In August 2011, Lee drafted a 187-word letter to the track’s director of security, formalizing his requirement that the facility include a mass notification system. “The system will include external communication devices, for visitors located outdoors, along with integrated voice communication/alarm systems installed in buildings,” Lee wrote. “Please advise the design teams working on this project that all components of the mass notification system, internal and external, must be designed in accordance with the 2010 edition of NFPA 72.”
More than a year later, in the midst of the frenzied final inspections before the track hosted its inaugural F1 event, Lee struck up a conversation with a track investor. “We were at the track, talking casually, and he said, ‘You know, I’ve learned more about mass notification during this project than I thought I’d ever know,’ ” Lee says. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, well, that probably goes for both of us.’ ”
Assessing the risks
Not by MNS Alone
Some of the additional safety features at Circuit of the Americas
Fire alarm systems installed in all buildings, including several that would not normally require fire alarms, and compliant with NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code
Sprinkler systems installed in all buildings, including several that would not normally require them, and compliant with NFPA 13, Installation of Sprinkler Systems
Fire department access provided for all structures, including locations identified for temporary locations
Kitchen hood suppression systems installed for all fixed commercial kitchens and compliant with NFPA 17, Dry Chemical Extinguishing Systems
Fire hydrants throughout facility
Way finding system throughout facility, including parking lots
Knox lock system installed where gates are located along fire department access roads
Knox box system installed on all buildings
Fuel dispensing facility and underground fuel storage tanks installed per NFPA guidelines
Grandstand provided with generators for emergency lighting and exit signs
Helistops on site that meet NFPA requirements Fire lanes throughout facility, and fire department access for all onsite parking lots
Permanent RV parking/spaces include water supply, separation, and access per NFPA guidelines
Standpipe systems installed in several buildings
Fire extinguishers installed throughout facility
When Craig Janssen heard the MNS requirement had been finalized, his first thought was, “We’re gonna need some help with the code.”
Janssen is managing director of Acoustic Dimensions, an acoustics, audio, lighting, and video consulting firm based in Dallas that specializes in large venues, and had been hired as technology consultant to the owner on the Circuit project. When the MNS requirement was made, Janssen says, the track’s owners and designers took a “let’s do it, and let’s do it right” approach, and he knew he would need some help navigating the MNS provisions of NFPA 72. He describes Lee’s MNS requirements as “not a happy circumstance with the extra time and money involved,” but between a client who was willing to do the right thing and a fire marshal who was sensitive to the realities of budget and schedule, Janssen says, everyone agreed to make it happen. “Safety,” he adds, “was the highest priority.”
Safety was also an important part of the owners’ commitment to provide a stable, long-term home for Formula One racing in the United States. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway had provided that home, with mixed results, for much of the previous decade, but a contentious relationship between the track and Formula One had prompted F1’s president — a British car-salesman-turned-billionaire named Bernie Ecclestone — to declare in 2009 that Formula One would “never return” to Indianapolis. Less than a year later, however, Ecclestone was intimating that a return to Indy was not out of the question, and soon thereafter announced plans to bring a Formula One race to New Jersey, with the dream of running an event against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.
Circuit of the Americas, meanwhile, had been working feverishly to get F1’s attention with the promise of a gleaming new purpose-built track. Around central Texas, McCombs and other investors sold their plan by touting the economic impact of an F1 event. The San Antonio Business Journal reported that in 2010, the state comptroller’s office estimated that an F1 race in Austin could generate a total economic impact approaching $300 million. “This is a Super Bowl every year,” McCombs reportedly said of the possible windfall. “There is no better way to put it.” With that kind of money at stake, an up-front investment in track safety seemed like money well spent. F1 racing has had its share of horrific crashes and fatalities over the years — “safety” is a relative term for open-wheel cars racing at more than 200 mph — and the last thing any of the owners wanted was an opening weekend marred by injury or death, on or off the track. Safety, they insisted, would be a key consideration for every facet of the facility.
