Setting up an emergency communication system

Engineers should learn to develop and implement an ECS in accordance with national fire and life safety requirements.


Recent events have mandated organizations and universities to review and improve their emergency management through better planning, management, and coordination. One approach is the development and implementation of an emergency communication system (ECS) in accordance with national fire and life safety requirements. The National Fire Protection Assn. (NFPA) National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code (NFPA 72) provides design criteria for mass notification systems as part of an overall ECS. NFPA 72 has taken the lead when it comes to helping organizations understand how to develop and implement an ECS to assist in communications in support of emergency response efforts on a campus or in a building.

In the past, there has been confusion about the distinction between an ECS and a mass notification system (MNS).  ECS is defined as: “A system for the protection of life by indicating the existence of an emergency situation and communicating information necessary to facilitate an appropriate response.”  MNS is defined as: “A system used to provide information and instruction to people in a building(s) or other space using intelligible voice communications and including visible signals, text, graphics, or other communication methods.”  

In short, the ECS is the overall system used to detect and communicate information to occupants, while an MNS is a subsystem of an ECS.

Some believe an MNS is only retrofitting a fire alarm system to be able to communicate emergency signals for other than fire emergencies, while others think it is a system of loudspeakers located on the exterior of a building. To be an effective tool, the MNS should be developed as part of an ECS that allows an organization or university to easily and effectively notify occupants of an emergency and actions that should be taken.

Organizations and/or universities need to plan, prepare, and implement an ECS in a coordinated and comprehensive manner. They need to correctly identify, design, install, and manage all elements of an ECS as part of an overall emergency management program (EMP). A suggested approach includes developing a strategy for the development of an ECS through a structured process that includes:

  • Risk analysis
  • Master planning
  • Design and installation
  • Training.

If an organization develops a strategy prior to the design and installation of an ECS, the organization can integrate the ECS into the overall EMP and improve its ability to effectively identify, communicate, and coordinate response efforts until the arrival of the local authorities.

Codes and standards, such as NFPA 72, 2010 Edition; The Jeanne Clery Act; NFPA 1600; and NFPA 1620, provide guidance and regulations on the design, installation, and implementation of an ECS as part of an EMP. During the process, organizations and universities will face challenges, but with proper planning and understanding of codes, standards, and the organization’s goals, they can develop an ECS and EMP that will minimize the negative impact and maximize protection of their facilities and people.

The Jeanne Clery Act

If a university receives federal funding, it is required to report crime statistics annually to identify events that have occurred on its campus. The basis for the reporting requirements is tied to The Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, or Clery Act. Jeanne Clery was a 19-year-old coed who was raped and murdered in her dorm room. The Clery Act requires universities to report crime statistics, but new amendments have increased the reporting requirements. Under the amendments enacted in July 2010, a university, as part of its Clery Act reporting, must now provide a policy statement on how it plans, prepares, responds, and tests its emergency response and evacuation procedures. Every university is required to review its current emergency response programs; identify how it monitors, improves, and implements its program; and details how its notifies and communicates emergency information to those affected.

Under the Clery Act, the Dept. of Education has the ability to impose penalties on a university for failure to comply with the act’s requirements. These penalties, which can exceed thousands of dollars, could harm a university’s reputation and prohibit a university from participating in federal financial aid programs. Just recently, Virginia Tech was identified by the Dept. of Education as failing to comply with timely notification during the recent campus shooting. While Virginia Tech officials maintain they handled the situation properly, this case shows the level of scrutiny a university or organization may face if an event occurs at its campus. The Clery Act amendments enacted in July 2010 were a direct result of the Virginia Tech shooting and designed to improve emergency response on campuses throughout the United States.

