Mass 2.0 Notification
New-generation mass notification systems are going far beyond voice communication to include radio, computer networks, and mobile texting—and that’s just the start.
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2009
By Lisa Nadile
This past January, Kentucky was hit with an ice storm that knocked out power to 770,000 homes, many for nearly a week. The storm caused 36 deaths and was described by the Lexington Herald-Leader as "the most catastrophic natural disaster to hit Kentucky since the New Madrid earthquake of 1811."
The storm also affected 3,000 housing units in Fort Knox, a U.S. Army base so secure that the Treasury Department chose it to house its gold bullion depository. Fort Knox is also roughly the sixth-largest city in Kentucky, with hospitals, airfields, schools, housing, and more within its boundaries. Covering 120,000 acres (48,562 hectares) with a daytime population between 22,000 and 33,000, the base had only just begun to upgrade its massnotification system (MNS) beyond voice annunciation and radio use when the storm hit.
While base security was never at risk during the storm, the soldiers and their families were.
"All our main facilities that weren’t on generators lost power," says Fort Knox Fire Chief Marvin Gunderson. "We had 20,000 people within Fort Knox affected. We ended up setting up a complete disaster relief effort on the installation."
To make sure everyone on base knew where to go for help, Chief Gunderson activated the generator- and battery-backed MNS to broadcast warnings, give directions, and let residents know that the shelters were open and that they could use them if need be.
MNS is defined by the 2007 edition of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm Code®, as a system that provides "information and instructions, to people in a building, area site, or other space...using intelligible voice communications, visible signals, text, graphics, tactile, or other communications methods." Digital signs, strobe lights, and audio messages are all included in this type of system.
In the 2010 edition of NFPA 72, which will be renamed National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®, the MNS specifications have been moved from Annex E to a new Chapter 24, with the provisions for MNS specified in mandatory terms. This move reflects what Fort Knox and other leading MNS adopters have discovered: that mass notification systems work best when thought of, and built as, part of the fire alarm system, although NFPA 72 does not require them to be.
These cutting-edge adopters have also found that going beyond voice communication and using other communication methods—radio, computer networks, signage, even mobile texting—will become increasingly necessary as they roll out ever-wider-area MNS.
Because NFPA 72’s definition of MNS provides system designers with a wealth of options to meet the needs of specific sites, their choice of technology depends on knowing what is best for the building and its occupants. And as building owners discover what their systems can do, they often modify them to take advantage of their versatility. At Fort Knox, for example, the original plan begun several years ago to outfit high-risk buildings such as assembly, educational, defense, and health care occupancies with a state-of-the-art integrated fire alarm and MNS has morphed into a base-wide, wide-area Gamewell-FCI installation that will eventually include thousands of buildings.
"The new MNS isn’t installed installation-wide," Chief Gunderson says. "We’ve done a hundred buildings right now out of thousands, but we’re nibbling away at it monthly, weekly."
All of Fort Knox’s MNS systems are tied into the base fire alarm systems, which consist of different types of detection and activation devices, including smoke and heat detectors, pull boxes, and waterflow switches, and different types of notification devices, such as bells, horns, and speakers that provide intelligible voice messages. The system also allows the base’s occupants to initiate an alarm themselves using local operating consoles placed at various locations. Control panels are linked to the central monitoring station via radio transmitters, which tie into the central station to allow remote mass notification, according to Chief Gunderson. The central station can automatically notify base personnel of a fire through the fire alarm system either on a building-only or area-wide basis.
"Through the center, we can activate prerecorded messages or give live voice from the center or any other location using radio/phone patches. This comes in handy to communicate inside a facility from an incident command post, for example," he says.
During the original design process, the chief expected that, when used, the mass notification system would be activated for fire 99 percent of the time, followed by extreme weather conditions and terrorism. It has the built-in ability to announce changes in homeland security threat conditions and to direct hazmat evacuations or shelter-in-place procedures, something critical for a site with a railroad that occasionally carries hazardous materials running through it. The systems can also deliver real-time messages from the incident command control center or through the chief’s mobile phone.