Janssen put together a request for proposal for assistance with the MNS requirement, and soon enlisted Hughes Associates, a building and fire code consulting firm. The Hughes team was led by Dave Boswell, a company vice president based near Denver, and included Wayne Moore, another Hughes VP (and NFPA Journal columnist), who chairs the NFPA 72 Technical Committee for Emergency Eommunications Systems and is author of Designing Mass Notification Systems — A Pathway to Effective Communications, recently published by NFPA. Boswell first glimpsed the Circuit site in the summer of 2011, when much of it was still dirt, but he was already thinking ahead to the project’s biggest threat—and it wasn’t a tornado or a brush fire or a madman with a gun. “Pragmatically, my biggest concern was simply pulling it all off for the fire marshal’s approval with the deadline we’d been given,” he says. “All of the contractors were already under unbelievable pressure, and there was still a tremendous amount of work to do.”
Chapter + Verse
A new chapter in the 2010 edition of NFPA 72 provided unprecedented direction for emergency communications
The 2010 edition of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, was a watershed version of the code, with updates so sweeping that they necessitated a change to the document’s name. The addition of the words “and Signaling” indicated that the code’s focus was no longer fire alarms, but all manner of emergency communications intended for a variety of emergency events.
Of particular interest to many of the parties involved with the Circuit of the Americas racetrack — especially the owners, designers, and authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), in this case the Travis County Fire Marshal — was the code’s detailed information on mass notification systems, or MNS. The information, appearing in the body of the code for the first time, is contained in Chapter 24, “Emergency Communications Systems,” which also specifies minimum levels of performance, reliability, and installation quality for those systems.
Mass notification goes beyond telling people that there is an emergency; it can also provide real-time information and instructions to ensure that people can respond properly and safely to a wide range of threats. Chapter 24 specifies requirements for indicating an emergency situation, and for communicating information on what people should do in that situation. Where much of the code is prescriptive, with clear rules and expectations, Chapter 24 is both prescriptive and nonprescriptive, and requires a tri-party agreement between the AHJ, the owner, and the design team. Rather than simply following a set of predetermined rules, Circuit of the Americas stakeholders had to actively engage with safety issues; the process required the three parties to run a wide range of possible emergency scenarios, including natural and man-made threats, and develop an emergency response plan that included not only a unified technological solution but also the human protocols and sequences of priority. At every step, the intent of the code is to be as responsive as possible to real-world issues while allowing for innovation in the solutions.
“This is a very innovative chapter,” says Craig Janssen of Acoustic Dimensions, the firm hired as technology consultant to the owners, and who brought on Hughes Associates to help guide the project through the requirements of NFPA 72. “We’ve worked on a couple of thousand projects, but in our work on Circuit of the Americas we found this code to be unlike anything we had encountered before.”
One of Boswell’s first tasks was to launch an all-hazards risk assessment of the facility, a critical first step in transforming the track’s public address and fire alarm systems into a unified MNS. Janssen describes MNS “not as wires and speakers, but as a combination of technology and procedures that starts with the risks and how they can be addressed.” Taking a similar approach, Boswell assigned a Hughes engineer to interview a range of stakeholders — track managers, contractors, local building and fire department officials, and more — about risks the track faced, as well as the challenges they saw for creating a unified MNS. An extensive list of potential threats was generated, along with their likelihood, ranging from flash flooding (“highly likely”) to enemy military attack (“unlikely”). A report was prepared that detailed a range of potential hazards, and described the facility, surrounding area, and capabilities of track personnel as they related to a large-scale emergency, as well as the functional and design requirements for a mass notification system. The report included recommendations for emergency planning, infrastructure, public address and emergency voice/alarm communication systems, and more.
The risk analysis was just one step toward helping the larger Circuit project team grasp the concept of MNS, Janssen says — just because the owners and designers were willing to include it didn’t mean everybody understood it, or even had the faintest clue where to begin. “MNS absolutely bamboozled everyone,” he says. “I probably sat in 30 meetings to explain what was going on. They would ask me how much it was going to cost, and I’d say I didn’t know. They’d ask me what the code wanted them to do, and I’d say it’s not that easy — the code is both prescriptive and performance-based, which allows you to adjust the solution to the threat.” Even with a range of threats, and how to respond to them, catalogued and detailed, “everyone still assumed MNS was basically grabbing a microphone and telling people what to do,” Janssen says. “Fortunately, a few people knew it was much more than that.”
