Mass notification: what you need to knowWritten by Timothy Means Monday, 22 October 2012 11:27
The world of warning is undergoing rapid change. Today it is called mass notification, but methods for warning people about danger have been evolving for over 2,000 years.
Another standardized code driving the shape of mass notification is the Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC-4-021-01) which was released by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2001. Both focus on the ability of an emergency warning system to protect life by providing real-time information and instructions to people in a building, area, site, or installation using intelligible voice communications along with text, graphics and other visible signals.
The NFPA and UFC are concerned with system design and operation, but there are also specifications for uniform message content. The most widely adopted messaging format, Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), enables diverse systems to send, receive and share messages. In Canada, CAP Canadian Profile (CAP-CP) has been developed based on CAP but specialized to address the needs of Canadian public alerting stakeholders, such as bilingualism, geocoding for Canada, managed lists of locations and events, etc. There is also Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) used by the U.S. and Canadian Weather radio services, Emergency Alert System (EAS) and the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS).
Beyond the codes and standards, advances in communications technologies have also had a significant impact on changes in mass notification. Emergency information is now pushed out over the Internet and local mesh networks. Operational software is accessible remotely via the web. Call/text and email platforms are capable of contacting tens of thousands of people, while social networking reaches millions.
As emergency managers and security dispatchers find themselves knee deep in operating systems, a single command centre that can communicate with all of the warning platforms has become the holy grail of emergency notification.
Complete integration is the promise of the day, but in reality many systems are technologically vertical and a single seat, central management application is very expensive. Into this vortex of convergence you will also find video surveillance, access control, digital signage and outdoor notification.
It is little wonder that civil emergency managers, corporate security heads, higher education and industrial safety groups struggle to understand it all. How does anyone come up with a best practices approach to mass notification? Let’s begin with setting a universal goal and then explore what is needed to get there. The universal goal of emergency notification is to get the right message to the right place at the right time. In simple terms, message creation, message targeting and message delivery.
The right message
What is the right message? Is it a text message on a smartphone? Is it a fire alarm bell? Does it tell you what to do or where to go? CAP format for standardized message creation requires each message to include:
• an alert segment — provides basic information about the purpose, source and status of the current message;
• an info segment — identifies the urgency, severity and certainty of an event;
• an area segment — describes the affected geographic area; and
• a resource segment — refers to additional sources of information.
If we accept CAP’s basic premise, then by definition, the right message is one that can be geo-targeted with detailed instructions and information. By extension, the endpoint must be capable of displaying the information as text or making a voice announcement. There are many legacy fire alarm systems or siren systems that work as intended today, but will not serve as tomorrow’s emergency notification solutions because they cannot reproduce voice or display text information. If you have buildings with older fire systems that cannot push a voice or text message into specific locations, this should be an area of top concern.
Making detailed information a basic component of message content can be a slippery slope. Errors in content, such as directing people to the wrong exit or safe shelter, may mean you are sending them directly into the plume or other potential hazard. One way to assure that the message content is correct is to prepare and approve messages ahead of time. Scripted scenarios and pre-recorded messages relieve the stress of the moment from the security dispatcher and assure that you are following approved protocols. Look for notification systems that support pre-recorded messages.
No matter how thoroughly you prepare, no two events are the same. Even two fires in the same building will play out differently. Also events of long duration often have new developments. To fulfill the potential of CAP type messaging, make sure the systems you use have a custom message component.