While the MNS was ready to go before the January storm struck, Gunderson never expected to test the worst-case scenario before the system was fully installed. Its use during the storm was outside the system’s original scope, but, to the chief’s relief, it worked well and survived the challenge admirably.
Crucial to its success were the back-up batteries NFPA 72 requires for MNS.
"Those things were critical. We had some telephone problems and other communication problems, but with the 72-hour backup, we never lost the [MNS]," says Gunderson. Although NFPA 72 does not require a 72-hour backup, Fort Knox decided to go with that time frame, and Gunderson is glad they did.
Other government and military installations are also modifying their MNS installations to include new features. Among them are Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the Pentagon, which are installing massive, wide-area systems. ORNL’s plan evolved from voice communication across campus to a multimedia communications system, while the Pentagon decided it would best be served by increasing its automated MNS-led emergency evacuation technology as it integrated its wide-area system with that of Arlington County, Virginia.
Like many other facilities across the United States, these three large installations have found that they need mass notification systems tightly integrated with their existing fire alarm systems that
can grow as their building environments change, providing more information more clearly to more people. And they have found that the technology is there to fill that need.
Oak Ridge: Expanding an existing MNS
The MNS at Fort Knox is still being installed, but even a completed system may need modification, as ORNL Fire Chief Michael Masters discovered.
Established in 1943 as a secret atomic energy research center producing plutonium for the Manhattan Project, the laboratory is tucked away in the hills of Tennessee, where it has grown into the Department of Energy’s largest science and energy laboratory. The highly secure laboratory, which sits on 4,470 acres (1,809 hectares), accelerates neutrons, invents new nanotechnology, and pursues "national security." The campus supports about 5,000 employees and subcontractors during the day and receives another 2,000 visitors each month.
Although top secret experiments of Manhattan Project proportions are no longer conducted at ORNL, its researchers still need clear notification in the event of an emergency, as Masters discovered on February 19, when the central dispatch center received a nonemergency, low-level alert that a trace amount of gas had been released in a cleanroom. As responders moved to follow up on the alarm, a 911 phone call came into the emergency dispatch center notifying it that the building’s toxic gas alarm was sounding. The ORNL fire department dispatched a full response.
When the responders arrived at the cleanroom, the facility manager told them that hydrogen peroxide used in a cleaning process had set off the alarm. The type of alarm was not consistent with what the facility manager said, so they took precautionary measures while verifying the nature of the alarm. The MNS was activated, using the public address system to instruct everyone to shelter in place. Personnel in the affected facility were instructed to evacuate, and people in nearby buildings were instructed to shelter in place.
Shortly after the MNS was activated, the phone calls began.
"Why can the firemen be outside, and I need to stay inside?" one caller asked the emergency dispatcher.
"Why am I still in here?" said another, just minutes after the shelter-in-place request was announced.
Clearly, ORNL’s mass notification system had not provided the facility’s personnel with enough information. Masters knew he needed to answer their questions. In fact, he knew that giving the people of ORNL more information during an emergency than a siren or a primary voice communication alert could provide was his new priority.
Currently, ORNL is installing a wide-area remote notification (W.A.R.N.) system, which allows employees to sign up to receive emergency notifications over the phone and mobile phone, as a text message, or as an email. The system can be activated over the Internet outside the dispatch center if the center is compromised. Locally, that brings the number of alarm systems to three: the fire alarm system, the public address system, and the W.A.R.N. system.
The Pentagon: Going loud
Unlike ORNL, the Pentagon is less interested in individual notification, but the organization realizes it must lead in the field of MNS because of the sensitive nature of its work. As demonstrated on September 11, 2001, its people—its invaluable asset—are a prime target.