A performance-based approach
The guiding principles for the track’s MNS system were contained in Chapter 24 of the new 2010 edition of NFPA 72. In that chapter, “Emergency Communications Systems,” the code acknowledged that there are other emergencies to consider in addition to fire. MNS requirements state that the sounding of an alarm may not be enough in many emergencies, and that emergency communications systems also need to be able to tell people where to go and what to do. Chapter 24 required a three-way agreement between the owner, design team, and authority having jurisdiction to evaluate risks and determine the technological and procedural requirements — who’s in charge, who has the passwords, and what happens in what sequence — necessary to address those risks. “It was everything from brush fires to what if an airplane lands on the track,” says Janssen, referring to the track’s close proximity to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. “Every scenario had its own protocols that had to be programmed into the system, but there were some larger issues we had to address just to make the MNS possible.”
While the track was already designed with a fire alarm system and state-of-the-art public address (PA) system, those components weren’t enough to attain the desired level of notification and communications flexibility, Boswell says. It had to be able to broadcast pre-recorded messages across the entire venue, and authorized users had to be able to deliver real-time messages to target audiences in specific areas of the facility. “In the case of a tornado, people indoors may need to be told to move away from the glass, and people outdoors need to be told to seek shelter,” Boswell says. “The instructions will vary based on the type of emergency and where people are in relationship to it. The fire alarm still has to work, but we have to be able to override it with voice systems, and tie everything together on a network so we have simultaneous control over every part of it.”
That fully integrated system, which would be monitored and controlled by the track’s safety and security personnel, was a foundation of the new MNS design. Originally, the fire alarm systems had been designed as standalone systems per the code requirements for the buildings they served; they were not interconnected, and there was no integration with a facility-wide paging or control system. Among other things, the new design called for intelligible paging capabilities throughout the entire Circuit of the Americas campus — “anywhere there was people,” Boswell says — including restrooms and food courts and in many of the facility’s roughly 30 buildings.
Among the protocols established for the MNS paging capabilities were steps that allowed an incident commander or track security personnel to override what’s known as “race control”—Formula One personnel who monitor and supervise all stages of practice, qualifying, and racing—and to instruct race control to stop a race. At most types of racing events, and certainly at an F1 event, MNS will only be effective when the on-track din is silenced; at close range, a single F1 car in full voice generates about 150 decibels, roughly the same as standing directly in front of the speakers at a rock concert and enough to induce nausea after just a few minutes. Even spectators at a distance from the on-track action can have difficulty communicating with their nearest neighbors.
Handling the noise was the easy part. Integration also meant that the PA, like the fire alarm system, had to be physically robust enough to withstand a fire, but the audio speakers that Acoustic Dimensions had specified for the PA were not listed by Underwriters Laboratories for fire. The 2010 edition of the code was somewhat more flexible on this point than previous versions, acknowledging that threats in large venues like racetracks were more likely to be non-fire emergencies, but integrating UL-listed fire equipment with a regular audio system meant that at least some of the audio components, including speakers and wiring, would need to be hardened to protect it against fire.
Help came from the code, which permitted performance-based alternatives for creating the system, and from the fire marshal, who was willing to consider those alternatives. “We discussed the ‘intended purpose’ of the equipment and how we could get a better system using a performance-based approach, which allowed us to present a system that would meet the AHJ’s and owner’s requirements,” Boswell says. “All components of the fire alarm system meet the prescriptive requirements, certainly, but the fire marshal allowed non-fire listed public address system components to meet the performance-based approach for the MNS design instead of requiring a completely new system by one manufacturer. If he’d done that, we would’ve been left with an inferior PA system — fire-only equipment can’t reach the crystal-clear intelligibility and performance quality needed for MNS, especially in this scenario — and it would’ve added millions of dollars to the cost.” Hardening the system with rated walls and enclosures, along with many other infrastructure upgrades, began early in the fall of 2011 as the risk analysis was still being conducted.
The new MNS also had to address redundancy and reliability. The system would feature a main emergency operations center, but it needed some kind of redundant backup in the event it was disabled or otherwise unable to monitor or initiate emergency communications. Three additional MNS control units, which included custom-made, password-protected touchscreens, were located around the track, and allow authorized personnel to pick up a microphone, override all other track communications systems, including race control, and speak directly to any part, or all, of the track. “A lot of time was invested in custom programming so that any one of those points could take charge,” Boswell says. “Risk analysis informed how we would approach this, anticipating the types of events” — weather, in most cases — “to affect the system’s operational capability.”
