Category Archives: John Stofa

Emergency Messaging – Say the Right Thing!

Last time, we discussed the importance of defining the mission in emergency communications, as well as the role of NFPA 1600 in the Accidental Deployment Offers Huge Emergency Planning Lessons blog. Today, we’re going to take a closer look at how carefully-planned emergency communication system (ECS) messaging can help mitigate threats – and, in many cases, save lives.

Once an organization has completed its risk analysis in compliance with NFPA 1600, all stakeholders should be well aware of the various threats that the facility faces, whether they’re man-made, such as active shooters and vandalism, or natural, such as severe weather and earthquakes. Now that all the probable threats are laid out, how does the organization deal with them?

For schools, corporate campuses, healthcare facilities and more, it’s not enough to simply purchase and install an ECS; they must also be fully prepared to use it. Here are some of the main considerations integrators must keep in mind when working with ECS customers:

Specific messaging. Most leading emergency communications solutions offer eight or more distinct pre-defined messages, as well as the ability to provide live messaging. Most often, officials choose to have the first message be a pre-recorded alert that simply tells people what is happening (e.g. fire, tornado, etc.). This is quickly followed up by a live message that includes additional information, such as what to do, where to go and where exactly the emergency is taking place.

Communication method. A spoken announcement isn’t always the only (or best) way to get the word out about an emergency. It’s all a matter of getting relevant, pinpointed messaging to the right people, at the right time. Also consider whether other media would do the trick, including email, text messaging, TV feeds, social media, etc. Some facilities are even incorporating their computer screens and magic boards into their ECS, so don’t be afraid to think outside of the box.

Tone of messages. The tone of an ECS message can be just as important as its content – especially in loud, crowded environments like college campuses. Keep in mind that male and female voices can convey very different tones; for example, female voices can seem more soothing, which is why they are predominantly used in informative messaging. Male voices, on the other hand, can be interpreted as more stern, so they are more often used for providing direction in an emergency situation.

Message length. Remember to keep most messages short and to the point. In an emergency, people need to know what’s happening and what to do as quickly as possible – especially if panic is setting in. Brevity is especially important if the message needs to repeat in several languages. However, do not forget that all pre-recorded messages should be followed up with a live message offering information and instructions that are specific to the emergency.

Stakeholders. Who is in charge of operating the ECS? Who will be making any live announcements through the system? Are they fully trained on how to use each feature? At each facility, someone needs to be responsible for the system and be prepared to quickly and confidently use it in an emergency situation. Depending on your customer, this might be a fire marshal, police or security official, or even school principal. To become familiar with the system, ensure that each stakeholder trains, tests – and repeats, frequently.

A plan of action. In many facilities, such as a high-rise apartment building, panic during an emergency can be deadly. Consider what information should be provided to residents, students or other occupants before an emergency ever occurs. For example, security officials could let occupants know that, in the event of an emergency, they’ll hear a pre-recorded alert, followed by a live announcement with further instructions. In certain settings, it’s better to only give a pre-recorded message, which allows various officials or stakeholders to take the appropriate subsequent action. This might work well in a school, where teachers follow a predetermined plan following the first ECS message.

As you walk each customer through these considerations, look to NFPA 1600 as a guideline. It will help end users hone in on the messaging that will result in exactly the response they’re looking for. By carefully considering all facets of an ECS, you’ll help your customers better protect their facilities, and minimize panic, injuries and loss of life.

About the Author
John Stofa has worked in the fire alarm and fire sprinkler industry for more than 20 years and is NICET certified. He joined Honeywell Fire Systems (HFS) in 2006 for which he currently serves as its Municipal Account Manager. John was a volunteer/call firefighter in the States of New York, Connecticut and Vermont and has been a professional EMS provider in New York State for 10 years. John holds a Bachelors degree in Fire Science, an Associate degree in Fire Protection Technology and is currently studying Fire Protection Engineering.