NFPA 72, 2010 Edition

In 2003, the Air Force Civil Engineer Support Agency petitioned NFPA to develop a standard for the design and installation of an MNS. Guidelines were first included in the NFPA 72 document as Annex E. However, the recommendations for the design and installation of MNS were not mandatory; the annex only provided organizations with a reference tool to use. In the 2010 edition of NFPA 72, the technical committee moved the requirements from the annex section to a new chapter on ECS requirements. Chapter 24 provides requirements for design, installation, testing, and implementation of ECS systems, including:

- Information and control

- Performance-based design

- One-way ECS

  • In-building fire evacuations
  • In-building MNS

    • Combination systems
    • Interface with MNS
    • Public address system for MNS

  • Wide-area MNS
  • Distributed recipient MNS

- Two-way ECS

  • Two-way wired emergency services ECS
  • Two-way radio enhanced system
  • Are of refuge ECS
  • Elevator ECS

Chapter 24 also includes requirements for the development of an emergency response plan in accordance with NFPA 1600 and NFPA 1620. The emergency response plan should include:

  • Emergency response team structure
  • Emergency response procedures (building, human, terrorism, weather)
  • Response equipment and operations
  • Emergency response notification (content, approval, initiation process)
  • Emergency response training and drills.

NFPA 1600 is a standard designed to assist organizations in the development of an emergency management and business continuity program. Chapter 24 also requires that an ECS be designed in accordance with a risk analysis, which is developed prior to the design an ECS. Both the planning and risk analysis are vital components to the overall effectiveness of an ECS. With their inclusion in Chapter 24, organizations now are required to address not only software and hardware, but how the systems will be implemented and used. NFPA 1620 was developed to assist local authorities in obtaining valuable information prior to their arrival on-site through the development of site-specific pre-incident plans that include valuable site and operational information.

NFPA 1600

When an emergency occurs on a campus or in a building, an organization or university must have a clear understanding and approach to manage the initial response efforts and minimize the negative impacts on their operations and occupants. NFPA 1600, Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs, is a good resource for organizations to consult when developing a comprehensive program to respond to various emergencies, including fire, bomb threat, medical emergency, and even an active shooter. NFPA 1600 addresses elements such as proper team structure organizations, communications and response management, training programs and drills, and documentation.

Without a proper emergency response plan, an organization may not have the ability to effectively respond to an emergency. It may have a top-of-the-line ECS, but if the organization and its occupants/students don’t understand how to use the system and what response steps should be taken, the system will not aid in a response to an emergency.

Organizations and universities should review NFPA 1600 and to determine if their emergency management program addresses all relevant concerns. If an organization has an ECS or is looking to develop one, is should look at integrating the response mechanisms to address the use of the various ECS components and equipment.

NFPA 1620

NFPA provides resources to help organizations and universities coordinate the arrival of local authorities to their site when an emergency occurs. NFPA 1620, Standard for Pre-Incident Planning, provides direction on the development of pre-incident plans designed to assist local authorities understand the site and critical operational information. These pre-incident plans are designed to clearly identify and coordinate site information that may be required by the responding local authorities during an emergency.

Organizations and universities, during the development of pre-incident plans, need to address more than just one local authority. Various local authorities may respond to a site emergency, and each may have different critical information needs. Information to be included on a pre-incident plan could include site access points, fire and life safety system locations and operations, critical operational control locations, and other site information that may be unique and identified prior to the arrival of a local authority.

Code requirements

With many codes and standards addressing ECS and emergency management, an organization or university needs to clearly understand what is required prior to the design and installation of an ECS. One source of information is the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) overseeing the organization or university. The code requirements may vary by the code edition adopted and the systems being installed.  NFPA 72 is currently being adopted by several states, and organizations planning to retrofit their current fire alarm systems may have to adhere to the new requirements outlined in NFPA 72.

For example, in the event an organization is installing an MNS in its building or on its campus that is not a required system per the AHJ, the MNS must meet the requirements outlined in NFPA 72.  In addition, the operation and coordination of the MNS must be addressed in the emergency response plan.

An ECS may be installed in occupancies where required by an AHJ or other applicable laws, codes, or standards.  One example would be a high-rise building.  Due to the occupancy, NFPA 72 requires the owner of the building to install a voice alarm system, a form of ECS.

Emergency management codes and standards are now being used by more and more AHJs as they are identified in national and international standards. NFPA 1600 is identified in NFPA 72, 2010 Edition, and is required if ECS are designed and/or retrofitted. Each AHJ may also have specific requirements for emergency planning and reporting. New York City, Chicago, and others cities have specific requirements for the development, s, and management of these programs.

