Tricked out voice Evacuation

Mass notification systems: military leads, private sector next in line
 - 
Sunday, April 1, 2007

Mass notification system" was not a common term among fire manufacturers in the year 2000. Today, however, it's something of a buzzword. Mass notification systems are currently mainly used in military installations, but experts expect demand to proliferate in the private sector and this market segment to continue to grow.
"We see high demand within military facilities today," said Steve Hein, GE Security's vice president, global and fire and communication systems. "We see chemical and nuclear facilities, places of high risk, on the horizon and it's my contention that ultimately it will find its way into commercial establishments. Just the way a fire alarm is now required before you can get a certificate of occupancy, mass notification systems may be required," he added.
Healthcare facilities and colleges and universities are verticals that Todd Shearer, SimplexGrinnell's market development manager, mass notification systems, considers growth areas.
So what is a mass notification system? Fire manufacturers will tell you on a basic level, it's simply a re-packaged, suped-up, tricked-out voice evacuation system. "It's a new name, old idea," Shearer said. "Mass notification started out being a personnel-alerting system for the military."
A Department of Defense investigation into the 1996 terrorist attack on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, found a deficient communications system, Shearer explained. This led DoD to come up with its Unified Facilities Criteria in May of 2002, which defined the requirements for what came to be known as a mass notification system.
The DoD leaned heavily on the National Fire Protection Association in creating the first UFC. And NFPA codes currently include some language about mass notification.
"That's what the NFPA is working on right now, defining what mass notification is: the supervision, battery backup, how robust should it be, how much redundancy. I think the industry gravitated to using fire alarm products [for mass notification] because a lot of that is already built into fire systems," said Rodger Reiswig, SimplexGrinnell's director of industry relations.
Indeed, the NFPA at its annual conference in June will feature a "spotlight session" by NFPA's Mass Notification Task Group, which has been preparing proposed code changes for the next edition of NFPA 72.
Scott Schneider, product manager, voice systems for Siemens, said more education--along the lines of the NFPA session--is needed. "It would be nice for a few companies who may be competitors or have complementary products to do a seminar together [at an industry trade show]."
Lee Richardson, NFPA senior electrical engineer noted that the work of this task force is important because "fire alarm systems are becoming more and more of a universal kind of thing, so correlation is a huge issue."
"The biggest change in the code was a provision that allows mass notification to override fire alarm systems." This is necessary because fire alarms generally mean evacuation, whereas mass notification may involve multiple instructions such as some floors staying put or relocating to a certain area.
A new version of the UFC was expected to be released in March. Shearer and Reiswig from SimplexGrinnell, Heins of GE, other fire manufacturers and the NFPA were all involved in different ways with the creation of the new UFC, which will recommend that a mass notification system be combined with the fire alarm system.
Fire systems are particularly well-suited to be adapted or combined with mass notification systems for several reasons. The first, Shearer pointed out, is that combining systems will save money. Jim Kimpel, product manager for Honeywell's Gamewell-FCI, points out that fire alarm codes already specify wiring, supervision and testing. And, "the people who respond are the same people as fire ... and they know how to operate fire alarm equipment so it makes sense to incorporate mass notification systems into the fire alarm," he said.
The fact that the circuits are all supervised, including the speaker circuits, is critical. "So if there's a problem, you get a trouble signal and it actually calls out with a digital communicator requiring service," Kimpel said.
Shearer said that unsupervised speakers were a problem at the Pentagon when it was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Pentagon personnel used a public address system after the attack. "They were picking it up and making announcements, but no one heard any of the messages and [those making the announcements] didn't know if messages were going out or not," he said. "They literally had marines running around telling people how to get out and to evacuate." This would not happen with a supervised speaker circuit.
SimplexGrinnell is currently involved with "thousands of mass notification systems in hundreds of locations." As the new standards and codes are adopted and awareness of mass notification grows, "there will be steady growth in this market," Shearer predicted, especially in facilities that have campus environments and the need to give multiple instructions to groups of people. The systems are also useful (and older versions have been used for years) for natural hazards such as tornados.
Components these systems might incorporate include HVAC systems, manufacturers say, to turn ventilation systems on or off. "They include cell phone or PDA activation," said Shearer. "One project I worked on had an e-blast, an Intranet system that could put a message on every computer in the building." Components can be added "via RF or different ways, fiber, copper. Eventually it's going to be on the Internet and satellite."
There's investigation into enabling basic home smoke detectors with receivers that could notify homeowners to tune into a radio or television station in the case of emergency, SimplexGrinnell's Reiswig said.
Gamewell's Kimpel said systems will be IP-based in the future. He said he's had inquiries from engineering firms asking about doing a whole school district, for instance. "If I have a town that has a tornado coming towards it," said Kimpel, "each individual school has to be called and all have to pull their own pull stations or activate their systems. Well, it's going get to a point where a school district, a central office, can hit the whole district from one location, and just do it over the Internet and have their systems activate."
As systems move into the private sector, Kimpel believes fire integrators are poised to take advantage of this new market because they already understand the basic technology involved.