A mass notification system is a technology that sends one-way emergency alerts and notifications to the public. As we spend more time in unfamiliar built environments, Mass Notification and Emergency Communications (MNEC), also known as mass notification systems (MNS), or emergency communications systems (ECS), are more important than ever to help in the event of an emergency.
How many hours per day do you spend in a building that isn’t your home, whether it’s work, school, at a service provider, retail, or a public environment in between? Sadly, the world that we live in is not as safe as it once was. What are the emergency procedures for evacuating, say, your doctor’s office?
What are Mass Notification Systems?
MNEC is based on the National Fire Protection Agency code 72 (NFPA 72). The evolution of this code stemmed from some of the greatest national tragedies we have experienced in the United States. By law, a fire alarm system is required in every commercial building. However, in many cases, the fire alarm system is merely that – an alarm. It provides the sweeping alert tone along with a flashing strobe light to let us know that there’s an emergency in the building and that we need to evacuate. That’s the part that has been ingrained in us since childhood. When you hear a fire alarm, get out of the building. But what if evacuating the building could actually put you into greater danger? How do you convey that message?
This is where MNEC takes the reins from a fire alarm system. The requirements of an MNEC system exceed that of a fire alarm when it comes to voice enunciation. While a fire alarm alerts people that there is an emergency happening, an MNEC system provides actionable information for those in the building so that they know which direction to exit the building, or, if required, potentially stay where they are and secure themselves as best they can.
With an MNEC solution, the end user defines the areas of coverage and determines the logical zones based on occupancy. When the system is deployed, a single message, either live or pre-recorded, can be broadcast to the entire building, similar to a fire alarm system. However, when required, the updated functionality of an MNEC solution also allows a message to be triggered to single zones independently, or even broadcast separate messages to different zones so that the correct action is taken to keep everyone safe.
Imagine, for example, there was a chemical spill in a lab building on a college campus. The spill took place on the south side of the building near the stairwell on the second floor. In this case, the first floor could receive a general evacuate message, but the second floor would require additional information to avoid the south stairwell, as would each subsequent floor above it.
It’s hard to take action when you can’t understand what’s being said. We have all experienced a voice announcement that sounds like static or mumbling, leaving us unsure what to do other than exit the building as we have been trained in the annual fire drill each building is required by law to execute.
With MNEC, there are specific parameters and targets to hit for speech intelligibility to ensure that in the event of an emergency, anyone capable of hearing the message will also be able to understand that message.
What about the hearing impaired? In addition to the audio requirements of an MNEC system, there is also a visual messaging component. Providing text-based messaging to the occupants of the buildings can take many forms. In some cases, such as college campuses, they implement an SMS-text message or email service. This is a great way to get information out to a population that could be spread over several miles – including informing those that might not be on-site to stay away until the emergency is resolved.
These systems do have their limitations, however, in that they require the individual to opt in to the service and volunteer their phone number or email. It also means that the device must be turned on, accessible to the person, and have a service connection to receive the message. That’s a lot of potential ways that someone might not know they’ve received an emergency message.
If the building owner is able to coordinate with the tenants of a building, they could deploy a service that “pops up” on PC screens throughout the office, providing emergency notification information that users cannot ignore. The value of this type of software solution cannot be overstated, especially when considering how frequently open office deployments are used in large corporate offices around the world.
Additionally, there is the opportunity to incorporate visual messaging into any audiovisual systems that are installed for meeting rooms, event spaces, or digital signage. In the event of an emergency, the administrator can trigger a message through software and have that signal take over every display in a building, ensuring the possibility that it can be seen by anyone in the nearby vicinity.
MNEC system design also has the potential for exterior space applications, between buildings on a campus environment, with what’s known as a “Giant Voice” system. This system is comprised of speakers mounted on poles or on the top of buildings, which are specifically designed to broadcast audio over great distances while still remaining intelligible.
Some modern fire alarm systems have taken these requirements into account and have started to incorporate higher quality speakers and more pre-recorded messaging functionality into their systems. In such cases, using those systems to manage the in-building announcements while incorporating the visual messaging into the displays throughout the building and, where required, adding a “Giant Voice” system is commonplace.
In our next post we discuss how to deploy mass notification systems in your facility.