NFPA-72-2010 Dedicated to Mass Notification Systems

By Abigail Gray  
OTHER PARTS OF THIS ARTICLEPt. 1: Khobar Towers Attack Proved Need for Mass NotificationPt. 2: This PagePt. 3: Showcase: Safety

Experts agree that the time is right for the regulation of mass-notification systems. The need is driven, in large part, by the fact that effective mass notification depends on complex and coordinated interaction between multiple systems. What’s more, notification needs vary greatly from one type of building to another, and even from one part of a given facility to the next. Indeed, a company with employees in four different types of space — warehousing, manufacturing, office and reception, for instance — may require a mass notification plan that incorporates as many different components. A comprehensive system encompasses not only components, but also the infrastructure and controls that support each of them, and a well-designed action plan that will guide procedures during an emergency.

In 2007, in response to this emerging need, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) issued guidelines and recommendations for mass notification as Annex E to its NFPA-72-2007 fire code.

“Because of the close relationship between fire alarm systems and other types of mass notification, and because mass notification is about the safety of occupants, NFPA is a very appropriate agency to have a leadership role and to be the one to develop a code,” says Paul Benne, senior security specialist with Syska Hennessey Group.

The Annex E guidelines were a first pass at what the official code for mass notification might eventually look like. Among other issues, Annex E tackled the difficult question of how mass notification systems would interface with traditional fire alarms.

“Some requirements were included that allowed mass communication systems to work with fire-alarm systems,” explains Lee Richardson, senior electrical engineer with NFPA. “Previously there was a prohibition on any other signal interrupting a fire alarm.”

Now, NFPA is just months away from releasing NFPA-72-2010, which will contain the first formal code governing mass notification systems. The code will address many of the issues associated with mass notification systems, including testing, inspection, installation, maintenance and device location.

A Comprehensive Guideline

The new requirements for mass-notification systems will be contained in chapter 12 of NFPA-72-2010, entitled “Emergency Communication Systems.” Within this chapter, code will be focused on four major categories of technologies: one-way communication, which includes loudspeakers, alarms, scrolling-text screens, and other similar systems; two-way communication, which includes radios and related systems; command and control; and systems design.

The chapter defines and gives examples of each major type of mass-notification system and devotes the bulk of its focus to tried and true approaches.

“The biggest chunk is on building systems, similar to fire-alarm systems,” says Richardson.

The code won’t be limited to internal systems. The second-largest area of focus in NFPA-72-2010 will be mass communications systems external to buildings — an area experts say is essential. In the Khobar Towers tragedy, evacuating the targeted building would not have been enough, as damage from the blast was expansive. For a mass notification to perform optimally in such a situation, it needs to instruct occupants not only to leave the building, but also where to go once they get outside.

Design is another focus of the code.

“The code needs to state for designers, for engineers, what is an appropriate type of notification given the application,” says Benne. “It should say, ‘For this type of area, here are the most important and appropriate notification locations and approaches.’”

For example, Benne explains, a strobe or alarm horn that may be effective in an office setting could be inappropriate on a manufacturing floor because of all the other sounds and lights in that environment.

Experts across the board note that an effective mass notification system is the product of a ground-up design process that begins with a thorough needs analysis and includes a strong emphasis on emergency procedures.

For that reason, explains Suski, “the code is going to require a risk assessment as the first step of the process.”

In addition, it will address the critical matter of communication.

“The code pertains primarily to the technology, but it does include instructions on messaging,” says Sako. “One of the recommendations was that people create scripting with the fundamental pieces of the messages they would send to building occupants in an emergency so that when the time comes the messaging can be done easily.”

Another issue the code will address: supervision of systems and wiring to ensure that any failures can be detected from central control panels.

“If you put in a mass notification system with speakers, you are relying on those speakers. What if you lose connectivity between the speakers and the control panel at the time of the emergency?” asks Suski. “You will pick up the microphone expecting it to work and your system won’t function. The wiring needs to be supervised so that a failure of that kind can be detected.”

Insiders report that the intelligibility of voice communications systems has been particularly challenging to address in the course of writing the new code because of the difficulty of objectively measuring intelligibility. Nonetheless, the new code will contain guidance on this issue. It’s too important to leave out, Richardson says, as an unintelligible emergency communications system is as good as useless.

“If you’ve ever had the experience of being in the airport and hearing an announcement that you can’t quite understand — that’s the problem the code needs to help avoid,” says Richardson.

Insiders anticipate a comprehensive document that addresses many of the pertinent issues in mass notification. Yet they acknowledge that the final version will require ongoing revision over time.

Distributed-recipient systems — the text-message notification systems many college campuses are currently exploring — is one area Richardson says he believes will continue to evolve.

“The concept is certainly raised in the standard, but that is one of the pieces that needs further work. There is not a large amount there on it,” he says.

Given the fast-changing nature of the mass notification industry, it seems likely that the code won’t address absolutely everything. Some observers are hoping there will still be room for innovation.

“There is a lot of very creative technology out there,” says Benne. “One concern is that they not be too narrow with the result of limiting the use of some methods, or there could definitely be technologies that are not permitted initially.”

For instance, a company where employees work at computer stations in cubicles might include in its mass notification plan a network pop-up system that sends information and instructions right to occupants’ computer screens. This type of system, while a good option for some applications, does not fall easily into the categories of mass notification that are typically mentioned.

Don’t Wait

The publication of the final version of NFPA-72-2010 is scheduled for the fall, perhaps as early as September 2009. The current draft, which is the product of a multistep process of review and revision, may still undergo significant changes before then. Proposed amendments run the gamut from the straightforward — the color requirements for mass-notification strobes, for instance — to the potentially complex. One such issue: the survivability of circuits during a fire.

“This has to do primarily with the circuits that are needed to make announcements in the event of an emergency and the amount of time they could survive through a fire,” says Richardson.

However, facility executives looking for guidance on mass notification needn’t wait to get a sense of what the code will include.

“I wouldn’t encourage anyone to wait to see what’s in the final version before they put something in place,” says Richardson. “If people want to see what the new requirements will entail, there is enough in the report on proposals and report on comments to get a sense of what will be there.”

Abigail Gray, a contributing editor for Building Operating Management, is a writer who specializes in facility issues. She is the former editor of EducationFM.

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  posted on 7/2/2009   Article Use Policy

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