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8 Steps to a Successful Emergency Communication System

Following these steps will reduce the potential for errors, omissions, or misinformation being provided to occupants who are desperately looking for direction in unsafe or insecure conditions.

By Jon M. Evenson  

Emergency communication systems (ECS) have evolved over the last 15 years. Technology enables facility managers to reach occupants before, during, and after emergencies through various methods, including speakers, video boards, desktop, email, and text. ECS provide organizations the ability to identify, communicate with, and direct their occupants on what to do based on the emergency situation, severity, and location. Although the means of communicating have expanded over time, the need for the proper planning, authorization, and management of ECS remains essential. In fact, it can make or break a response's success.

To effectively utilize an ECS, critical steps need to be taken to confirm that the information, process, and strategy for communicating with occupants are clearly defined. Doing so will reduce the potential for errors, omissions, or misinformation being provided to occupants who are desperately looking for direction in unsafe or insecure conditions. Critical areas that need to be addressed include pre-emergency planning and coordination, and operational response coordination and management.

1. System design planning. Even before an ECS is installed, the proper planning and design need to be completed to confirm that the system's operations and functions align with the needs, operations, and infrastructure for the organization or site. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Alarm and Signaling Code (NFPA 72) provides outstanding guidance on how an ECS should be designed, installed, and commissioned.

Each ECS is required, by NFPA 72, to be designed in accordance with a comprehensive risk analysis. The risk analysis should identify how the ECS should be designed and outline what threats and risks the system should address. In addition, the risk analysis should identify the priorities for messaging and indicate whether alternate methods of communications are required due to environmental or other conditions that could reduce the system’s operational capabilities.

Facility managers must be involved at all stages of the design to ensure that the system that is installed is the same system that was designed and approved. Too many times, facility managers rely on contractors and others to design, install, and commission an ECS. If facility managers are not involved throughout the process, there is a significant chance that the system will not be installed in 100 percent compliance with the approved design approach and documentation.

2. Emergency management planning. As the ECS is being designed, facility managers need to review their current emergency management programs to identify how the ECS will be utilized before, during, and after an emergency. In addition, emergency management planning requires specific strategies on how the ECS will be utilized, what messaging will be provided, and who is authorized to utilize the ECS. As the emergency management plan is being reviewed, specific attention should be paid to how each emergency situation may rely on the ECS to support the identification, communication, and coordination of response efforts based on the nature and severity of the emergency.

In the planning review process, the determination to use or not use an ECS is based on the nature, operational strategies, or other issue that reduces the need for the ECS. Situations where the ECS may not be the primary response would include situations where information may not be readily verifiable, or would not be suitable to communicate over the ECS. For example, during bomb threats or suspicious packages, the last thing we want to do as response planners is to disseminate a message stating, “There is a bomb in the building,” through the ECS.  That type of messaging would create a higher level of panic with occupants and add more stress to the response.  The use of the ECS before, during, and after an event relies on a case-by-case review of the specific emergency and determination of how the ECS may benefit the overall response. 

3. Message planning and authorization. The most important aspects of the ECS should be pre-determined and authorized before the system is installed and commissioned. Emergency messages should be developed prior to the initial use of the ECS to allow the organization to review the information that is being provided and confirm that the messages have been reviewed and approved. Otherwise, the system's ability to push messages may be delayed due to the time it takes to have the key stakeholders authorize messages in critical times. 

The timing of messaging is critical during active assailant emergencies. In a review of recent events, most have identified that when messaging has been delayed, the impact on the building or site increased. One example where messages were not predetermined, and the authorization process created a delay in communication, was during the Virginia Tech shooting. It was reported that it took over 30 minutes to provide the initial emergency messaging to students, increasing the potential impact of the emergency on students, faculty, and staff.  

It is important to develop predetermined templates to support the critical events that could adversely affect an organization or site. The appropriate templates should be identified through the risk analysis as part of the system design process. There are various methods and strategies for providing the proper information in emergency messages, but no matter how an organization develops a message, it needs to be straightforward, easy to understand, and provide specific steps that should be taken by the recipient.

