Emergency notification systems: Best practices for specifying in schools
As contractors continue to familiarize themselves with the requirements for ECS, design specifications shall consider incorporating the following NFPA 72 documentation requirements:
- Owner’s manual
- Record and as-built drawings
- Written sequences of operation
- Updated record of completion form
- Record copy of the system specific software, where applicable
- Copy of the site-specific software
- Emergency response plan, with operational management procedures defined for management and activation of the system
- Risk analysis, where applicable
These closeout documents are vital for future modification and expansion of a system. Security of the documentation is important and should be considered as part of the design with the owner. Designers should ensure the documentation reflects the accepted system and is delivered to the owner following the system acceptance.
Regardless of the type of fire alarm system and/or ECS being designed, the strategy should incorporate any owner/client specific requirements. As a result of the Higher Education Opportunity Act requiring (as of July 1, 2010) polices to “immediately notify the campus community upon the confirmation of a significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or staff occurring on the campus,” many higher education clients have incorporated emergency communications into their design standards and directives.
Specific requirements that may be incorporated into the design documents (where applicable) include:
- Type of system to be designed
- Capacity for future expansion (battery, conduit, number of points, wire size)
- Fire alarm equipment allowance
- Equipment installation height and spacing guides
- Additional detection coverage beyond code requirements
- Contractor qualifications
- Conduit and wiring requirements
- Circuiting requirements
- Security (password protection or location of control equipment).
The design team should also consider the reliability, survivability, and level of redundancy that is to be provided by the system.
In many applications, funding is the driving factor limiting the implementation of various ECS even when the desire and/or need for these systems is readily apparent. Funding is being reduced during each budget cycle, making schools do more with less. Many times the challenge becomes developing a long-term strategy that recommends how to incorporate ECS. Designers, engineers, and owners should understand that an ECS can include numerous technologies and equipment; however, the desired end product does not necessarily need to be implemented all at the same time. Some systems and/or parts may be implemented in phases as funding becomes available. Designers should consider the risk analysis and the most economical way of mitigating the vulnerabilities while working toward the desired end product.
So what can existing education facilities do in the short term to keep their facility, students, and parents better informed during an emergency? A quickly deployed option could be to use text messaging if the facility is able to collect and maintain an updated list of phone numbers. Additionally, the campus Internet protocol (IP) phones that are located in all of the classrooms could be programmed to broadcast a message through the speaker. Although improvements might be necessary to improve the audibility and intelligibility as well as secondary power capacity to operate during a power outage, this option may be less costly to building owners, depending on the existing infrastructure.
Other options for existing facilities may include upgrading the building fire alarm system to an in-building fire emergency voice/alarm communications system that is mass-notification ready, implementing reverse 911 calling/texting, installing high-power speaker arrays, or other ECS solutions. The cost versus benefits of the various technologies should be analyzed while taking into consideration the level of acceptable risk.
Also, designers and owners shall consider if the educational facilities are “systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters” (based on the Critical Infrastructures Protection Act of 2001). Adding this classification could provide options for federal funding to support implementation of ECS.