The number of buildings and areas that need information quickly during an emergency is simply too vast for individual text messaging or mobile phone calls. The building itself contains 6 million square feet (557,418 square meters) of office space, making it the largest office building in the world. Another 3 to 4 million square feet (278,709 to 371,612 square meters) of leased space comprising as many as 180 or more properties, many of them high-rises, spreads across four jurisdictions in Arlington County, according to William Fries, Office of the Pentagon Fire Marshal. The Pentagon alone has 17 miles (27 kilometers) of corridors and can
confuse even those who work there, says Fries, adding that some of its leased buildings are also very complex.
Currently, the Pentagon itself has two basic systems of mass notification: a voice-activated public address system and computer-based notification that provides two levels of warning.
"We have a warning, and then we have an alert," says Fries. The warning automatically pops up as a yellow box with text on computer screens throughout the building. The alert system takes over the entire computer screen, turning it red, and provides an audible warning.
With memories of 9/11 and the 2005 anthrax scare at the Pentagon’s remote mail delivery facility still fresh, however, the Pentagon Force Protection Agency (PFPA), the civilian defense agency that protects the Pentagon, has begun working with Arlington County to tap into the county’s mass notification system using a wide audiovisual emergency system (WAVES). WAVES, composed of wireless-networked, high-powered loud-speaker arrays from Cooper Notification, can be used for large emergencies, such as a terrorist attack or severe weather.
To address smaller threats, such as localized fires, PFPA is also looking at other new technologies under development.
"Some of the new technologies that are being put in will provide us with even greater sophistication and better ways to respond to fire incidents and like events, as well as chemical, radiological, biological, nuclear, and explosive [CRBNE] events," says Paul Benda, director of the PFPA CBRNE Directorate. "In the next two years, the Pentagon will enhance its internal MNS program, putting chemical, biological, and additional smoke sensors throughout the entire building."
PFPA is also linking the Pentagon’s current technology, which models internal airflow to predict where unsafe contaminants will go, with an evacuation guidance model that can calculate the fastest way out of the building, showing areas people should avoid and routing them around the contaminated region, says Benda.
The enhanced MNS will give people real-time escape routes.
"We’re actually looking at installing LED lights along the ceiling that will move in the direction you should go—kind of like runway lights," he says.
Whether it’s moving strobe lights, audio directions, or more, Benda says you’ll see it first at the Pentagon.
Three different facilities with three different approaches to the design and installation of mass notification systems. The overarching goal of any such system is to provide information and instruction to building occupants using intelligible voice communications and, possibly, visible signals, text, graphics, tactile, or other communication methods, according to NFPA 72. But the way these components apply in one facility may not be the way the apply at another facility.
Fort Knox chose to concentrate on prerecorded messages and live voice instructions from it central monitoring station or any other location using radio/phone patches or the chief’s mobile phone. ORNL chose a wide-area remote notification system that allows employees to sign up to receive emergency notifications over the phone and mobile phone, as a text message, or as an email. And the Pentagon chose a wide audiovisual emergency system composed of wireless-networked, high-powered loud-speaker arrays to deal with large emergencies and an evacuation guidance model that can calculate the fastest way out of the building to deal with smaller emergencies at the facility.
How you choose which direction your MNS will take depends on your specific site, your specific occupants, and your specific challenges.
Lisa Nadile is associate editor of NFPA Journal.
How to Design a Successful MNS
The key to a successful MNS installation is doing your homework, says Fort Knox Fire Chief Marvin Gunderson. When building a system from scratch, be sure to interview the installer and vendor closely. Real-life on-site demonstrations, proof of code compliance, and access to current customers are also critical.
MNS systems should be able to integrate with your fire alarm and HVAC systems. If your vendor and installer say they can’t or don’t know how, be sure to bring in your information technology staff and really work on a solution, says Paul Benda, director of the Pentagon’s PFPA CBRNE Directorate. "Don’t take no for an answer," he says.