NFPA 1600 and NFPA 1620 provide a great starting point for an organization or university to effectively plan and manage emergency response efforts at their site or campus.

Identify and develop

Once an organization determines that it wants to enhance its emergency management program and/or ECS, it must develop a strategy for managing the design and implementation process. One approach includes assessment, development, implementation, and education. Each of these aspects should be spelled out and managed to help an organization or university develop and implement an EMP to address its specific concerns.

The first step in an organization’s approach should be an assessment of the risks/threats to the operations, the location, and the systems already installed that could be used in the response plan. The assessment should identify what types of emergencies could occur, their probability of occurring, and their potential impact on the organization. Risks/threats could include site, human-related, terrorism-related, and weather-related emergencies that could potentially affect the safety and security of occupants, staff, and/or visitors.

When conducting the risk analysis, an organization should inventory all equipment and systems that could be used in an emergency, such as fire and life safety systems, access control systems, public address systems, CCTV systems, and e-mail management systems. With this information, an organization can develop a comprehensive approach and a system to be designed and installed.  The ideal situation is to integrate existing systems and equipment to minimize the costs of installing a new system from scratch.

Designing an ECS

After developing a strategy and completing the risk analysis, the organization can design a system that responds to various emergencies. The ECS design should incorporate the current equipment and be able to integrate both new and legacy systems to allow the organization to respond to emergency situations effectively.

When designing an ECS, an organization or university can seek outside support for development and/or review of an ECS for code compliance and effectiveness. In addition, the organization will need to consult the local AHJ to ensure it agrees with the design intent and system installation strategy.

Once the design is completed, the organization must use a managed approach to identify vendors that have the capability to design and install the ECS, and also to provide technical support after the system has been installed and commissioned. During the installation and commissioning process, the organization should monitor the installation process and require updates from the contractors to determine if the system and equipment are being installed in accordance with the design guidelines and system code requirements.

Upon completion of the installation, the organization should conduct full-scale tests of the systems to determine if they meet the needs of the organization and work as designed.

System implementation

As the system is being designed and installed, the organization should start to review the emergency response plan to determine what protocols need to be modified due to the new ECS. When modifying the protocols, the organization should detail how the ECS will be used before, during, and after an emergency and what response steps need to be implemented at various stages of the ECS use.

The emergency management program must identify how the ECS will communicate information to an organization’s occupants: What is the message? Who is the target? Who is authorized to activate and use the ECS? What are occupants to do when they get the information?

The review of the emergency management program should be coordinated with the design and installation schedule to allow an organization to integrate the protocol changes into the system components and programming. By coordinating this process, the ECS and emergency management program will have a better chance of being integrated into a seamless tool to manage emergencies.

When an ECS is installed or a program is developed, it is critical to train the various end users in the system capabilities and program elements. Everyone affected by the ECS and/or emergency management program should receive such training, including occupants, first responders, and students/occupants. The level and type of training depends on the nature of the ECS and emergency management program and the person’s responsibilities. Education should include training sessions, live drills, and program information that will assist a person before, during, and after an emergency.

Many organizations are looking to improve their abilities to identify, communicate, and respond to emergencies that create unsafe and unsecure conditions. Organizations should concentrate on assessing their needs and risks and developing an ECS and EMP that can be implemented and managed in a manner that will minimize the negative impact of the emergency on the safety and security of their occupants, tenants, or students.

As codes and standards evolve, organizations will have more resources developing, implementing, and using various ECS components as part of an EMP. However, as the process evolves, they need to remain vigilant and active in the review and improvement of their ECS and EMPs. When developing an ECS and/or EMP, an organization or university will face challenges. However, with proper planning and management, the ECS and/or EMP development process can provide an organization with a comprehensive EMP to effectively manage response efforts while minimizing the negative impacts to the organization.

Evenson is the director of emergency management for Rolf Jensen and Assocs. Evenson has more than 16 years of experience in emergency management and is an active member on both NFPA 1600 and NFPA 99 technical committees.  

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