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Mass notification systems: the basics

Mass notification systems (MNS) have gained popularity among businesses and institutions of all sizes, largely due to the breadth of safety and cost benefits, as well as flexibility and scalability, that they provide. These integrated “mass communications” solutions bring together a number of different components, oftentimes including a traditional fire alarm system, and can be as simple or complex as the environments that require them.

Although many business owners, facilities managers and safety directors are clear that an MNS should be an integral part of their plans and operations, with the increase in technological advancements and new code requirements – such as NFPA 72, Chapter 24 – there may be some understandable confusion.

Whether you’re considering implementing an MNS for the first time, or want to ensure that your existing system is up to date, a refresher on the basics of mass notification is a smart move for the overall safety of your building.

Understand The Benefits

An MNS has more functionality than a traditional fire alarm system, as it can be used to notify people not only of a fire emergency, but also to provide other life-safety information during events as well as day-to-day information and updates.

Where a fire alarm system alerts people to vacate a building or take other action in the event of a fire, a MNS provides the means to communicate with all building occupants, or with specifically targeted areas. Additionally, a MNS is able to disseminate non-emergency information and updates like store locations, sales and weather conditions. Using distributed messaging systems, this technology can broadcast alert notifications and evacuation route directions in the event of an emergency. For example, in an active shooter situation, leaving the building may in some cases actually put more people in harm’s way. Depending on the situation, it may be safer for occupants to shelter in place or move to a different floor in the building.

The same capability applies to weather-related issues, where a MNS works in tandem with a display board or email notifications to alert people to take shelter in a basement due to a tornado threat. In addition to disseminating emergency messages in a crisis scenario, a MNS can also be used to share relevant day-to-day information. An office facility might have video screens in its elevators, which share weather reports and top news throughout the day. These screens are helpful because they regularly provide convenient information, and can switch over to disseminate warning messages in an emergency situation. Given that staff and employees grow accustomed to looking at these devices, they may be more likely to see a crisis scenario message and follow the direction that’s provided to help protect their safety and well-being.

Visual displays provide critical communications in areas where personnel is hearing impaired or audibility is difficult.

Visual displays provide critical communications in areas where personnel is hearing impaired or audibility is difficult.

Consider a Voice-enabled Fire Alarm System

Voice-enabled fire alarm systems can in fact be the cornerstone of an integrated mass notification solution. Voice fire alarm systems have the capability to instantly broadcast live or recorded messages in buildings, institutional and campus environments and other facilities. A universal message, or individual messages tailored to specific areas, buildings, floors or rooms, can be delivered through the fire alarm system.

An advantage to this approach is that it is cost-effective and enables a facility to leverage existing fire and life-safety systems and infrastructure. In addition, the fire alarm system provides code-required emergency back-up capacity to keep the system in operation if the primary source becomes compromised. It also provides a high level of survivability, enabling fire alarm control units connected on a network to continue operating even if a fault or other issue occurs on the system.

Choose Your Method of Communication

While many people associate a text alert with MNS today, a system is usually made up of multiple modes of communication that can include audio and/or visual notification from a fire alarm system, email notifications, automated phone calls (similar to a reverse 911 call) and visual messaging boards. A MNS can also include something as simple as updating the messaging on TVs or LCD displays in elevators or lobbies, or other devices that building occupants often rely on to provide valuable information.

For larger buildings and campuses, a loud speaker or an outdoor speaker array can sound a siren notification or deliver live or automated messages. A MNS can also be used for paging. There is, however, a provision in NFPA 72: National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, that requires all paging or non-alarm events to be overridden in the event of a fire alarm activation or when required by the Emergency Response Plan MNS activation.

Flexible wiring in addressable notification technology lowers cost of installation and ownership.

Flexible wiring in addressable notification technology lowers cost of installation and ownership.

Know Your Codes: NFPA 72, Chapter 24

NFPA 72, Chapter 24 covers “Emergency Communications Systems,” and allows for different types of alerts during an MNS activity or other event. NFPA 72 not only allows for local customized messaging, but encourages it. As all facilities are unique and situations vary, it’s a great benefit to have customized messaging that meets each facility’s needs and individual plans – and that addresses the potential scenarios that may occur.

In addition to customized messaging, NFPA 72 requires voice messages to be intelligible. It’s no surprise that if facilities are installing voice enabled fire alarm systems, they are going to expect them to work properly, including being able to understand the directions in case of an emergency. This new requirement in NFPA 72 will certainly be welcomed by all in the industry, and for good reason.

  • There have been a few major changes to the 2016 edition of NFPA 72, including:
  • Intelligibility modifications to ensure both listed and non-listed systems are compliant
  • With the new addition of Class “N” for network communications, MNS can now take advantage of IP technology to comply with NFPA 72 while utilizing IP pathways
  • New message template information in new Annex G “Guidelines for Emergency Communication Strategies for Buildings and Campuses.”
  • Listing of equipment for MNS use has been tightened and now requires systems to be listed to one of three standards:

– ANSI/UL 864, Standard for Control Units and Accessories for Fire Alarm Systems

– ANSI/UL 2017, Standard for General-Purpose Signaling Devices and Systems

– ANSI/UL 2572, Mass Notification Systems

Looking Ahead: NFPA 72

As technology continues to advance across the industry, the logical next step is for the code requirements to update to reflect these changes. One example is the increased use of IP technology that is requiring NFPA 72 to monitor and implement changes for the use and application of this technology. As of today, there are already changes underway that modify how systems transmit their events to supervising stations and how these supervising stations relay information to first responders.

The latest closing date for proposals for the 2019 edition was in June 2016 – it’s an exciting time to see where the latest technologies will take NFPA and the fire protection industry as a whole.

The advancements and overall advantages of MNS are a great addition to building environments that value safety above all else. Once building safety managers are aware of the numerous benefits MNS offer – such as the flexibility of both emergency and day-to-day communications, the ability to integrate voice, text messaging, visual displays and more – they are one step closer to protecting the people who matter most. By staying up to speed on the developing technologies and code changes, companies and institutions can help ensure they are getting the most out of these life-saving systems.

For more information, go to www.tycosimplexgrinnell.com

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Aaron Saak is Vice President and General Manager for Tyco SimplexGrinnell.

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