Do In-Depth Evaluation to Plan Mass Notification System

  December 2, 2014

To get to the point where you are effectively communicating with a mass notification system, experts recommend a comprehensive, in-depth evaluation process of what happens in your facilities on a daily basis, who is in the buildings, and how they can most efficiently be informed when necessary. But there are other considerations as well, including infrastructure and staff training to make sure the system is operated correctly.

Fire alarm systems manufactured before the NFPA 72 code change are generally not going to work as an element of a mass notification system, so the choices are to either replace those older fire panels or have a stand-alone mass notification system in place. (That major change to the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code in 2010 allowed, for the first time, for mass notification systems to use the fire alarm system to communicate.)

"A lot of the older (fire) systems may not have been even meeting the fire alarm requirements," specifically when it comes to audibility and intelligibility, says Chris Jelenewicz, engineering program manager, Society of Fire Protection Engineers. "A lot of times it's best to just start from the beginning and do it right," he says, singling out college campuses as facilities that are in many cases leading the way in establishing best practices.

Kennesaw State University faced the question of how to handle older infrastructure as it put its overall mass notification system in place, says Bob Lang, chief security officer. Like many colleges and universities, Kennesaw State uses multiple layers of mass notification, including text messages, email alerts, desktop notifications, and voice communication through loudspeakers.

A few years ago, the university investigated some "red Easy Button" systems that would have performed multiple functions at the push of a button, says Lang, but the cost for the systems themselves was prohibitive. The university would have gone from spending roughly $44,000 a year to $200,000, and that didn’t even include the cost of updating older fire panels to models that could support mass notification.

That cost caused the university to ask exactly what it wanted from a mass notification system, which is a question that too often goes unanswered when facility managers are evaluating options.

"What we were trying to accomplish was dropping the amount of time it took to actually make the notification, and what we were realizing was we could probably save 30 seconds, but pay another $150,000, so it didn't make sense," Lang says.

When evaluating existing and planned infrastructure for a mass notification system, keep that "what are we trying to accomplish?" question in mind, because it can help sharpen the focus of a list of capabilities from a wish list to a practical plan for what your facility really needs. Speed is important, of course, but will saving that 30 seconds be worth an extra $150,000 a year?


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