Rethink Mass Notification

Properly dealing with emergencies demands integration of plant systems.

By Joe Wilson, Federal Signal

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Integrated incident planning and execution tools serve as a "nerve center" to trigger and coordinate response, communication, alert notification and collaborative efforts of employees and management, local officials and agencies, and first responders.

Deployed at a chemical plant, scenario management systems enable incident events and related tasks, and emergency procedures and command-and-control confirmations to be configured in step-by-step chains via graphical process maps (Figure 2). In the event of an explosion or toxic leak the touch of a single button can initiate multiple emergency steps; all people who need to be notified will be notified, regardless of where they happen to be.

Scenario management systems allow users to predefine automatic procedures for various events based on specific needs. Scenarios may be programmed to cover any series of actions, including broadcasting alerts, evaluating responses, pulling data from external systems, activating standby channels and more.

Scenario management applications can be used to automate emergency incident procedures and contingency plans in much the same way flow charts are used to document a process.

A new era in mass notification is beginning. In addition to likely further tightening of government regulations, demand for network-based systems, new interoperable communications technology and system integration undoubtedly will continue at an invigorating pace. Beyond possible loss of human life, the potential costs to the environment, damage to facilities, litigation, fines and an organization's reputation make the consequences of inadequate mass notification simply too grim even to consider. 

Keep 10 Guidelines in Mind
These practical pointers can improve your emergency planning and notification efforts:

1. Establish clearly defined objectives. Emergency preparedness begins with assessing risks and preparing for possible emergencies by evaluating all scenarios, threats and affected stakeholders. For example, a plant located close to a school, hospital or other potentially impacted public areas should ensure proper communication and planning before an event occurs.

2. Remember: Individual facilities present unique requirements. One plant may need to stress "when" and "who" needs to be notified while another may need to emphasize real-time bilingual emergency warnings or system-automated alert notifications. Assess employees' English comprehension by contacting the human resources dept. or conducting an internal survey to identify potential language barriers and ensure they're fully addressed during training and tests.

3. Test and evaluate plans and systems annually. Plants should designate at least one day each year for all employees to take part in refresh training and a test exercise. If changes occur with personnel, structures or dangerous chemicals on site, a facility should evaluate whether all technologies and scenarios are still relevant and efficient.

4. Integrate systems to achieve adaptable monitoring and failsafe performance. Technology continually creates new opportunities for efficiencies while raising standards for best practices. Assess all current communication technologies in use to identify and address gaps in system-wide integration for monitoring and redundant automated responses. Mass notification systems must be forward-looking and engineered to support new technologies.

5. Keep things simple. While hardly a revelation, this rule can get lost despite best intentions. Having too many instructions can confuse employees at all levels. For example, lengthy, complex foldout directions that employees must stow inside their hard hats may prove counter-productive to effective real-time response.

6. Leverage technology advancements for performance and cost advantages. Think about the future: The data-carrying ability of fiber optics alone enables the expansion of technologies to come. If not already in place, consider adding fiber optics to provide heightened standards of reliability and flexibility, as well as simplified less-costly maintenance.

7. Stay focused on user-friendly technologies. The human element of mass notification is critical for ensuring quick and instinctive emergency response. However, its value substantially diminishes when operators and employees aren't properly trained in how and when to use the system to activate the appropriate warnings and notifications for prescribed scenarios. Make certain operators and administrators are trained across departments to ensure necessary coverage 24/7.

8. Make interoperable communications part of a "total solution." IP-based software-centric interoperable communications represent the gateway to intelligent mass notification by supporting real-time communications and urgent notification of multiple parties using multiple devices, networks and frequencies. This enables seamless multi-media communications with first responders, local authorities and citizens, as well as augmented incident response and emergency preparedness.

9. Map incident planning and execution chain of events. Use scenario management systems to enable incident events, related tasks, emergency procedures and command-and-control confirmations to be configured in step-by-step chains via graphical process maps. In the event of an explosion or toxic leak, multiple emergency steps then can be initiated with the touch of a single button to enable everyone to be notified regardless of location.

10. Achieve additional return on investment. Mass notification systems can be valuable assets for everyday non-emergency intra- and inter-plant communications (e.g., public address and intercom systems), enabling key personnel to become more familiar and comfortable with system capabilities. Encourage designated plant personnel to use tools to become more connected and integrated with plant floor operations or other priority business areas.

Joe Wilson is vice president/general manager of the Industrial and Commercial Systems Group of Federal Signal, University Park, Ill. E-mail him at

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