Rethink Mass Notification

Properly dealing with emergencies demands integration of plant systems.

By Joe Wilson, Federal Signal

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Keep it Simple
This is the formula for success in emergency mass notification. Complex warning alerts and messages or an excess number of scenarios and action plans could well add to confusion of an emergency situation.

In laying out a strategic emergency plan, limiting the number and simplifying the complexity of warnings and alerts is critical. For example, at the world's largest liquefied natural gas production facility, a single alert tone is used for all emergency situations. Although the system can provide hundreds of different tones, relying on a single tone eliminates the need for employees to memorize, interpret and react to multiple tones and their associated meanings. Once the tone sounds it's immediately followed by more-detailed voice instruction broadcast over the public address system — but by that time the entire facility has been alerted to the need for immediate action.

In another example, an isomerization plant at a major Texas refinery employs a slightly more complex warning system — four warbler siren blasts: one for testing, two for work stoppage, three for evacuation of nonessential personnel and a continuous blast for total evacuation.

Limiting the number and complexity of emergency warning signals is an effective way to minimize confusion and assure immediate and effective response during a catastrophic incident involving hazardous chemical materials.

Best Practices
Considering human life may be at stake, a plant must strive to base it's emergency mass notification strategy on best practices. So, let's look at how these are evolving.

The trend toward network management instead of discrete wires and relays stands out as a major improvement over past mass notification systems. Distributing data and information over a network is both faster and more efficient. It also provides cost savings by substantially reducing infrastructure requirements.

In planning a plant mass notification strategy, consider the increased speed, greater reliability and cost savings that opting for network-managed systems instead of discrete wiring and relays may offer.

Network-managed systems accommodate a broader range of media, such as audio and video, providing increased communications flexibility. Standard Network Management Protocol (SNMP), a proven and widely accepted methodology, supports continuous remote monitoring of individual mass notification system components for improved reliability and lower maintenance expenditures.

Standardized (non-critical) Windows-based system monitoring and configuration software represents another step forward for mass notification. These systems are easier to install, support simple routine modifications in the field and eliminate the need for custom factory software. With just a "point and click" users can program settings into nonvolatile memory. Of course, a number of built-in protections prevent unauthorized users from making modifications.

The increased use of fiber optics is another popular trend that's paying dividends, especially for larger multi-facility companies implementing or upgrading mass notification requirements. By linking sites in redundant, completely self-healing communication rings, fiber-optic transmission promotes heightened standards of reliability, enhanced flexibility and simplified less-costly maintenance.

Another promising development is use of satellite images. Such images now are being incorporated as overlays for site drawings to calculate theoretical sound coverage for audible siren and horn alerts. This technology also can be accessed to take advantage of Geographic Information System (GIS)-based mapping for targeted public alerting on a local or regional basis.

Satellite imaging provides an effective tool for establishing effective audible warning sound coverage as well as mapping geographic areas for citizen alerts.

Gateway to Intelligent Mass Notification
Mass notification covers both indoor and outdoor requirements and calls for interface with the telephone/PABX and plant intercommunications systems, public address, tones, voice messaging, etc. Through traditional loudspeakers and a variety of illumination signaling devices (Figure 1), these back-end systems actually produce the warnings and notifications. On the front end of emergency notification -- performing the function of activating and integrating these back-end systems -- are the intelligent IP-based interoperable technologies that have evolved since 9/11.

Not to be confused with integrated communications, interoperable communications supports a facility's capability for real-time communications and urgent notification of multiple parties using multiple devices. The next step in providing a "total solution," interoperable communications is key to establishing seamless multi-media communications with fire, police and medical first responders, local authorities and citizens in surrounding communities. Additionally, interoperability supports and augments a number of other incident response and emergency preparedness initiatives, including wide-area alerting and data sharing among multiple agencies.

An extension of alert notification and secure messaging software, integrated incident planning and execution tools support National Incident Management System/Unified Incident Command System (NIMS/UICS) and provide a method for defining "tiered response" plans to events initiated both internally and externally. Known as scenario management software, these applications integrate alerting, communications interoperability and collaboration tools to automatically activate multiple forms of communication.

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