"Remember that these systems affect the building," says the Pentagon’s William Fries. "They affect building management and building operations simply by putting holes in walls and other modifications."
Oak Ridge National Laboratory Fire Chief Michael Masters says that the benefits of MNS are really just manifesting themselves. MNS can allow a facility to deal with the specifics of a threat rather than merely announcing the threat.
"Say we have an adversary on site and we need to have people shelter in place—and not from a chemical or a radiological release," he says. "How else are we going to let people know what is going on? Placing the alert over the PA might be a dead giveaway for the adversary."
In the end, says Masters, the MNS should make things easier and safer for occupants and first responders alike.
Backing up the Lone Sentry
Mass Notification in the 2010 edition of NFPA 72.
On the evening of June 25, 1996, an American sentry on top of a building in Saudi Arabia saved hundreds of lives. Watching a fuel truck and a car move toward a mosque and a park adjacent to his post on Building #131 of Khobar Towers, Staff Sgt. Alfredo Guerrero of the 95th Security Police Squadron out of Edwards Air Force Base in California saw the truck park next to a chain link perimeter fence about 70 feet (21 meters) away. As the vehicles maneuvered, he called security and began a floor-by-floor evacuation that is credited with saving hundreds of lives when the truck, carrying about 5,000 pounds (2.3 metric tons) of explosives, detonated three minutes later. The blast ripped off the face of the building, which housed about 2,300 American military personnel, and left a crater 85 feet (26 meters) in diameter and 35 feet (11 meters) deep. Despite Guerrero’s and other airmen’s efforts, 19 U.S. servicemen died and 372 were injured.
The incident spurred the military into making rapid changes in its emergency planning, creating the Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC) 4-010-01, U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Minimum Antiterrorism Standards for Buildings, say Fort Knox Fire Chief Marvin Gunderson. "The [concept of the] mass notification system—the UFCs and the whole mass notification system program—was really developed as result of the bombing," he says.
Fast forward to 2003, when the U.S. Air Force asked NFPA to establish a mass notification systems project. This began the march of mass notification requirements into NFPA’s National Fire Codes®. Guidance for designing and installing an MNS was first added as an annex to the 2007 edition of NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code. Three years later, the 2010 edition includes an entirely new chapter devoted entirely to MNS, expanding requirements for, and information about, the coexistence and integration of fire alarms and MNS.
Like fire alarm systems, MNS are intended to communicate emergency information, and all MNS installations must meet certain code requirements. Foremost among them is intelligible voice messaging capability. The 2010 code also permits MNS to take control of fire alarm notification equipment, although it must provide a tone or voice message if it does do so. And it must offer visual notification in the form of strobes or textual, graphic, or video displays.
To be effective, an MNS design must also fit into a facility’s overall emergency management plan, developed in accordance with NFPA 1600, Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs,and NFPA 1620, Recommended Practice for Pre-Incident Planning. In creating both the plan and the MNS installation, a facility’s stakeholders must clearly understand the potential risks that are particular to their facility and install a system that accounts for them. The key to defining these risks is to perform a risk analysis before installing an MNS, says Wayne Moore, a consultant with Hughes Associates in Warwick, Rhode Island.
During a risk analysis, the authority having jurisdiction must decide what hazards are most likely to affect people and when they are most susceptible to those hazards. If floods or tornados are part of a college campus risk analysis, for example, the stakeholders—security personnel, the fire service, college administrators, and so on—must decide when and where students are most vulnerable and design the system to take that information into account.
They must also decide when MNS will take precedence over the fire alarm system, Moore says, because there will be situations in which that will happen. Although NFPA 72 requires that MNS take precedence only in terrorist situations, a facility may require that it take precedence in other circumstances that make sense for its operations. For the DoD, the MNS always takes precedence over the fire alarm system. The military does not want a repeat of that June evening in Saudi Arabia.