When developing messages, organizations need to put themselves in the place of the typical employee or occupant. The information that is provided needs to be easy for the average person to understand and not overwhelm them. During an emergency, occupants will be stressed and have a higher level of concern for their personal safety. Messages that they receive need to be short and sweet and provide critical steps that should be taken immediately.

4. System testing and training. As the ECS is installed and commissioned, key stakeholders need to be involved to confirm that the system is operational in the manner that was intended for the organization and/or site. When commissioning the system, each element of the ECS needs to be tested to confirm that the system operates properly and provides the audible and intelligible messages through the designed speakers and other communication methods. In addition, operators that are expected to operate the ECS should be trained and tested on the system’s operation and coordination.

Each operator should be trained in all aspects of the ECS and how the system operates. The last thing you want is to find out that the operator doesn’t understand the system when an emergency is occurring. During the training and testing, operators should be provided specific information and directions on when the ECS should be utilized, how to utilize the system, and what to do after the system has been activated.

In addition, all key stakeholders who are responsible for response efforts and management for the organization or site should be trained and tested on how they will coordinate response efforts in the event they are part of the response team making determination on how to respond to an emergency situation.  Training should include both classroom and role-playing exercises to give key stakeholders the ability to understand and feel how the ECS will be utilized before, during, and after an emergency.

Throughout the design, installation, and commissioning process, organizations need to take precautions to confirm that the design, operation, and response strategies have been properly thought through, implemented, and tested. This process will reduce the potential failure of the ECS and/or response coordination when the ECS is needed during an emergency.

5. As the emergency is reported. If an emergency is reported, the first step for use of the ECS is to confirm the nature, location, and severity of the emergency. This validation process must be completed quickly. Once that has happened, the operator responsible for the ECS should have the critical information needed to determine what aspects of the ECS should be activated to disseminate information to affected areas. It is at this time that all the planning, training, and testing pay off. If the operator has been properly trained and authorized, and understands his or her role in the emergency response, he or she will understand how to activate the ECS and what should be communicated.

6. Once the ECS is activated. Once the ECS operator has the critical information, the next step is to activate the system and distribute the emergency information.  During this process, the determination needs to be made to identify the best method to communicate the information.  This determination is made by an operator who is well-versed and authorized to coordinate the activation of the ECS, or the head of emergency management for the building or site.  

The determination on the method of messaging is critical and will require specific actions to be taken.  Is it a pre-recorded message, voice to text message, or a straight live message? 

7. After the ECS message is distributed. Once the ECS messaging has begun, the focus now moves to coordinating the initial response activities and supporting occupants who are directly affected by the emergency. During this process, the coordination of communication and response efforts is key to determining if additional emergency updates need to be provided through the ECS. Once the response process begins, the use of the ECS becomes a support mechanism that is utilized only when information has to be provided to those affected.

8. Upon arrival of the first responders. Once the first responders arrive on-scene, the organization needs to have clear strategies in place to support the transfer of command and direct the responders to the ECS head-end and emergency location. When responders arrive on-site, their main focus is to gain situational awareness and understand the current capabilities and emergency information that they can utilize to coordinate their operations. Once command has been transferred to the responders, the organization should focus on how the ECS and related systems (email, text, etc.) can support continued information flow to those affected by the emergency. These systems should be used to continue the information flow until the situation has been contained and operations have been restored.

During an emergency, lack of planning, management, or communication are the most likely points of failure in the way an organization responds to the incident. The efforts undertaken before the ECS is needed will help ensure that an organization and the system are ready to respond to any emergency, regardless of the type, location, and severity. Planning for the worst will allow organizations to be prepared for any type of situation.

Jon Evenson (jon@tripleesafety.com) is the owner of Triple E Safety Group and has more than 24 years of experience in safety and emergency management.

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  posted on 4/28/2020   Article Use Policy

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