By Andrea Lebron - November 30, 2020
The Internet is full of information about mass notification systems and the specifications they should comply to, but trying to find guidance on when mass notification is required - i.e. when mass notification systems should be activated - is difficult. So, when is mass notification required?
Mass notification systems date back to the Middle Ages, when church bells summoned people to worship. Church bells were subsequently used to warn local populations of impending attacks until they were replaced by sirens in the early 1900s. During the Second World War and Cold War, the use of mass notification systems increased dramatically, and they now play an important role in warning populations of adverse weather conditions, man-made disasters and other emergency incidents.
Despite their importance, federal guidance on when mass notification systems should be used is hard to find - the exception being the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities benefiting from federal financial aid programs to provide “timely warnings” of certain crimes. Even then, there is a certain amount of leeway in how and when the warnings are issued, how the person(s) responsible for issuing the warnings interprets the facts, and whether they consider a crime to be ongoing.
Most other federal regulations relate to when systems should be installed (i.e. OSHA 1910.165) or what factors they need to take into account (i.e. Americans with Disabilities Act Title III). Some regulations (i.e. NFPA 72) don´t actually mandate the installation of a mass notification system, but go into immense detail about the specifications such systems should comply with; whereas others (i.e. CMS' Emergency Preparedness Rule) require an Emergency Action Plan is developed without stipulating how it should be executed.
Most state and local ordinances relating to mass notification also focus on mass notification systems and the circumstances in which they should be installed - relying heavily on the International Building Code or NFPA 5000 Code as their guide. Typically, when a Mass Notification System is required, activation of the system is largely reliant on discretion the operator or subject to an interpretation of the conditions or after carrying out a risk assessment (i.e. see proposals to amend California §8594.6 in SB 833).
Naturally there are some circumstances in which the activation of a mass notification system will be automatic - for example if a heat sensor or smoke alarm detects a fire. But in other circumstances there may be an element of doubt (“is that person carrying a firearm”) and in which hesitation could result in unnecessary death or injury. In these circumstances, organizations should implement “Activate First - Review Later” policies to best protect their communities, employees and students.
So far we have established there is little guidance about when mass notification is required and that, to avoid unnecessary delays, it is better for organizations to implement “Activate First - Review Later” policies than to wait and see how a situation develops. There is one other important point to address - the importance of having an integrated mass notification system. This is because according to NFPA 72, a mass notification system should consist of four “layers”:
Layer 1 Immediate and Intrusive Alerting
• One-way voice communication system
• Two-way voice communication system
• Visible notification appliance(s)
• Textual/digital signage and displays
Layer 2 Wide Area
• Wide area outdoor notification system
Layer 3 Distributed Recipient Notification System
• SMS Text / Email
• Computer pop-ups (Check out Desktop Notifications)
• Smartphone apps
• Reverse 911
Layer 4 Public Alerting
• Radio & TV broadcasts
• Social Media
It is not necessary for every mass notification system to have every element within each of the four layers, but what is important is that the elements are integrated with each other so they are all “singing the same song”. In a high-rise fire or active shooter scenario, for example, the activation of different elements of a non-integrated system could result in one element sounding an evacuation order, while another element is telling people to stay put.
Because mass notification systems can be nationwide or serve a small community, the numbers vary considerably. For example, the nationwide Presidential alert has only been tested once, but the mass notification system used in Pennsylvania has been activated almost 56,000 times since 2012 to alert the public to dangerous weather and missing children; and, more recently, for COVID-19 alerts.
The example provided above (ADA Title III) requires mass notifications systems to be capable of alerting (for example) audibly and visually impaired citizens. Other regulations require systems to be multilingual where appropriate (Civil Liberties Act), while state and local ordinances may impose their own requirements for integration with 9-1-1, PSAP, and EMS services.
What is the best way to alert people to an emergency?
As described in NFPA 72 above, mass notifications can take a variety of formats based on the nature and scale of the emergency. The most effective format is SMS text because nearly all the population has access to a mobile phone. However, in situations in which SMS text would be inappropriate (i.e. in noisy environments), other layers should be utilized to complement mobile alerts.
This also depends on the nature and scale of the emergency. In smaller incidents the emergency will likely be resolved quickly with no further notifications, while in ongoing incidents such as the COVID-19 pandemic, mass notifications will continue to be sent regularly to maintain awareness. In wide area incidents, follow-up alerts will be at the discretion of the incident commander.
If you would like to know more about mass notifications systems or integrating existing systems according to NFPA 72, do not hesitate to get in touch and speak with our team of mobile safety experts about Rave Alert. Our team will be able to answer any questions you have about mass notification and can also organize a free demo of Rave Alert in action.
Andrea is Rave's Director of Digital Marketing, a master brainstormer and avid coffee drinker. Andrea joined Rave in August 2017, after 10 years of proposal and corporate marketing at an environmental engineering firm. You'll find her working with her amazing team in writing and producing blogs like this one, improving your journey to and through our website, and serving you up the best email content. When she's not in front of a keyboard, she's chasing after her three daughters or indulging in her husband's latest recipe. Andrea has a Bachelor's degree in Marketing/Management from Northeastern University and an MBA from Curry College.
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