Accidental Deployment Offers Huge Emergency Planning Lessons

Today’s college universities, K-12 campuses, and healthcare and corporate facilities face a complex series of threats, ranging from active shooters to terrorism, severe weather and costly accidents. For any location that includes such large populations as these facilities, an emergency communications plan is an absolute must-have. However, as many universities and other facilities scramble to implement emergency communications protocol, they ignore the big picture. To achieve success, they must first define the mission and perform a full risk analysis.

Too often, because of the fast moving and dynamic situation, stakeholders and officials make uninformed – yet well-intentioned – decisions during tragic events like we’ve seen in the past. Many universities and other facilities have invested in emergency communications systems (ECS) to deal with these types of threats, without first establishing and defining the mission.

A recent event at a U.S. community college illustrates what can happen when a full risk analysis isn’t performed. The school’s Emergency Communication System accidentally sent out an active shooter message to one building on campus. Of course, students and faculty in the building panicked, fled the building and spread the word via text messages and social media. Soon enough, over 3,000 campus occupants were scrambling to flee, causing traffic jams, confusion and fear.

In this case, the problems were three-fold:
1. the initial pre-recorded message sent out was too brief and didn’t offer enough information;
2. the initial message was never followed-up with additional “live” information or directions;
3. teachers, students and staff didn’t know what to do in that type of emergency situation

Risk Analysis
The community college incident is an unfortunate example of why universities and other large campuses require carefully thought-out emergency communications plans. Rather than just jumping into the purchase of an ECS, stakeholders should first perform a risk analysis that includes the following considerations:

• What potential threats exist on your campus? (e.g., active shooters, hurricanes, tornadoes, chemical spills, etc.) Are there some risks that you can mitigate and do away with altogether?
• What is your mission or ultimate goal?
• What actions will achieve that goal in each situation? (e.g., evacuating the entire campus, telling people to shelter in place)
• If you decide to invest in an ECS, what is the intent of the technology? What exactly will it cause people to do? Will it provide them enough information to help get them to safety?
• Who will operate the ECS system and be responsible for the initial activation and follow-up messaging? How will you train them to use it effectively?

Risk analyses are a very important part of a facility’s overall security and emergency response solution. Security officials and other stakeholders who are unsure of where to begin can partner with their fire alarm and security distributor or integrator, or even an independent security consultant, to help ensure a thorough and accurate risk analysis.

The Role of NFPA 1600
NFPA 1600 (Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs) is a national preparedness standard that is extremely helpful for facilities looking to implement voice evacuation and other emergency communication technology. This code serves as a very effective guideline for completing a risk analysis, which can then be used when determining how an ECS should be set up and what the emergency messaging should say. That way, when stakeholders are ready to invest in emergency communication technology, they know exactly what the system should look like.

Best of all, NFPA 1600 helps ensure facilities create an Emergency Response Plan and employ ECS that take into account modern technology, such as smart phones and tablets, as well as changing conditions on their campus. As technology, funding and/or even stakeholders change and evolve, the code forces facilities to update and regularly test their plans with those changes in mind. In that way, NFPA 1600 takes the excuses out of emergency planning and makes each response plan a living document.

Making Safety a Priority
Too often, security officials invest in an ECS, put it out of their minds and hope they never have to use it. In reality, though, emergency communication should be top-of-mind each and every day. By starting with a thorough risk analysis and emergency response plan campus facilities can ensure that they are investing time and resources into solutions that will actually work for them—now and for years to come.

In a future post, we’ll talk more about emergency communication messaging, and how the right information, disseminated in the right way, can save lives.

 

About the Author
John Stofa has worked in the fire alarm and fire sprinkler industry   for more than 20 years and is NICET certified. He joined Honeywell Fire Systems (HFS) in 2006 for which he currently serves as its Municipal Account Manager. John was a volunteer/call firefighter in the States of New York, Connecticut and Vermont and has been a professional EMS provider in New York State for 10 years. John holds a Bachelors degree in Fire Science, an Associate degree in Fire Protection Technology and is currently studying Fire Protection Engineering.

