Automate your Emergency Response with an Integrated Public Address Mass Notification System
- By Tom Mechler
- July 27, 2022
Protecting students, faculty and staff is top of mind for campuses. With the types of threats that campuses are facing today, facility managers and security personnel need options to enhance the protection of all on campus. A public address and/or mass notification system is an important tool that can support buildings and campuses both large and small to alert occupants of critical events such as fire, an armed or dangerous person or inclement weather.
A high-quality public address and mass notification system is essential for dealing with security and safety challenges. To be truly effective, a public address and emergency sound system must deliver exceptional performance, clear intelligibility and reliability.
Everyone has been in a facility and heard a message that cannot be accurately understood. A message was communicated, but those in the building had no idea what it was or what action to take. Many public address systems do not consider factors like background noise, occupancy noise, building construction material or changes in the facility that may affect whether messages are heard or understood. For a public address system to be effective, the message must be heard, must be intelligible, and must be delivered without delay. The correct spacing and type of speaker is an important factor in this. Using high-quality systems installed by sound professionals ensures this for buildings and/or campuses. Some systems can even listen to background noise and automatically adjust their volume for better performance.
Audio intelligibility is even more critical when it comes to an emergency event, especially if the system changes instructions based upon the situation. If the system tells occupants to go to the second floor, and they hear the seventh floor, it can be disastrous. Intelligibility is a key part of a public address system—in the equipment itself, design, and the installation.
Today’s IP-based public address and mass notifications systems can be zoned, meaning that they can announce different messages in different locations or areas. This capability is helpful if different areas have varying needs for background music, announcements, classroom audio or emergency audio, and it becomes critically important in an emergency event. Exit or hold-in-place instructions may be different for different buildings, floors and wings.
When severe weather is on its way, occupants may be instructed to go to a shelter area within the building. If there is a fire, people may be evacuated in different paths. If an armed or dangerous person is on site, students and staff may be instructed to hold in place.
A system that can adapt and deliver different messages to different loudspeakers is key to providing a system that helps occupants when it matters most.
Integration with Other Systems
Some systems can be integrated with the two-way radios used by administration teams and/or security departments, allowing personnel to publicize messages over the public address system and receive messages from the system. This integration provides a more efficient and accurate response in time-critical situations.
Integrating the public address system with the video surveillance system can help the security department react more efficiently to events. By locating speakers near critical cameras within the campus, security staff can use an integrated microphone to communicate with people in an affected area and see what is happening at the same time.
As part of an overall paging and mass notification system, integrating with other building systems can improve safety and functionality. Using a building’s intrusion alarm system, for example, can help automate messages, making it easier to control and even report system malfunctions.
An intrusion system’s main job is to detect unwanted events and communicate them. Often, this communication is sent to a monitoring center or guard station that dispatches help, but an intrusion system can also be integrated into a public address mass notification system to provide additional functionality.
A mass notification area in an intrusion system creates a supervised network of actuation pull stations for severe weather, fire, or armed or dangerous intruders. Occupants can activate these events from hundreds of different locations throughout the facility, and the system logic programming and integration can ensure the proper response based upon the location and type or combination of events. If first responders need to provide audio instructions, the system can be configured to override any automated messages, ensuring that the first responder has control of the situation.
Other security risks, such as propped doors, can be controlled and reported also. Students and staff may not understand the security risk of leaving a door propped open that should normally be locked, such as a door in a dorm at the bottom of the stairs or in the back alley. Someone may find it is easier to prop that door open to get back into a building, so they place a brick or stick in the door. This can be detected by the intrusion system and reported in several ways, starting with a loudspeaker near the door that plays a message to remind someone to close it. Other possibilities include sending an alert to the guard’s radio or notifying the police or security office to remedy the situation.
In addition, the intrusion system can incorporate portable help call or panic buttons, allowing staff to call for help from anywhere within a building. This, combined with the proper audio announcement, provides for a safer environment.
This integration also allows the intrusion system to report the status of the public address system. For example, if the public address system has a malfunction—such as a disconnected speaker, a cut speaker line, or a disconnected network cable—this can be reported immediately to ensure it is resolved before the system is needed to perform.
Some public address/mass notification systems can be integrated with the fire alarm system, allowing for audio evacuation of buildings. This increases safety by providing specific evacuation instructions to occupants based upon the location and type of event. Compared with fire alarm horns or bells, audio evacuation systems increase safety and efficiency.
Choosing the Right System
To ensure that a system performs properly when needed most, it is important to choose equipment that has been designed and approved for the purpose. Fortunately, Underwriters Laboratories (UL), the organization that certifies equipment for performance and safety, has a standard for Mass Notification systems. UL standard 2572 describes the performance requirements for these systems, and UL tests equipment toward this standard. This makes it easy to choose the right equipment by making sure the public address system and any integrated systems have been tested and approved to UL2572. Systems may even have multiple UL approvals, allowing them to be used for fire alarm notification (UL864) in addition to safety.
Combining compatible building systems is the best way to provide an efficient and secure campus environment. Leveraging the investment in these systems for other needs such as non-emergency paging, background music, intrusion and fire detection helps maximize the use of these capital expenditures and ensures the system will help protect students and staff when it is needed most.
This article originally appeared in the July / August 2022 issue of Campus Security Today.