Managed emergency communications systems

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By Berkly Trumbo, Siemens Industry Inc.

While the latest update to NFPA redefines mass notification as ‘emergency communications systems (ECS)’, the end user community is formulating expectations related to the future functionality of today’s alerting solutions.

Numerous best practices have surfaced since alerting technology began its rapid, main stream adoption and the NFPA is looking to incorporate pressure tested protocols in the new code. The latest updates refer to ‘wide-area’ and ‘distributed recipient notification’ in addition to building notifications. Wide area being the geography surrounding a building on a particular campus and distributed recipient notification as ‘expanded beyond the facility and the area, to be accomplished through means such as telephone calls, text messaging, and emails’.

So far, colleges, corporations and government entities have made significant investments in technology platforms and end point devices towards a goal of safer, more secure campus environments but still have not solved all critical messaging challenges. As an industry, emergency communications has vaulted forward from the days of single tone sirens but new gaps in functionality are appearing when considering a holistic approach to mass notification. Emergency management professionals have been left with a complex array of disparate systems to use when seconds count the most.

Leveraging the network for premise based solutions

A popular model which comprises the foundation of most mass notification systems currently deployed is a web-based, multi modal offering residing completely outside of the IT infrastructure of a business or campus. This model is based on sound logic considering continuity of operations planning but many times, the IT network on campus is one of the institution’s greatest IT assets. It is common for CIOs to invest a large percentage of their overall budget into the infrastructure and oftentimes buildings are so ‘wired’ that the degree of functionality end users are getting from their emergency communications systems is but a fraction of the capability, the whole truly being greater than the sum of its parts.

A managed systems approach to emergency communications systems is becoming a popular topic between IT, facilities, and public safety stakeholders. A site audit of a campus footprint can reveal a wealth of network devices that are capable of delivering an emergency message but are not configured to do so. Thinking of a variety of end point devices as underutilized assets, one can ask the crucial question “How do I make marginal adjustments that will yield exponential returns related to functionality?” LCDs, sirens, LEDs, desktop computers, and the ever-present fire panel are but a few examples of devices that are only serving in a fraction of their capacity.

The response which serves this question best is to use a premise based solution, bundling all end point devices under a single managed emergency communications architecture effectively creating a system of systems.

Consolidating command and control communications

A managed emergency communications system can include web based alerting as one part of a holistic approach to critical messaging. To date, volume has been the underlying theme of mass notification but we are moving towards a blended requirement of scalable functionality to include accuracy and granularity in campus communications. Emergency management professionals have identified the need to have a laser focus after delivering the first wave of warnings. Pinpointing a building, floor, or office/classroom offers a unique value proposition when considering scenarios wherein conditions affecting the people inside a structure are changing or are different for one location versus another. Having a single user interface which manages all end point devices and allows direct communications with predefined groups or one particular modality will prove to be an invaluable feature of future message management.


Experts agree that the right technology mix can act as a force multiplier in incident management. Well constructed plans and highly capable individuals are doubly effective when given the correct tools to utilize during an emergency.

“Communication is the backbone of effective emergency management. Being able to reach everyone in a timely matter with the proper information is the key to making the right decisions and mitigating negative outcomes.”
-Lt. M. Smith Tennyson commander, Governmental Security, St Johns County Sheriff's Office.

Emergency communications systems are evolving towards a managed system model as opposed to a collection of disjointed, boutique applications.

Advances in technology are affording end users more options regarding a consolidated approach to critical communications and incident management professionals are seeking scalable solutions which will make the most of past and future investments.

About the author
Berkly Trumbo is a mass notification systems (MNS) specialist with responsibility for Florida and the Caribbean related to emergency communications technologies. Mr. Trumbo can be reached at or 954/ 364-6820.

About Siemens Industry Inc.
For more than 110 years, Siemens has been a leader in building controls innovation, fire solutions, and security systems. With 400 locations throughout North America, Siemens is positioned to provide customized services and support for our clients’ specialized needs. For more information visit keyword “Sygnal”.

•Date: 29th Jan 2010 • Region: US/World •Type: Article •Topic: Crisis communications
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