and implement a plan.”
Start by identifying which individuals have key
responsibilities during a crisis and spell them out clearly
in the plan, says Jelenewicz. Don’t forget to specify a
backup person for each of these roles.
Submit your staff to tabletop exercises and drills to
iron out hiccups. They need to have the confidence to
assess a situation, select effective messages and distribute them using the emergency system.
Occupant drills are another priority. Workers and
students alike might freeze while being bombarded
with information if they can’t easily recall how they
are supposed to react: “If you don’t practice very often,
the first thing that people will do when they hear an
emergency alert is to start questioning what it means,”
cautions Montelius. “It creates hesitation, if not outright confusion.” Emergency response should be second
nature, but that only becomes rote memory through
Part of training should also be keeping up with code.
Like fire alarms and sprinklers, you are obligated to prove
your mass notification system is reliable and functioning.
“NFPA 72 provides annual criteria for testing emergency communication systems,” Grill says.
While general purpose paging and background music
systems are not part of the code’s requirements, it
would be prudent to evaluate them as well as you are
still liable for their performance, Montelius suggests.
Make sure your tests go beyond turning the system
on and off. Have a checklist that accounts for how all
building systems are integrated. It’s also important to
simulate an event and run through the entire sequence
of your emergency response plan, Jelenewicz says.
Given the complexities of a full mass notification system, ask a fire protection engineer to get involved.
Also follow up on any false-positive alarms. Your system has tripped for a reason, so look into the root cause.
“Don’t automatically assume the system is acting
funny or being overly sensitive,” Montelius stresses.
“You’d rather have that alarm turn out to be a non-issue
than ignore a potential malfunction.” B
Jennie Morton firstname.lastname@example.org is Senior
Editor of BUILDINGS.
These devices will serve as the foundation for your
emergency response. Using a tiered approach (page 34)
means messages are deployed over multiple channels,
creating redundancies so each occupant has multiple
opportunities to receive instructions.
Use your risk profile to determine which tiers you
need to add or strengthen with additional components.
Sequencing these individual technologies isn’t a plug-and-play option, so make sure to seek professional help
when adding new devices or software, states Grill.
Refine Your Messaging
With system components in place, focus your attention on the content of your emergency messages. Alerts
should be kept brief, concise and actionable, meaning
they provide instructions on how occupants are supposed
to respond. Ensure you have messages that range from
early warnings, immediate action, updates and all clear.
“Priority levels should be established in your emergency plan based on the level of hazard and the urgency of
the action required. For example, there is typically early
warning for a hurricane, whereas a fire emergency or
active shooter will necessitate an immediate response,”
“This can be aided greatly by using prerecorded
voice instruction and video signage instruction such
as displaying evacuation maps on TV monitors,” adds
Randy Montelius, Vice President of Communications
Engineering Company (CEC).
As life safety events become more complex, individuals
not only need specific information upon first contact, but
frequent updates as a situation evolves. Even if a crisis is
still in progress, an update that states “emergency responders are on their way” or “remain in place” lets occupants
know your organization is monitoring their safety.
Look for additional opportunities to tailor your messages based on your occupant demographics. For example, you may need to include bilingual instructions, says
Montelius. There are also a host of ADA accommodations that are easy and practical retrofits (see page 33).
Montelius recounts a manufacturing facility he worked
with that had a loud environment. Because everyone was
wearing hearing protection, the audio and sound system
didn’t have an effective reach. They installed strobe lights
with three bands of colors, which are tied to alarms for
fire, severe weather and medical. This solution ensures
that occupants can receive a visual notification when
there’s an emergency.
Train for the Inevitable
There’s a strong human element to emergency response
and technology is only as effective as those using it. Invest
time in training your staff and occupants, particularly as
multiple parties need to understand their role.
“All departments that have responsibility for the various communication systems – fire alarm, IT and security – need to work together,” stresses Grill. “One department may take the lead, but it takes cooperation and
collective knowledge from various groups to develop
“ The old way of having fire alarms double
as your emergency notification doesn’t cut
it anymore. You need the ability to distribute
accurate, timely and consistent information
to a large group of people for all types of
— Chris Jelenewicz, Senior Manager,
Society of Fire Protection Engineers