Reliability upgrades also included a contingency for loss of power to the site. The bottom line was that even if the venue lost primary power, the MNS system could not be allowed to fail. The Hughes team developed a performance-based approach to this problem as well, starting with a worst-case scenario for evacuation that involved clearing 150,000 people from the property as quickly as possible.
Traffic-pattern studies were reviewed, and it was determined that everyone could get out within four hours. The project team provided for the necessary amount of battery backup, enough to drive the entire emergency communications system at 100 percent capacity for the duration of the backup period.
The testing + acceptance process
The technological upgrades and protocol programming stretched through much of 2012 as the Circuit swarmed with contractors and heavy equipment. Ecclestone, the F1 boss, responded to the owners’ pleas for more time by agreeing to move the inaugural race to November, but it didn’t do much to ease the tension surrounding the project, which had been fraught with much-publicized funding shortfalls and construction delays. “The MNS work didn’t help,” Janssen recalls. “There was a lot of angst over that. People kept telling us, ‘You can’t not be ready.’ We’d say, ‘We’ll be ready.’ ”
As the deadline for occupancy approached and the testing phase intensified, Lee’s prediction that “we’d be rushed at the end” looked more and more accurate. All seven of the county’s certified fire inspectors were pressed into service for the track project; 10-hour shifts became 12, 14, 16 hours. Track owners, facing tens of millions of dollars in potential penalties from Formula One if the Circuit didn’t open on time, became anxious over how long the testing and acceptance process was taking, especially the MNS testing. “We were being paid by the owners, but we had to be clear with them that there could be no compromises,” Boswell says. “We had the fire marshal’s complete confidence that we wouldn’t accept anything less than the best.”
The testing team grew increasingly diverse and included fire alarm vendors, electrical contractors, the Acoustic Dimensions team, and others, totalling as many as 25 participants toward the end. Reports were submitted to Boswell on the testing and were reviewed to make sure the procedures were done correctly. Work days stretched to 20 hours, then finally nonstop, like many other aspects of the track’s completion. But it was clear that the long cooperative process between owner, designer, and AHJ specified in Chapter 24 of NFPA 72 was paying off; there were glitches to be fixed, but there were no significant surprises. Component by component, test by test, Boswell and his team demonstrated for Lee and his staff that the MNS system worked, a process that wasn’t completed until less than a day before the start of racing. At last, Lee issued his final sign-off, and Circuit of the Americas had its operational MNS.
The track hosted its first United States Grand Prix November 16–18, 2012, attracting more than 265,000 people, including more than 117,000 on the final race day. Boswell and Lee weren’t exactly sipping champagne with the VIPs in the observation tower, though — they were part of the crew in the emergency operations center, along with representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Guard, the sheriff’s office, the local police and fire departments, and track security. “No emergencies, fortunately,” Boswell says. “But everything worked as it was supposed to.” Since the opening F1 event, the track has hosted a variety of automobile and motorcycle races, as well as concerts and other events. The next Formula One event, the 2013 U.S. Grand Prix, will be held November 15–17.
Boswell and Janssen praise the track’s owners, architects, and designers for their efforts on the MNS project and to create a facility that took an all-hazards approach to safety. “I don’t know of another track that has been built that addresses the kind of threat-assessment issues that Circuit of the Americas does,” says Janssen, a car enthusiast who has raced in Spec Miata-class events on the Circuit track. “At the same time, no other entertainment project I’ve worked on has had this level of integration between its various systems. This is a truly unified approach.”
Lee calls the MNS project the “most difficult, and also the most interesting” part of his work at Circuit of the Americas, which he describes in turn as the biggest and most complex project of his career. But he got what he wanted, he says — a racetrack prepared for a range of hazards and emergencies, and that can communicate clearly with every spectator on the site. “My staff discussed with the owner’s representatives and designer what we wanted the system to be capable of doing, and we reached a consensus on what would create the best end product and meet the intent of NFPA 72,” he says of the collaboration that included Janssen and Boswell. “This MNS is simple and easy to operate, yet has many details incorporated for functionality. I’m very pleased with it.”
Scott Sutherland is executive editor of NFPA Journal.