Mass notification moving beyond government and schools

30/01/11

Adoption in verticals outside of gov’t and schools beginning to take place.

At last year’s ASIS conference, a hot topic of discussion was making the workplace safe. There was talk about guns in the work environment and how to screen for that. And, said Mike Madden, national sales manager for Gamewell-FCI, there was a “sense of urgency” among large corporate clients about mass notification and emergency communications.

Madden didn’t attend ASIS, but a number of his colleagues in the business contacted him, keying him in to the buzz from the conference. He investigated further, visited larger, corporate clients, and found the “inordinate amount of change” brought about with the 2010 NFPA revisions have put mass notification front and center.

“I think we are beginning to see a trend towards MNS spreading to larger corporate campuses and large manufacturing facilities,” said Madden. “Because of the very nature of these large complexes and violence in the workplace, people are looking at more options to protect their employees.”

Incidents like the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996 and the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007 pushed the concept and importance of mass notification into both the government and secondary education spheres. Both of those markets are yet to be developed fully, but security experts see other verticals beginning to take off.

Mass notification started out with a focal point in the U.S. Department of Defense, said Madden. He’s seen it spread recently to the Department of Energy—to facilities like nuclear power plants—and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is adopting mass notification this year in most of its hospitals and clinics around the country.

Large defense contractors like Boeing are starting to explore the need for mass notification, said Madden.

“It’s more than just higher education facilities that are really looking at emergency communication as the next logical progression for dealing with any kind of large emergency, whether it be a school district or a refinery or a power plant,” said Madden.  And the state of California adopted the most recent NFPA 72; the requirements addressing mass notification went into effect in early January, said Madden.

“All of the Los Angeles Unified School District is looking at mass notification as a hot issue that they want to get their arms around and start implementing for, I’m sure, a lot of the larger schools,” said Madden.

Madden, and executives from manufacturing and security companies, said businesses are looking to leverage existing systems—such as fire alarm infrastructure—to double as a flexible mass notification platform.

“I think that trend’s actually going to continue in the marketplace,” said Madden. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in four, five, six years from now, almost every fire system will be a voice system.”

Steve Hein, vice president of global product management for detection and alarm at UTC Fire & Security, agreed that Fortune 500 companies have expressed a lot of interest in mass notification. His company has a $2 billion installed base of fire systems globally, said Hein.

“There’s a great deal of interest in augmenting their systems with mass notification,” said Hein.

Hein said he was at GM doing a presentation on high-powered speaker arrays, and some town officials who the company had invited to attend began talking about deploying such a system across the entire community.

“We are seeing that kind of thought process; I wouldn’t see it as a market yet,” said Hein.

Hein noted that with new standards in place regarding mass notification, companies are seeing implementation of the platforms as not only precautionary measures for their employees, but also possible protection from litigation—should anything happen.

Pete Tately, program manager for mass notification at Siemens Industry Inc., said that a recurring theme has been that the mass notification market was real, it’s coming and it’s huge.

“We’ve been saying that for a couple of years now,” said Tately. “It’s taking a long time.”

It’s taking a while for a few reasons, said Tately. Even with the new codes, even with violent incidents that make the papers, manufacturers still need to get out and educate the markets, he said. And the codes and mandates are still taking shape, he said, are still being written and discussed.

It’s only in the last few years that the federal government has made significant funds available to bring mass notification to military bases, he said, and it’s going to take several years more to complete the mandate that they all be set up.

From his perspective, there is growing demand for the systems in industry, said Tately.

“We believe critical infrastructure is very ripe for a lot of these emergency communication and mass notification systems,” said Tately. “That could be oil and gas, port authorities or airports.”

Part of the driver is a basic cost benefit analysis, he said. If an oil refinery has to shut down because of an emergency, a mass notification system can get everyone from muster points back to their work stations 15 minutes quicker. In some places, 15 minutes of production might mean $500,000, he said.

Budgets are tighter in other verticals, said Tately.

Ara Beurekjian, owner of Fire Command Systems Inc. in Peabody, Mass., agreed. He’s seeing mass notification interest from a lot more large malls, in areas of public assembly. But those commercial markets are the last ones seeing a benefit from the systems, he said.

“In that market, the bottom line plays into that,” said Beurekjian.

Recently, said Beurekjian, he’s had success in going to property owners developing large facilities and selling them on the benefits of pre-engineering fire alarm systems that have mass notification built into them. That becomes a selling point with certain tenant clients who want that sort of security for their employees, he said.

Hein, of UTCFS, said his company has recently embarked on a program to help potential clients afford new mass notification systems. UTCFS hooks up clients with grant writers who pursue federal and state grants for the systems.

Some clients are realizing that setting up a comprehensive, robust mass notification system can be expensive, said Peter Ebersold, marketing director for Honeywell’s Notifier system. As they contemplate solutions, they may go with messaging first, then update with some indoor systems, and finally put an outdoor setup in place to complete the package, he said.

“There’s going to be some legs in this market for that reason,” said Ebersold.

Like other areas of security, the public by and large have gotten its head around having such systems in place—in fact, they almost rely on it, said Ebersold.

“Most people expect it at some point; they kind of assume that after 9-11, that’s been taken care of,” said Ebersold. “At an airport that’s probably true, at a train station and a bus station, that’s probably not the case today.”

Education is important, all the executives stressed, as a way to develop the market.

“The obstacle currently is education, getting out there and telling people, ‘You can use your system for mass notification,’” said Hein.

Part of that education involves educating organizations like colleges or universities of the potential deficiencies in relying on an email blast or text message service as mass notification.

“Unfortunately, in terms of codes and standards that are being adopted, that’s really considered second tier notification in the business,” said Beurekjian. “There’s no supervision, no reassurance of integrity of operation, it depends on the user, quite honestly, not ignoring it.”

Many companies are pushing those sorts of solutions as a second tier, complementary to voice notification inside buildings, and very loud speakers outside, said Tately.

“I would say this layering of communications, multiple means of communication, to get to 100 percent of an intended audience, to be utilized in different ways, that’s clearly a trend that’s gaining a lot of momentum,” Tately said.

From Security Director News