The Layered Approach
Mass notification is not a brand-new concept in safety and security circles
- By Michael Zuidema
- Jul 01, 2015
With one recent study projecting the mass notification
market to be worth more than $6.4 billion
by 2018, it is obvious that more and more
institutions are turning toward a layered
approach to deliver emergency alerts. It’s a
prudent choice, since the odds of reaching
their intended audiences only increase with
multiple means of communication, and it’s an
approach that is especially crucial when it
involves a potentially dangerous situation.
Purchasing a security system with mass notification capabilities
might seem like an easy fix. One issue: now that you possess the ability
to quickly communicate with a large group of people, what can you do
to ensure that these notifications are being delivered in an effective
manner? Just because you have the power to reach large groups, doesn’t
mean you’re providing a quality message that’s useful or even practical.
It’s extremely important to understand all of the factors that go into
mass notification communication, such as the differences between
audio and visual messages and why that discrepancy matters, and what
all of that means in an emergency.
According to a Report
A report published in March by the Fire Protection Research Foundation
titled “Emergency Communication Strategies for Buildings” provided some guidelines on how to effectively broadcast messages
given the technological advances made in recent years and the
demands “to meet needs for emergency events other than fire, such
as security or natural catastrophe.”
As the report outlines, there are a variety of factors that can both
augment and hinder visual and audible warnings. Visual warnings, for
example, can be limited by location, visibility and message length.
Audible warnings, meanwhile, run the risk of being ignored or misunderstood
by the audience. That’s just one reason why the ability to
communicate via multiple means is the best way to reach as many
people as possible when time and safety are the two most important
factors, whether it’s an active shooter on a campus or a tornado bearing
down on a town.
Fortunately, a sophisticated mass notification system can cast a wide
net, both visually and audibly, via a wide array of sophisticated products,
including public address, blue light phones, fire panels, email,
text messaging, social media, digital signs and more. The next step is
learning how to effectively deploy those security tools to maximize
your reach and impact.
Here are seven key factors to consider with emergency communication:
Message/Alert. The Fire Protection Research Foundation report
makes a point to distinguish the purposes of an alert versus a warning
message. While an alert is meant to grab your initial attention during
an emergency, a warning message is intended to provide important
information for an appropriate response. Therefore, an alert has the
ability to disrupt the often mundane nature of everyday life and grab
people’s attention, whether it’s audible or visual, while the follow-up
warning message provides guidance. There are devices that only supply
alerts or messages, and others where an alert is part of the message.
Understanding these differences and how to respond accordingly
should be an essential part of an emergency operation plan, regardless
of the delivery method. The key is to provide alerts and messages that
both raise an appropriate level of urgency and that provide accurate
information about what to do and what is wrong.
Intelligibility. It’s easy to be loud, but it’s more important to be
understood. The ability to comprehend an emergency alert when it is
delivered is a key component of NFPA 72 Chapter 24 standards, which
reads, in part, “It is important to provide a distributed sound level with
minimal sound intensity variations to achieve an intelligible voice
message.” That means in addition to providing pertinent information,
organizations using public address speakers (both indoors and outdoors),
tone alerts and other audible broadcasts must pay careful
attention to speak in a voice and magnitude that can be easily understood.
Using a live voice can be particularly effective since messages
can be updated as needed and have the versatility to convey varying
levels of urgency.
Operational planning. Because emergencies rarely come with any
type of advance notice, it’s crucial to create base message templates
ahead of time for a variety of events—active shooters, severe weather
or chemical spills—with announcements tailored to the audience, scenario
and technology. This kind of forward thinking offers a number
of tangible benefits, including providing knowledge and instructions at
a much faster clip and reducing the institutional steps required for
emergency managers or supervisors during a crisis. Horrific incidents
in the past have proven how dangerous it can be when an emergency
plan isn’t in place. While you may always hope for the best, the reality
is you have to plan for the worst.
Human behavior. Organizations are forced to contend with the fickle
nature of human nature, which itself is being studied to determine
how to provide effective communication that will compel people to not
only pay attention, but respond appropriately during different stages of
an emergency. As the Fire Protection Research Foundation report
states, “… recent studies of human behavior in a variety of emergency
situations have increased awareness regarding the need for effective
communications before and during different stages of an emergency.”
Unfortunately, it’s become far too easy—and common—to ignore
emails and texts or think an alarm is simply a test or malfunction;
employing multiple channels is more likely to entice people to act swiftly.
Repeating those messages is useful to maintain a suitable level of
urgency and attention.
Redundancy. It’s imperative to push out multiple messages, not only
to increase the odds of reaching the largest possible audience, but to
provide updates and feedback as the situation changes. This can be
achieved through the use of multiple layers simultaneously, emphasizing
the seriousness of the situation amongst people and prompting the
appropriate reaction. For example, a 2013 study conducted by the University
of Texas at Austin titled “Using Multiple Channels and Sources
to Combat Noise and Escalate a Sense of Urgency” found that the most
effective way to increase awareness is to send multiple messages
through multiple channels.
“The reason why I think it has to be redundant today is that increasingly
we’re being hit with so many different messages through mobile
devices, through desktop computers, we have lots of different communication
channels,” Dr. Keri K. Stephens says in a YouTube video
supporting the study. “The challenge for organizations is when they
have a real emergency, something really important to communicate to
people; they need to be able to reach us.”
Unified systems. As software and technology continues to expand
and advance, it has become easier and easier for different products to
work together, which can be an indispensable asset when you are trying
to communicate during an emergency. Many locations already
have a disparate set of security devices, but those layers are significantly
strengthened when they work together, essentially creating a
single station that can be properly organized and prepared to respond.
Examples of integration include public address speakers with blue light
phones, incorporating video feeds into an emergency operation plan
and increasing fire panel functionality. This can offer organizations
additional cost savings and benefits through flexibility and the ability
to retrofit existing infrastructure.
Accountability. This may be one of the most overlooked, but vital,
pieces to the puzzle. When an emergency occurs, precious time cannot be
wasted determining who should send the message, what it should say,
where it should be delivered, etc. Time is far too critical to be figuring out
those roles on the fly. Instead, it’s imperative to have a plan in place, then
test it, obtain feedback, and consciously strive to make periodic updates
and improvements to provide the safest possible environment. That way,
when an emergency occurs, you are ready every time.
Mass notification can be an extremely useful emergency communication
solution for organizations looking to promote
an atmosphere of safety and security. But in order
to realize all of the potential benefits that exist, you
need to be proactive in determining the best way to
use this burgeoning technology.
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Security Today.