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Mass notification: what you need to know

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.


October 22, 2012
By Timothy Means

Some of that change is being driven by fire and life safety industry groups in the United States, such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The most recent version of the fire and life safety code – NFPA 72 2010 – includes new code requirements for emergency communications systems.

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.

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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.


The right place
There are two basic camps of notification: contacting people and contacting places. To notify effectively, you need to do both. Along these two lines, technologies fall into fairly neat groupings. Fire alarms, in-building and outdoor notification systems, PA systems, digital signage and IP phones systems are all location-based. These systems deliver their messages with urgency. They alert with siren, voice and /or text. With a location-based notification system, it doesn’t matter who is in the room or in the area, they will get the message. Best of all, most are selectable by zones such as rooms, floors or building groups. If you have buildings that you cannot target individually, then adding this layer should be a priority.

The ability to geo-target also determines how detailed the information can be. For example, if I can target a single building, my instruction set can identify specific exits, direct people to safe shelters and even to tell them how to report suspicious packages or persons.

As always, budget limitations can keep you from addressing all your buildings at once, but a phased in plan with a “worst comes first” prioritization will ensure you get the job done over time.

More recently, cell/text message systems have been used for emergency notification and one of the current fads is to use social networking sites to get the word out. These person-centric systems contact large numbers of people and those who may be mobile. This is a great new tool for contacting a select group of people, no matter where they are. But in terms of mass notification, calling tens of thousands of people does not push information directly to the affected site and can also trigger a spike on the cellular networks which may slow the message delivery. In addition, there can be issues with warnings getting caught up as spam or dropped among multiple carriers. At the end of the day, this approach uses consumer networks for emergency notification and should be one layer among many, not the primary tool.

The verdict is still out on how controllable social networking is for emergency notification. Certainly a Facebook post or a Twitter tweet from a legitimate authority can be effective. However, there is no restriction as to who can post to Facebook or Twitter, therefore anyone can act as a source of information. There exists the opportunity for inaccurate information or intentional misinformation.

The right time
Too late is too little. Message delivery speed is largely dependent on the technology used. Pulling a fire alarm system activates strobes and horns immediately. The same is true of sirens, PA systems and in-building notification systems that use wired or mesh networks.

Cell/text message systems that launch high call volumes can take from five to 60 minutes before all the calls are delivered. Of course, this will vary from one system to another. The initial warning calls will cause people to begin to call one another. Those new calls now travel on the same network as the warning messages, creating a spike on the network, slowing down the warning messages. This problem looms larger when the number of people being called is larger.

The biggest threat to message speed is a lack of redundant communications paths. The question you should be asking here is what happens when power and/or network is lost? One of the most exciting technologies being used is wireless mesh networks. These networks are self-healing in that they reconfigure new paths when repeaters go down and are independent of Ethernet, WiFi and Internet. Assess your emergency notification capabilities by knowing what operates when power is lost and make sure your data closets are backed up with Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS).

The goals of emergency notification are the same as they have ever been, but the tools and methods are rapidly changing. The buzzers, bells, beepers and whistles of the past will not meet the emergency notification standards of the future. Tomorrow’s notification will be targeted, information-rich and delivered in seconds. No matter what your current capabilities are today, make time to explore the changing landscape of new technologies and standards in emergency notification.

Timothy Means is director of product management at Metis Secure Solutions.


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