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Building Operating Management

4 Steps To an Effective Emergency Communication System

By Jon M. Evenson Emergency Preparedness   Article Use Policy

It isn’t hard to explain what an emergency communication system (ECS) is. According to NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, an ECS is “a system for the protection of life by indicating the existence of an emergency situation and communicating information necessary to facilitate an appropriate response and action.” This definition explains what an ECS, also sometimes called a mass notification system, is designed to do, yet facility managers still face daunting questions:

• What kind of ECS do I need?

• How much will an ECS cost?

• What are the hidden concerns that I need to be wary of during the design and installation?

• What operational issues do I need to incorporate into the design and rollout of an ECS?

Four steps can help facility managers to effectively design, install, and maintain an ECS that is specific for their operations and budgets. These steps walk facility managers through the ECS process and allow them to clearly identify the goals, needs, and operational requirements that the ECS must address. What’s more, this method helps facility managers reduce issues or concerns in the design or installation of an ECS. 

1. Determine ECS needs

Facility managers looking to design, install, or upgrade an existing ECS need to understand their specific needs related to emergency communications. An ECS is not a one-size-fits-all solution. One of the biggest challenges that facility managers face is not clearly understanding or identifying what they want to do with the ECS. Facility managers need to develop a clear design intent to pinpoint how they expect the ECS to be designed and operated. In addition, facility managers need to evaluate the operational and infrastructure-related concerns and issues that may affect the design, installation, and operation of the ECS. The ECS design should be based on a specific facility, not on what the facility next door has designed and installed.

One key step in addressing those issues is for facility managers to coordinate an assessment of their site’s operations, staffing, and current infrastructure and systems that may be incorporated into the ECS. This assessment should determine what type and level of network is currently installed that may be utilized as part of the new ECS. In addition to the network infrastructure, facility managers need to understand if other existing system components — including current fire alarm systems, public address systems, and other speaker systems — may be re-used as part of the new ECS. 

In conjunction with the assessment process, the facility manager should coordinate development of a risk analysis designed to pinpoint potential risks and threats to be addressed as part of the ECS and related emergency operations plans. The risk analysis should clearly identify risks that may affect the site, its operations, and the messaging priorities for the ECS. 

Once the assessment and risk analysis are complete, facility managers should coordinate their planning with other site stakeholders to understand their concerns, issues, and design requirements before design of the ECS begins. Stakeholders should include engineering, security, fire prevention, executive management, and communications department staff that will be affected by the ECS and may be involved in the management and operation of the ECS on a day-to-day basis. 

Next, facility managers should incorporate the assessment and stakeholder input into a design brief, as required by NFPA 72. This document should provide an overview of the ECS design and outline how the ECS shall be designed and meet the code requirements outlined by the associated regulatory documents including NFPA 72 and Unified Facilities Code (UFC). As the design brief is developed, facility managers should distribute it to the stakeholders involved in the process for their review and comments prior to finalization.  

2. Establish the ECS budgets

Facility managers need to understand how much budget is available and establish a timetable for spending those funds. Without a clear understanding of the funding available and spending timeframe, facility managers may design an ECS that provides them with all the bells and whistles possible but that costs many times the amount of funding they have. In addition, facility managers need to understand who owns the money and what processes are required to obtain and coordinate the funding process. Without a solid funding model, facility managers will be challenged to design and install an ECS.

To prevent problems, facility managers should, in the early stages of the ECS design, develop a budget and installation timeline that provide a firm understanding of what funding is available and how long the design and installation will take. That schedule should precisely note milestones for completion. This timeline should be based on the design brief and should identify phases of installation of ECS components, including in-building ECS, wide-area ECS, and other elements of the ECS that are required to complete the design.  

In addition, facility managers should work with engineering, security, fire prevention, information technologies, and the procurement team to understand what funding will be available — and when it will be available — for design and installation of the ECS. It’s important to identify the total funding available and who is responsible for the funding and coordination of procurement. Clearly understanding funding available will provide facility managers with a strategy that can be implemented to install an ECS on time and within budget. 

3. Identify potential design and installation issues

Facility managers may face a variety of challenges related to the design and installation of the ECS. These could include differences of opinion on how to install the ECS and challenges with infrastructure requirements outlined as part of the design that are not present and may be cost-prohibitive to provide.  Stakeholders may have varied opinions on who owns, operates, and maintains the ECS and related systems. Facility managers also may face installation complications if the selected contractor’s work is not monitored on a regular basis. Without construction administration strategies, facility managers may not have a full understanding of how the installation is progressing and if the installation is in line with the design strategy, specifications, and budget.

Facility managers who are aware of these challenges are better positioned to address them. For example, after the need for an ECS is defined and approved, facility managers should monitor and question the design to identify and address potential design issues in the earliest stages possible. In addition, facility managers should coordinate the modification of the design based on additional feedback and information gathered. By staying on top of the design process, facility managers will be able to identify and integrate changes into the design of the ECS.

Facility managers should also develop a construction administration program to coordinate the monitoring of installation and schedule review meetings with contractors and stakeholders to review installation progress and identify potential installation issues. This monitoring will also help ensure that ECS components are being installed as designed to ensure the quality of the emergency messaging.  

4. Review the operational elements of the ECS

Facility managers typically need to coordinate ECS operations when the system has been activated. Without operational protocols and strategies, facility managers may encounter challenges with the activation of the ECS, coordination of response efforts, and messages being received by occupants. In addition, without those protocols, facility managers will face issues coordinating approvals for messaging and distribution. Operators responsible for coordinating the activation of the ECS require training to understand their roles and responsibilities before, during, and after an emergency that requires use of an ECS. Without clear operational strategies, an ECS will not be as effective and may cause problems at key times, when facility managers need quick response to address specific emergency situations that are unfolding.

The time to prevent those problems is the ECS design process. During that process, facility managers need to coordinate development and updating of response protocols and other standard operating procedures that will streamline ECS activation, communication, and response activities in the event of an emergency. Operational protocols should include specific strategies for approval and authorization of message delivery, response protocols for key staff, and guidelines that provide occupants with specific information on what to do when an ECS message is heard. 

Facility managers should also work with the ECS contractor during design to pre-determine notification strategies for each type of emergency that may affect the site. For example, if an active shooter is reported on campus, the facility manager should have an ECS strategy that clearly states who will be notified of the emergency, what information is going to be provided, and what equipment will be utilized to communicate the message.

Once the ECS is installed, the facility manager should work with key stakeholders to develop training for key management and staff on the ECS response team. This training should be coordinated by outside professionals and contractors that have the background necessary to provide high-level training on how the ECS has been designed, how the ECS will operate in an emergency, and what response team responsibilities are when the ECS is activated. 

There are many challenges when designing and installing an ECS, but with sound planning and structure, facility managers can reduce the potential pitfalls of the design process and improve the design, installation, and ongoing operation of the ECS. 

Jon Evenson (jon@tripleesafety.com), the owner of Triple E Safety Group in Crystal Lake, Ill., has more 22 years of experience in safety and emergency management. The company addresses challenges involving emergency management, emergency communications, evacuation, safety, and security. 

Dominic Szorentini, a fire/emergency solutions project manager for Pro-Tec Systems, Inc. in Somerset, N.J., contributed to the article. 

Email comments and questions to edward.sullivan@tradepress.com.

 




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