Voice evacuation systems go digital, branch out

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Thursday, June 1, 2006

When there's an emergency, how do you get people to evacuate a building in an orderly fashion or, alternately, stay where they are and await further instruction? According to a group of fire industry manufacturers, the answer lies in harnessing the power of the human voice.
"Studies have shown that if you instruct people in a clear and authoritative manner, then they will do what they're told," said Peter Binkley, owner of Evax Systems, a manufacturer of emergency communications systems.
Particularly in a smoky room, horns and other signals can confuse people. "When information is imparted in a spoken voice, people tend to pause, listen and take heed," said Jeff Hendrickson director of marketing of Honeywell's Silent Knight.
Voice evacuation has evolved considerably over the last 25 years, from simple public-address-type systems to robust networked units suitable for multi-building campuses.
The fire industry has taken the lead on the development, but a number of factors--better pricing, increased understanding of its effectiveness, and the support of code-making entities such as the National Fire Protection Association, and more recently, the Department of Defense with its Unified Facilities Criteria--has led to the use of voice evacuation technology well beyond the fire industry to uses as mass notification systems for alerting and instructing people in the case of a tornado, chemical spill or, potentially, a terrorist attack.
In the future, says Bob Butchko, manager of field support and applications for Siemens Building Technologies, organizations may use the technology on a scale unheard of today: to notify people located around the globe of an event.
How does your basic voice evacuation system work? Binkley notes that a "fire doubles in intensity every 90 seconds," so a voice evacuation system gets the process of moving people to safety underway before the fire officials arrive.
"With a high-rise building, the voice evacuation will generally send a pre-recorded message to the floor of the incident, the floor above and the floor below, instructing occupants to evacuate. It sends a separate message to other floors alerting occupants to the fact that an incident has occurred and to wait for further instructions," explained Nick Martello, director of marketing for Fire Lite of Honeywell. One of several Honeywell voice evacuation brands, Fire Lite deals with more basic systems.
Once on site, fire officials can override the prerecorded messages--sometimes, depending on the system, from a remote command center--and deliver further specific instructions.
"Back in the 1980s, the prerecorded message was on a cassette tape, now it's all on a digital message chip. They're much more reliable than they used to be," said Richard Robert, a product manager for System Sensor, which produces the speakers for voice evacuation systems.
Today, messages are customized and sometimes in more than one language.
Binkley said the voice evacuation concept stemmed from two well known Las Vegas fires: the November 1980 MGM Hotel fire and the Hilton Hotel fire which occurred 90 days later.
Eighty-five people died in the MGM fire. There were far fewer casualties in the Hilton fire (eight), due to a quick-thinking fire chief who knew that the immediate danger was guests succumbing to smoke inhalation in hallways and stairwells
When the fire department arrived at the Hilton fire, television crews were set up outside the hotel. The fire chief instructed hotel personnel to call guests and instruct them to turn on their televisions, Binkley explained. "Then he commandeered the television trucks and got on the air and told people to block their doors and not to leave their rooms," he said. It was a makeshift voice evacuation system.
The NFPA soon began incorporating voice systems into code. NFPA 72 requires voice evacuation systems in all high-rise structures and areas of assembly, such as churches and auditoriums, with a capacity of 300 people or more.
After September 11, 2001, the Department of Defense came out with its Unified Facilities Criteria, specifying that military and related facilities have mass notification systems. Since the fire industry has expertise in this area, these specifications have translated into more business for companies like Cooper Wheelock.
"We think we'll see continued use of voice in conjunction with sound," said Debbie Cohen, manager of marketing communications for Cooper Wheelock.
In hopes of "correlating the systems to allow one to work with the other," the NFPA will include mass notification language in the upcoming annex to NFPA 72, said Lee Richardson, senior electrical engineer with NFPA.
Binkley estimated that voice evacuation systems make up about 10 percent of the market today. Prices have come down quite a bit. "Typically voice adds 15-20 percent to the cost of the system," he said.
Bruce Fraser, director of industry relations at SimplexGrinnell, noted the importance of intelligibility. "Initially, the idea was to have a fire alarm that was loud, but the strategy has changed. There has to be intelligibility, not just volume. You have to have more speakers that are closer together and closer to the people."
He said that places that have public address systems will eventually be required to integrate with fire systems and "the circuits and amplification is going to have to meet requirements that are more stringent to make them more reliable than exist in public address systems and wiring today."
John Weaver, director of marketing for Honeywell's Gamewell-FCI, said the biggest changes recently have been with technology. "Computers are so integrated now so the systems have fewer circuits," he said. It used to be that "you had 20-30-40 different circuits going to a board; now you have a single pair of wires from the boards. The system is more software driven," he added.
"The trend is definitely toward more sophisticated design, flexibility and integrated circuits," Weaver said.
Where's the market going? "I see intelligent voice evacuation combined with intelligent fire detection ... [With all the systems working together], you can determine based on algorithms how the fire is spreading and then can play a message that tells people how to evacuate," said Nick Martello of Fire Lite.
Butchko, of Siemens Building Technologies, said the demand for voice evacuation "grew out of the technology being available and people trying to combine technology in large systems." The technology that the fire industry has brought to market is attractive to those interested in mass notification because it's "heavily supervised," meaning that if there's a problem, such as a disconnected circuit, the panel is notified. And, the system can generally still operate if there's a disconnection, he said.
Butchko said the impact of mass notification requirements are just starting to be felt in the industry.
In the future, companies may want to notify people worldwide using phone, Internet or email. "This will expand way beyond what we consider today with the voice evacuation systems," he said. "Now we're trying to realize how do we do it? How do we tie in Blackberries, pagers, radios, computers, Internet, Intranet" to enable an organization that has multiple locations to notify everyone from one command center?
Systems will be able to notify people around the globe simultaneously, or in stages, or send slightly different message to people in one location (similar to the way different messages are sent to different floors of high rise building with current systems), he surmised.
"This is a new, exciting episode in the industry, and the fire industry is taking the lead," Butchko said.