Rethink Mass Notification

Properly dealing with emergencies demands integration of plant systems.

By Joe Wilson, Federal Signal

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This article was originally published in our sister publication Chemical Processing.

Emergency mass notification at chemical plants traditionally has focused on audible and visual signaling devices such as sirens, horns, warning lights, beacons, public address and intercom systems. To alert anyone off site -- including fire, police and medical first responders -- communications often were limited exclusively to auto-dialing systems. Since September 11, 2001, the threat of terrorist attacks has prompted plant managers to re-evaluate their approach to both internal and external emergency mass notification. For obvious reasons, this need is particularly important for facilities that process, use, store and distribute hazardous chemicals.

Approximately 7,000 facilities -- roughly half of the nation's chemical plants -- are at high risk of a catastrophic accident or terrorist attack, according to an April 2007 report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Just 101 of the most dangerous plants place more than 80 million Americans within range of a worst-case toxic gas leak, explosion or terrorist attack, according to "Chemical Security 101," a report issued in November 2008 by the Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C. (For more on that report, see: "How Should Industry Tackle Threats.")

Chemical facilities not vigilant about emergency planning and preparedness may find their procedures far lag "best practice," if not border on being inadequate. Despite the oversight of bodies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and DHS, shortcomings have ranged from insufficient audible coverage for indoor plant warning systems, to confusing menus of tonal alerts, to inadequate contingency planning if key personnel are unavailable to initiate emergency plans. Employee and management training that's either insufficient or infrequent also has surfaced with disturbing regularity.

Compliance with government directives clearly is driving this comprehensive re-assessment of emergency mass notification planning, systems and resources. Proliferation of new software-driven technology riding on existing network topologies, and deployment of seamless multi-device interoperable communications both within and outside the facility also is at play. Additionally, there's the ongoing trend toward integrated systems, which in this instance means unifying disparate mass notification devices and systems to achieve the highest possible levels of monitoring, redundancy, reliability and operational simplicity.

System Integration And Interoperability
Safety warning, communications and security requirements traditionally have been addressed through individual systems dedicated to specific needs. These systems have grown in complexity and expanded in number to encompass everything from public address, intercom, telecommunications, paging, text messaging, voice messaging, e-mail and general alarm, to real-time Internet Protocol (IP)-based communications.

Integrating disparate components such as sirens, signaling beacons, fire/gas systems and public address now is critical for ensuring effective redundancy and monitoring for emergency communications and warning. This is because the automation that accompanies integration of audible, visual and digital systems significantly speeds incident response times while also providing decision-makers with invaluable up-to-the-minute data as emergency events unfold.

Redundancy remains a key priority of mass notification system design. The objective is to provide immediate and automatic system backup necessary to achieve maximum levels of failsafe operation and monitoring. Decentralizing control of the system produces higher levels of redundancy as well as enhances intelligibility and ease of use.

Integrating disparate mass notification systems effectively automates hazardous monitoring and warning functions, thereby assuring failsafe operation and accelerated response times.

While IP-based interoperable technology has had a powerful impact on emergency mass notification and continues to show substantial promise for the future, it does have possible limitations that should be considered. These deficiencies become evident in any discussion of the need for redundant system backup and monitoring, particularly as it relates to integration with more-traditional emergency warning systems and devices.

As recently illustrated by public safety emergencies like on campus shootings and natural disasters, there remains a possibility infrastructure for local telecommunications and Internet access could become overtaxed during a catastrophic incident. At a chemical processing facility, either this or a similar deficiency could seriously impair the ability to initiate both conventional and automated telephone, text messaging, paging and e-mail notification of employees as well as local officials and the general public. A fully integrated system that offers reliable backup of additional alert systems, i.e., sirens, horns, loudspeakers, signal beacons and warning lights, ensures redundancy is built in at all levels of emergency mass notification.

Interoperable communications is playing an increasingly important role in emergency mass notification. However, reliance on telecommunications and Internet infrastructures that recently have proven inadequate emphasize the need for automated backup by more traditional warning systems such as sirens and signaling beacons.

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