Emergency communications systems not mainstream—yet

Regulations and social media may quicken ECS buy-in
Thursday, March 26, 2015

YARMOUTH, Maine—Providers and integrators of emergency communication systems (ECS) face a number of challenges when trying to establish or grow markets: It’s not cheap to expand a fire alarm system into an ECS. Private companies are not required by law to have multi-faceted ECS or mass notification systems (MNS). And it’s difficult to get excited about a security system designed for worst-case scenarios that nobody really wants to think about.

Some ECS developers remain undeterred. Campus shootings and domestic terrorism not only create awareness that we’re still trying to figure out new dangers in a new world, but each of these events present new logistical problems based on the uniqueness of the setting—and the unpredictability of human behavior. These problems, say security insiders, require solutions that even advanced fire alarm systems can’t provide.

And then there’s the social media factor. Having your organization out in front of critical information in a life-or-death situation makes more sense than having your employees and outsiders trading unfiltered, unconfirmed facts coming and going from all different directions.

“What comes to mind is getting people to leave,” said Loren Schreiber, Farenhyt fire alarm product manager at Silent Knight, a subsidiary of Honeywell. “You people just ignore them. Nobody moves. What saves lives is getting people out of the building. If people get used to nuisance alarms, they don’t get out of the building. When people hear a voice, they pay attention.

“There are other situations [calling for more than a fire alarm],” Schreiber said. “Chemical spills that call for evacuation. Now we can get more specific. The information [through verbal, email, text, phone calls] tells people what to do.”

An in-house message from an employee within an organization during an emergency, despite the best of protocols and polices, may be delivered by an untrained person who is frightened, Schreiber said. “In tense situations, you may not have clear and concise information,” he said. “Now you can have a customized answer that is specific to the situation, clear and concise.”

Templates for these situations, unfortunately, happen in real time, with tragic consequences.

“The trends in education and military bases [for ECS] were created by the Virginia Tech situation,” said Justin Siller, senior manager of access control and fire group at research group IHS. That tragic shooting in 2007, he said, made obvious the need to bring ECS to new levels, or in some cases installing it for the first time. 

Paul Vautour, senior product marketing manager at SimplexGrinnell, also referenced the Virginia Tech shootings, which resulted in 32 deaths and 17 wounded people by one gunman in separate attacks two hours apart.

“When this whole thing started with Virginia Tech, a lot of customers turned to us,” Vautour said. “We were doing ECS, but on a building-to-building basis.” Although in many of these cases the buildings were not connected, “they turned to us because we already had some infrastructure. We could link with the [campus] network. We had some systems linked together. … We integrated with other pieces as we needed to.”

When life returns to relative normalcy in the wake of a tragedy, the need to make consistent, predictable use of an ongoing expense line item also becomes obvious. End users need a return on their investment when the best of circumstances—no life-threatening emergencies—occur. 

Jared Bickenbach, analyst for access control, fire and security at IHS, and Schreiber of Silent Knight are addressing those challenges.

“The end user sometimes is either skeptical or doesn’t understand uses of mass notification systems to their business on a daily basis,” Bickenbach said. Multiple uses of MNS and ECS for day-to-day applications exist, but as it is with many facets of the physical security business, education plays a key role.

“Everyone has IT at their company,” Bickenbach said. If you have an IT outage, your ECS system can automatically notify people. “It’s not blasting out, it’s targeted messaging,” he said.

Education institutions can send out email alerts or text alerts that are “branded,” notifying students of roads closed, events happening—using the school’s logo, icon or mascot image.

Today’s software offers two-way communication, but on a targeted basis.

The city of Boston, hit with record-breaking snow and cold temperatures throughout February—along with power outages and a public transportation crisis—was an effective case study where “schools will send messages that could elicit responses, ” Bickenbach said.

“These are targeted lists of individuals,“ noted Siller, a colleague of Bickenbach at IHS. “Two-way is very targeted.”

Taking note of the criticisms levied at Boston’s public transit communications efforts during the series of storms, Paul Vautour said the MBTA’s heavy reliance on text messages validates the need for multi-faceted technology for notification.

The adaptation of emergency alerts to non-emergency daily notifications for private and public institutions should not be difficult, the industry experts said. Nonetheless, penetration into the private sector remains a challenge.

Currently, Schreiber said, reliable vertical markets include education facilities, the hospitality industry, government agencies, military installations, residential apartments, public-sector buildings with occupancy of 1,000 or more, theaters and churches, but not so much large corporations because “normally, if it not required by code, they’re not usually going to do it.‘’

In some cases, he said, high-rise buildings are subject to international building codes due to terrorist threats. That goes for open mall areas with 50,000 or more square feet, and educational facilities with more than 30 people. Still, “When you talk about office buildings, a lot of them only do what’s required by code,” Schreiber said.

“It’s very difficult to get commercial companies to sign up,” Bickenbach said. “They are not regulated” in terms of MNS requirements. The security industry, he said, needs to identify “continuing purposes, with the overriding factor being emergency preparation.”

Part of the problem with private industry market penetration, said Bob Kaczmarek, a NOTIFIER systems distributor for Firetron, based in Houston, Texas, is that “On existing buildings, the initial concern would be cost” for establishing MNS or ECS.

“It’s easier to sell systems from the ground up in a new project, rather than retrofit an old system,” Kaczmarek said.

Market dynamics in Houston are different, he said. Houston being an oil town, safety is always a concern. “Houston revolves around the oil industry, ’’ Kaczmarek said. Haliburton is one of Firetron’s big clients.

Unfortunately, “It’s really going to get tough, with the drop in oil prices” to sell some oil companies ECS if they have not been inclined to do move in that direction at this point, he said.

The most active vertical markets these days, Kaczmarek said, are hospitals and schools, K-12. “We have had not as much luck with the college industry,” he said.

On the other hand, Kaczmarek sees changes in the regulatory landscape opening doors for providers and installers of emergency communications systems. “We are going to see people spend more money on evacuation procedures and MNC,” he said, due to revisions by the International Building Code, which is requiring more and more measures that look and sound like MNC and ECS.

“Now people are looking at fire alarm systems differently,” Kaczmarek said. “Fire alarm systems were a sacred cow. The new wave is going to be, ‘I can give [customized alerts] for a tornado, a hurricane or a bomb scare.’ ”

“Now, with voice activation, the walls surrounding the sacred cows are coming down,” Kaczmarek said. According to international codes, he said, “You have to have work evacuation plans. It’s mandated.”

Cities, towns and counties are beginning to adapt and amend portions of the IBC for their own regulatory framework—a trend that could shift the thinking of businesses reluctant to install emergency communication systems.

Businesses don’t like being told what to do by government agencies, but the mandates may be more palatable when they originate from industry groups. Over the past five years, said Loren Schreiber, “What’s different is that local jurisdictions are starting to enforce the 2010 codes [set by the National Fire Protection Agency, which are updated every three years]. “They’re starting to catch up.