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All you have to do is turn on the TV or go online to see that now more than ever there is a need in an emergency situation to find a way to instruct people inside a building on what to do to stay safe. Three hundred and fifty years ago the prime danger was fire, which was the case when London was ravished by a conflagration that destroyed 13,000 buildings. Remarkably, only a few people perished as the warning system of the day, a ringing bell and people yelling out warnings in the street, proved sufficient. Even when fire alarms became the norm in the 1900s, the piercing screech and flashing lights told you there was a fire, but not where the fire was, where the exits were, or even if you were heading into the inferno.

     In today’s society, fire is not the only peril facing occupants of buildings, whether they are schools, hospitals, apartment buildings or office buildings. In particular, school shootings, like those at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook, cry out for a more sophisticated emergency communications system, to allow those in harm’s way to be alerted as to the precise nature of the danger and how to safely escape from it.  The PA system at Sandy Hook Elementary was woefully inadequate in relaying important information, such as where the shooter is, how many shooters are there, and what is the safest exit route or next action?

     As a result of these issues, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) which writes our building safety codes has renamed the National Fire Alarm Code to National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. A key change is a building’s fire alarm system is or can be part of what is known as a Mass Notification System (MNS). This code now provides the latest safety provisions required to meet society's changing fire detection, signaling, and emergency communications demands. And although the core focus is on fire alarm systems, the code now includes weather emergencies; terrorist events; biological, chemical, and nuclear emergencies; and other threats.  The code covers the application, installation, location, performance, inspection, testing, and maintenance of fire alarm systems, supervising station alarm systems, public emergency alarm reporting systems, fire warning equipment and emergency communications systems (ECS), and their components.  

     It’s easy to understand why fire alarm systems are inherently the right choice for use in mass notification.  Fire alarm systems are code-driven and regulated. The circuitry is fully supervised, and the systems are periodically tested using NFPA guidelines. The rules, testing procedures and installation practices have been established, so fire alarm companies are able to hit the road running. Also, first responders are already familiar with the fire alarm equipment.

     It is believed that one of the most effective methods of warning students of a potential danger is texting to a cell phone, since most college students see their phone as an additional appendage. However, such a system proves ineffective at the K-12 level, where the text messaging option is geared toward parents rather than students and many school policies state that students can’t use cell phones or have them turned on during the school day. Another problem is what if I go on to my kids' college campus and I'm in the dorm. Well, I'm not registered on their emergency notification system, so I wouldn't know if there’s an emergency. But if somebody came on a microphone and said to please take cover in the nearest room and lock the door, I’ll know what to do.   If just a fire alarm goes off, students could possibly exist into the path of an active shooter. But a Mass Notification System can override the fire alarm system. The fire alarm would shut off and the Mass Notification System could announce something like, “Active shooter west side of building.”

     Using a system that is reserved for emergency situations, like the traditional fire alarm system, decreases the time required to notify staff, students or any occupant of a building or visitor to an area. This type of system is considered one of the highest levels of a comprehensive Mass Notification System and today is one of the least utilized.

      After all, adding a Mass Notification Component to a fire system, particularly if the system already utilizes speakers, is a fairly simple job. Yet many school officials or property owners, not just those at locations where tragedies have occurred, may not have been aware such an important option exists. At the very least a Mass Notification System is code driven.  The code requires that your fire alarm system be inspected. So if your fire alarm system is doubling as your emergency notification system, it’s going to get installed, inspected and tested adhering to strict guidelines. If  a Public Announcement System is installed thinking it is a suitable MNS replacement, it might be tested on occasion, but it has not been installed to survive and work if altered and it will not be inspected to ensure it works when it’s needed. And cost shouldn’t be a deterring factor as it might only be 15-30% more to have a Fire Alarm System upgraded during installation to utilize Speakers and Voice making it the core of  a building’s Mass Notification System. What is the cost of a life?

     There are many new devices that are available that can integrate with existing and new fire alarm systems that can convert or create a very reliable MNS system. One unique example is a small device similar to an exit sign that either flashes silently or makes noise and delivers text messages with instructions on how to react to the particular threat. Unlike traditional fire alarms where the natural response is to exit the building to get to safety, the MNS message may be to seek cover based on the existing threat. Unlike the traditional fire alarm utilizing only a red pull station that people around the world are familiar with indicating fire, the pull stations of the future or Local Operators Consoles (LOC’s) include a choice of fire emergency, weather or shooter emergency among others, providing the appropriate notification response.

   It’s really all a matter of putting in a little forethought. Most likely there is already a fire alarm system in place or planned to be. So instead of using regular horn strokes that make an annoying sound that everybody hates, why not replace them with speakers that will double as a delivery system an emergency or Mass Notification System.

     Installation of a Mass Notification System is designed to save lives, a comprehensively designed system can increase the number of lives saved. It’s all about system survivability, reliability and reaching the largest group possible in the shortest amount of time. And failure to install one can not only cost lives but also raise the possibility of serious financial liability.

     When Paul Revere alerted the colonists about an impending attack from a foreign enemy by flashing lanterns and riding horseback through the streets yelling at the top of his lungs, in many ways this was the 18th century equivalent of a Mass Notification System. Sadly, in today’s world, where our attackers don’t arrive in wooden boats but in our own fuel-heavy jet planes, and the enemy isn’t always a foreign stranger but the boy who lives just down the street playing video games, we all need to be protected by the state-of-art technology that exists today. Because to be in a building without a Mass Notification System when something goes terribly wrong, the silence can not only be deafening, it can be fatal.

William F. Donahue is President of Crown Supply Co., Inc., an award-winning distributor of electrical and fire alarm products, with locations in Providence, RI and Milford, MA. For more information visit

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