All Flights Go

All Flights Go

Mass notification capabilities brought to Air Force 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons

All Flights GoSeveral miles outside Las Vegas, Nellis Air Force Base serves as the home and major training site for two historically significant flying units: the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons. During the Cold War, this group of highly-trained pilots flew an assortment of Russian-made MiG aircraft to decipher the actions of the Air Force’s potential enemies.

Post Cold War, some of the threats have changed, but the squadrons’ mission remains the same—to master the tactics of foreign air forces. The rising threat of terrorism targeted at highly-secure facilities, such as Nellis AFB, has posed a challenge in implementation of an effective mass notification solution. To provide guidelines for the design and installation of mass notification systems (MNS) on its military installations, the Department of Defense created Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC) document 4-021-01.

A Design Issue

The original project design was for an expansion to the existing 65th Aggressor Squadron (AGRS) facility to house the 64th AGRS squadron. However, during a site visit Nellis AFB fire inspectors noticed the common parapet wall had openings not compliant with International Building Code (IBC) and the DoD’s latest version of UFC 3-600-01: Fire Protection Engineering for Facilities. The height of the wall did not extend beyond the roof level and was not adequate to adhere to the four-hour separation requirement as stipulated by IBC, Section 705.6. This created the contiguous space requirement of integrating a fire alarm and MNS from two separate systems into one. In addition, the project was greatly complicated by the various security measures both squadrons use to protect secret information within a number of highly-secure areas that are physically protected and electronically isolated.

According to Lt. Col. Kevin Wilson of the 64th AGRS, the evolution of the squadrons’ facilities from separate structures to one building with a shared common wall posed a problem for the design of effective systems for fire alarms and mass notification.

“It was a unique situation in terms of the mission that our two squadrons do,” Wilson said. “At another Air Force base they probably wouldn’t operate as closely as the 64th and 65th .

“That was the real pain in the neck; we had to stay both within the letter and spirit of the law in terms of transmitting devices inside a secure area, yet we wanted to be able to get notices as well as mass notification messages to those working inside the security vault.”

Designing and installing one combination fire alarm and MNS that could work for two semi-separate structures would pose a challenge.

A Combined Solution

Preferred QC is a company that provides quality control management services to general contractors working with the government. The company’s president, Michelle Hanks, has worked with Nellis AFB on various projects for nearly a decade and consulted on the 64th and 65th Squadrons’ building project from start to finish.

“This was an Army Corps of Engineers design and they originally envisioned it as a standalone fire alarm system for each side,” Hanks said. “So if I pulled an alarm in the 64th side, it wouldn’t work on the 65th side. We knew right away that was an issue.”

Originally, the 65th consisted of separate systems for fire alarm and mass notification. The setup of the MNS also provided little day-to-day benefit, since the system was not user-friendly and access was greatly restricted for emergency use only. After less than a year in service, the original fire alarm system started to degrade.

“The existing system had a bad history of false alarms, initiating strobe alarms and even interrupting secure briefings. It also had relatively limited functionality compared to more modern systems,” said Brian Stuart, president of Aberdeen Technologies, a low-voltage systems integrator from the Las Vegas Valley.

“Aberdeen had said they could integrate the whole system as one,” Hanks said. “That seemed to be the best solution, namely taking out the old (systems) and putting in something entirely new for both facilities.”

Aberdeen Technologies recommended the old system be replaced with a Gamewell-FCI E3 Series combination fire alarm and mass notification system that serviced both buildings.

“That decision ended up resolving a lot of issues,” Brian Stuart said.

Multi-Purpose Communications

As the project advanced, Aberdeen Technologies had to integrate the systems protecting both squadrons to route emergency messages throughout the facility, while providing each side with control over routine messages.

“As it is presently configured, an alarm triggered by smoke, for example, would sound in both squadron areas, but management from moment to moment is controlled within each squadron,” Brian Stuart said.

Aberdeen’s field supervisor, Brendyn Stuart, and his team provided thorough instruction to squadron personnel on the operation of their new MNS.

“I gave them a key to the system and said this is how you use it, with warnings for intruders, weather conditions, evacuations, and so on,” Brendyn Stuart said.

When Brendyn Stuart explained the operation of the system’s microphone for live paging, a vast change in the squadrons’ attention was noted as they realized this could serve as a supplemental PA system for internal communications.

“Before you knew it, they were using it all the time,” Brendyn Stuart said.

Wilson credits the E3 Series’ paging feature for enabling the two squadrons to frequently share resources.

“The ability to use this mass notification system as a PA system to call people was really helpful in terms of efficiency,” Wilson said. “It enabled us to work together effectively, and in the long-term it really saved us manpower.”

“The idea of integrating the MNS into the squadrons’ daily routine will give confidence and ensure the proper use of the system in a real-world scenario, possibly eliminating or mitigating injuries or loss of life,” Brian Stuart said.

Monitoring and Networking Ingenuity

Two remote annunciators and six local operating consoles placed throughout the facility provide occupants and first responders—firefighters and police—immediate access to information and control of the entire fire alarm and MNS network.

Designed to meet the strict specifications of the UFC, each LOC from Gamewell- FCI is comprised of a network graphic annunicator (NGA), microphone and 16 programmable switches. The NGA allows users to view real-time system status and event information from the entire network on a touch-screen, LED display created to mimic the intuitive operation of an ATM. The microphone facilitates live-voice announcements while the LOC’s 16 switches can be programmed to either send out specific emergency notifications or to control which building zones/ areas receive notifications.

As Brian Stuart discovered, each squadron has a number of Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIFs) in which classified material is handled. To ensure electromagnetic isolation, each SCIF could only be connected to the “outside” world via fiber-optic technology, which had been a problem for the older fire alarm and MNS that ran their audio circuits on copper wire and other ad hoc solutions. The facility’s new E3 Series fire alarm and MNS requires only two strands of fiber-optic cable for both alarm signaling and audio, which satisfied the facilities’ security requirements and eliminated the mass of conduit and wire typically used to support two separate systems.

“The big splash is how it is structured, as a combined fire alarm and mass notification system,” Brian Stuart said. “It is networked using fiber interconnects that will penetrate into and out of those SCIF-rated areas. In addition to meeting security requirements, the use of fiber-optic cable also makes the system more resistant to catastrophic failure due to lightning strikes.”

Survivability, one of the UFC document’s essential qualities for a combined fire alarm/MNS such as this, is a result of the E3 Series’ distributed communications architecture.

“If the fiber was severed in one location, the alarms and messages will still travel through the network to where they are needed,” Brian Stuart said. “In fact, the routing of the fiber cable in a class-X, fully redundant fashion to serve both sides of the building actually provides better survivability, command and control. This is what true peer-to-peer systems architecture is all about.”

“I have never seen a building fire alarm or mass notification system with such sophistication, where it met our needs as far as the safety aspect, but also had the ability to let people communicate about other issues,” Wilson said. “I definitely think our experience should be shared, especially in terms of any kind of cross-mission design. We should all learn from this lesson.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Security Today.

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