 

 

Communication is Key to Saving Lives in High-Rise Building Fires

This blog is a follow-up to last week’s post, NYCHigh-Rise Fire Prompts Calls for Stronger Fire Safety Legislation, by Tom Von Essen, a former New York Fire Department commissioner.

In the two months following a deadly Hell’s Kitchen high-rise apartment fire, calls have steadily increased for improved fire safety legislation in New York City’s towering residential buildings. The horrible death of one man, and the hospitalization of his partner, seems to have mobilized an entire city to action; however, what is the best way to ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again?

The beauty of modern technology is that there are countless solutions available to building owners that could help first responders better communicate with residents during an emergency. The key will be identifying the systems that are best-suited for this all-important task.

This is a huge problem for New York City. People have died and been seriously injured simply because there is a lack of regulation around residential high-rises. In many emergencies, residents don’t know what to do: shelter in their apartment? Evacuate via a stairwell? Depending on the nature of the fire (or, other emergency, such as a tornado or terrorist threat), the best course of action may vary. That’s why first responders must have a way to effectively communicate with everyone in a building — and I do mean everyone.

Strong notification systems are especially necessary for communicating to the most vulnerable members of our society, including young children, the elderly and those who with limited mobility. Some of these individuals may have very limited resources and, in many situations, aren’t able to save themselves. The more information we can give these populations to help themselves during emergencies, the better.

If new legislation does get passed, requiring building owners to install an emergency communication system, there will be a lot of businesses touting their solution as the best option. So, let’s take a closer look at how some of the technology available might perform in a high-rise, residential setting:

Paging system: One- or two-way paging is a good first step. This will enable, for example, fire fighters to notify residents about the location of a fire and advise them to stay in their apartments. However, your average PA system contains no redundant or survivable design qualities, so when the system’s backbone or devices are damaged, the system simply doesn’t work.

Digital signage: There are many options on the market for wall-mounted communication devices, many of which feature speakers, digital text and flashing strobes. These displays could be useful on the lobby of each floor and/or by stairwell entrances, to quickly tell residents (and other people in the building) what to do in an emergency. Strobes and other visual communication are especially helpful for deaf residents.

Social media integration: A building’s communication technology could be integrated with social media sites, like Twitter and Facebook, to provide emergency updates in real-time. While this is a useful tool in some cases, it shouldn’t be a primary means of communicating with people in the event of an emergency. However, social media integration provides fantastic redundancy in cases where other systems, such as one-way paging systems or phone lines, fail.

Fire alarm system with voice capabilities: In my experience, a fire alarm system with voice capabilities is going to be a building owner’s best bet for emergency communication. This technology is built around a backbone that is designed to survive for a period during a fire and still operate in intense heat. With this type of system, residents can be notified of a fire or other emergency with alarms and strobes; then, first responders can communicate with them using speakers installed in each apartment or floor lobby.

To fully solve the problem facing New York’s high-rise residences, first responders need not one, not two, but three or four effective ways to “talk to” people inside a building. A winning solution would bring all of these technology pieces together.

Of course, there is a cost involved. And, if new legislation requires the installation of communication technology in every high-rise residence, the building owner will be responsible. Consider the average cost of a system, and divide that by the number of residents in a given building; which might be into the hundreds. Then divide that by the number of days the system will be in service before in needs to be updated. The resulting price is less than a penny per person per day. And that’s the cost of a life.

I think this legislation is timely and very important. I urge those advocating for the new legislation, as well as any legislators who get involved, to do their research on the available technology. Together, we can find the right system that will work effectively to make sure tragic incidents like the fire death in Hell’s Kitchen never happen again.

 

About the Author:
John Stofa has worked in the fire alarm and fire sprinkler industry for more than 20 years and is NICET certified. He joined Honeywell Fire Systems (HFS) in 2006 for which he currently serves as its Municipal Account Manager. John was a volunteer/call firefighter in the States of New York, Connecticut and Vermont and has been a professional EMS provider in New York State for 10 years. John holds a Bachelors degree in Fire Science, an Associate degree in Fire Protection Technology and is currently studying Fire Protection Engineering.