Integrating Emergency Communications Systems

By Jon M. Evenson  
OTHER PARTS OF THIS ARTICLEPt. 1: Developing an Effective Emergency Communication ProgramPt. 2: Funding an Emergency Communication SystemPt. 3: This Page

Facility managers should pay special attention to how the emergency communication systems will be integrated into an overall emergency management program. If that integration doesn't happen, how will the organization's staff and visitors know what response steps need to be taken once they have been notified of an emergency? The integration of the two pieces should effectively identify how the organization will notify individuals and how they will coordinate the response steps in the event of an emergency.

For example, if there is an active shooter on a campus, once the situation is identified and information is sent to students through the mass notification system, do the students and staff understand what they should do? Have they been trained on the steps to be taken? Do they understand the message?

To create an effective emergency management program, the integration of both systems and operations needs to be clearly spelled out and defined. Once defined, the operational component needs to be stressed to occupants and staff so if the system is activated and they receive information, they know what do.

The organization also needs to look at how the technologies will be integrated into a single system that allows an organization to communicate to those affected by an emergency.

When developing an emergency communication system, the organization should evaluate the existing systems that will be integrated into a single unified system. Mass notification systems should be designed to allow for the integration of various systems, manufacturers and equipment. Failure to look at system integration during the design process may create issues with operation of the system when activated.

Integrating Systems

A comprehensive system is not limited to a single building system; it should be developed to leverage many, if not all, of the monitoring, communications and control systems in an organization's buildings. In some situations, organizations are looking to improve the effectiveness of emergency management programs through the use of closed circuit television camera systems to provide their first responders with the ability to see what is happening and what efforts are needed to respond to the emergency. Some groups are looking to create real-time emergency management tools that allow a user to use GPS and building management systems to coordinate response efforts. A true emergency management system should look at integrating all types of systems into a single tool that allows the user to easily and effectively understand, communicate and coordinate emergency response efforts.

In most buildings, several systems will be present, including life-safety (fire, gas and smoke detection, alarm and sprinkler systems), security (surveillance, access control and intrusion monitoring systems), building automation (HVAC, energy management), and communications (voice and data systems). When looking at design and development of an emergency communications system, the organization needs to determine the best manner to integrate the various systems to become an effective tool to use in the event of an emergency.

Jon M. Evenson, LEED AP, is a director of emergency management for Rolf Jensen & Associates, Inc., a leading fire protection and life-safety consulting firm. He is based in the Chicago office and can be reached at jevenson@rjagroup.com.

Emergency Management — By the Book

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) defines emergency management in NFPA 1600 Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs as "An ongoing process to prevent, mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from an incident that threatens life, property, operations, or the environment." NFPA 72 defines a mass notification system as "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." The term emergency communication system includes various systems, such as mass notification, voice evacuation, and distributed recipient mass notification systems.

Here is what NFPA standards have to say about requirements for various emergency response systems.

NFPA 72 — 2010 EDITION

The 2010 edition of NFPA 72 contains Chapter 24 dedicated to emergency communication systems. In previous editions, the information in this chapter was contained in Annex E, where it was simply explanatory information. Now, as part of the body of the standard, the chapter is mandatory.

Chapter 24 includes requirements for various aspects of emergency communication systems and clearly identifies system requirements, survivability and intelligibility of the systems and components.

NFPA 72 also includes language on risk analysis and emergency planning. Both of these elements are critical to the overall success of an emergency communication system and require attention and detail before, during and after the emergency communication system is installed and operational.


NFPA 1600 is a standard designed to develop, implement and test disaster and emergency management and business continuity programs. NFPA 1600 clearly identifies strategies for developing a comprehensive operational program to respond to various emergencies that could affect a site. The standard includes direction on response protocols, team structure development, training and education requirements, and documentation. NFPA 1600 is a standard that many organizations use when developing an emergency management and business continuity program for their operations.


NFPA 1620 is a standard to provide assistance in developing site information to be utilized by local authorities upon arrival at the site. NFPA 1620 is designed to help organizations develop a comprehensive site information document that provides local authorities with critical site information including entrances/exits, site equipment locations, building construction information, critical system controls and other site information. NFPA 1620 should be consulted when an organization is looking to integrate their program with the local authorities.

— Jon M. Evenson

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  posted on 2/28/2011   Article Use Policy

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