site, based on the manufacturer’s recommendations, or are they kept at the manufacturer’s location and shipped when needed? An on-site spares inventory will support a quicker resolution to a failed piece of equipment.

Budget: The available budget sometimes dictates the level of service. The higher the level of support, the higher the price tag to provide it. Depending on the complexity of the system, the lowest cost contract should be the easiest to implement. Having on-site staff capable of replacing components from on-site inventory will provide the timeliest of support options and should cost the least. With the manufacturer providing recommended spare stocking levels and any requested training or telephone/on-line support, most campuses can maintain equipment with minimal expenditures for outside support.

The creation of a service plan goes back to the planning stages of the mass notification system. The assembled team not only needs to determine the required and desired system functionality but also the level of support needed to proactively maintain the system.

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This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Security Business magazine. When sharing, don’t forget to mention @SecBusinessMag on Twitter and Security Business magazine on LinkedIn.