Special Section: Fire Trends What Drives Mass Notification Solutions?

May 18, 2012
ECS integration: revenue opportunity for system integrators

Like soap bubbles, new technologies cluster together until they hit a saturation point and then—POP!—integration happens and they become one.

This serves as a good description of the state of the emergency notification market today. In the last 10 years, bubbles of newer and better methods of sending warnings have clumped around the big bubble of fire and life safety warning systems. So much so, that the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the U.S. Department of Defense have written extensive requirements allowing the use of emergency communication systems (ECS) during non-fire events.

Today, emergency warnings are sent en masse via indoor and outdoor ECS, emails, text messages, reverse 911 calling, social media, digital signage, IP phones, radio and TV broadcasts, electronic billboards and town criers (if there are any). And crowded right in there is another cluster of security technologies such as IP video surveillance, RFID access control, face detection, retina scanning, personnel and asset tracking, GIS mapping and more.

 This bubble cluster of ECS and security technologies is the response to tragic events of the last decade including tsunamis, tornados and shootings that have driven emergency notification awareness higher. This is a good thing overall, yet the implementation of so many vertical technologies can get in the way of fast and effective first response. One university I read about has 30-plus layers of emergency notification systems in place and it can take 30 or more minutes to launch them all.

Eventually integration lies in the creation of a super-smart software platform that talks to everything, monitors everything and overcomes loss of power and communications network failures in times of crisis. To my knowledge, however, no such single ECS master bubble exists and thus there is an opportunity for creative security systems integrators to offer other integration solutions now.

 On the books of NFPA 72

 Chapter 24 of the 2010 edition of NFPA 72 National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code contains the industry requirements for emergency communication systems. This section opens the door to integrating traditional fire alarm systems with ECS to meet non-fire notification situations (see diagram 1). And integration represents a revenue opportunity for security system integrators.

The most significant change driven by NFPA-72 2010 is the addition of using ECS to provide voice announcements with specific information during non-fire events. This means an ECS system should do more than just activate bells, buzzers, beeps or whistles. The information must be relevant including:

  • guidance on what people should do
  • a description of the location of the hazard
  • an idea of when to act
  • the name of the source of the warning.

The focus on voice announcement opens the doors for systems integrators to introduce new technology to customers. ECS alerting devices with built-in speakers, wireless IP speakers, IP phones and more and can meet the new code requirements and help a customer move toward the goals and intentions of NFPA. “Especially in the case where a customer has multiple buildings with a combination of old and new fire systems. While the older systems may work fine for fire, they may not have the voice capability required by NFPA for non-fire events,” said Ray Bartholow, Convergent Technologies Business Development for Vision Technologies in Glen Burnie, Md. “Putting in a new voice evacuation fire system can be costly. It may mean adding speakers, new wiring runs, non-fire strobes and new panels—in short it could cost as much as installing a whole new system. (See Chart 1) So integrating with other types of ECS solutions, public address systems or IP phones can move a customer toward the goals of NFPA without breaking their wallet.”

“Do your research,” Bartholow continued. “There are new technologies in this market worth looking at for systems integrators. Not so much on the text message and social media side, but more in the emergency communication areas where voice announcements, loud sirens, lights and text information are needed,” he explained. “These are great solutions for places like airports and hospitals and government buildings, where there is high visitor traffic. Also there is a need in manufacturing and industrial facilities where a spill or injury requires immediate response and pulling the fire alarm is not a suitable option.”

 The ECS market is an events-driven market. Active shootings have nearly doubled every decade over the past 50 years (See Chart 2). According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), last year a total of 1,897 reported tornados killed an estimated 552 people—compared to 564 U.S. tornado-related deaths in the prior 10 years combined. Where there is a need there is an opportunity.

 Bartholow goes on to point out that the end customer cannot keep up with all of the technologies that bubble up. The key to finding integration opportunities is for integrators to become educated and then educate their customers. The systems integrator who puts on technical seminars and sponsors “Lunch-n-Learn” events has an added value as an educator. For the systems integrator, the goal is to be able to play in both sandboxes—to sell both fire and non-fire ECS systems and have them work together.