Since 2001, Mass Notification Systems (MNS) have become more prevalent as building owners and risk managers have increased their focus on the potential impact of non-fire related emergencies in their facilities. As during a fire event, real-time communication during a non-fire emergency is critical to the safety of the building occupants. As the desire for MNS increases and owners search for cost-effective means to communicate during an event, an increasingly common method for in-building notification is to utilize a fire emergency voice/alarm communication system (EVACS). These fire alarm systems already include speakers throughout the building and dual use of these systems as fire alarm as well as for more general emergency communication eliminates the need for a separate in-building emergency communication system,.
Unfortunately, it is not appropriate to simply provide an EVACS fire alarm system in order to provide emergency communications for non-fire events. NFPA 72, which governs fire alarm and MNS design, permits the use of an EVACS for mass notification only after a risk analysis has been completed and the building’s emergency response plan has been prepared and approved by the local jurisdiction. This is critical as fire alarm systems are designed to notify tenants of a fire-event only and using them in a non-fire event without proper risk analysis and a comprehensive plan can create challenges where the desired level of communication is not possible during an event leading to confusion and limiting the efficacy of these systems.
Proper risk analysis and an emergency response plan are also important because they identify potential emergencies and determine how the MNS can and should be used during each event. Certain events must be prioritized over others, allowing communication channels to remain open and effective in an emergency. Identification of potential emergencies and the response capabilities of the EVACS must also be tailored to the specific organizations, and locations as well as with consideration to the various languages and cultures of the building occupants. Building owners that believe their traditional EVACS system is a tool for emergency communication may find they have limited control over the system when an emergency arises or worse, a system that is actively working against the goal of occupant safety. One example of this issue would be an active shooter who pulls the fire alarm in an effort to get people out of the building.
As far as who can perform the risk analysis, if the fire alarm designer or electrical engineer has the required expertise, he or she may complete the risk analysis as part of the design process. NFPA 72 offers requirements and guidance for how to perform these analyses. If the designer does not feel comfortable, or the owner is looking for a designer with more specific expertise, a fire protection engineer can also assist.
Use of a fire alarm system for in-building emergency communication can be a powerful and cost effective tool. A risk analysis is a code-required tool that can be used to greatly improve the efficacy of the system and increase occupant safety.