Your Attention, Please!

“Communication. It’s all about communication, really,” says William (Bill) Barimo, RA, executive director of Facilities Design and Standards for Miami-Dade County Public Schools (MDCPS) in Florida, explaining the importance of public address systems, intercom systems, and clocks in K-12 schools.

“Schools are no longer equipped with the old gun where you pull the lever and hear bells ringing all over,” echoes Victor Alonso, RA, MDCPS design officer. “Those days are long gone. In fact, that equipment is antique, and many people have them as collector’s items in their offices.” Instead, today’s schools are outfitted with technology-rich public address systems, intercom systems, and clocks that keep lines of communication open, as well as maintain the efficiency of moving students from class to class.

With more than 380 schools and more than 347,000 students, MDCPS is the fourth-largest district in the nation, and an excellent example of what’s new with these systems. The district has been renovating old and building new schools for some time now. In fact, it currently has a five-year capital plan, extending through the 2012-2013 school year, that totals nearly $602M.

MDCPS uses an open bid process where manufacturers who meet established performance criteria are pre-approved to bid on needed products and services. The benefit to this system is that, if one manufacturer’s products don’t live up to expectations, another’s can hopefully be relied on. “It’s simply a better process when vendors are allowed to compete,” Barimo concludes.

A public address system with a main console, clocks, speakers, and audible bell system are all connected to a central system. They work together, but also can work independent of one another.

The intercom system connects to three areas: the main office, principal, and media center. Each of these three areas can communicate to any or all speakers. By the way, speakers are installed in physical education areas, as well as classrooms. Teachers receiving communication via a speaker can speak back, hands free. If a teacher wishes to initiate communication, it is accomplished by pushing a button to one or all three areas.

The fire alarm is integrated with the public address system in order to meet code.

“Additionally,” notes Barimo, “the public address system and speakers link up with the master clock system and tone generator to signal the beginning and ending of class times.” The master clock is synchronized with GPS technology.

Moving to digital technology has been the single biggest change, Barimo says. “Everything is much more computerized. It’s very technical, and the equipment is much more sensitive than it used to be in old days.” He notes that the second biggest change has been moving to a wireless clock system which, by the way, meant a change from analog to digital clocks.

Changes Bring Benefits
All of this technology comes with a number of benefits, including safety, time savings, and financial savings.

“Safety is the main thing we’ve gained,” says Barimo. “Lockdowns can be put in place. Our teachers feel much safer. Their only means of communication is the public address system.”

“The intercom system is important for security reasons,” confirms Alonso. “It allows us to communicate with all student-occupied spaces and be able to hear back from those spaces as well.”

The public address system is the only way to communicate with everyone in a building simultaneously. Combine that with prerecorded messages that are played across the system at the push of a button, and you eliminate what Mike Davidson refers to as “the fog of war” during an emergency. He’s referring to the adrenaline rush that comes with an emergency, and thus also the potential to not communicate accurately or thoroughly. Davidson is national sales manager for Roanoke, VA-based Valcom’s Class Connection product line for K-12 schools.

When it comes to time savings, these technology-rich systems offer two advantages. The first is, in a retrofit situation, many components capitalize on existing infrastructure. It’s designed to, says Davidson. “Each existing school has already invested in infrastructure. Our solutions must tie in to that infrastructure to eliminate an additional investment on the part of the district, as well as save installation time.”

The second time-saving advantage is that many of the components are wireless so that, regardless of the infrastructure already in place, additional conduit simply doesn’t have to be run. “Some of our older schools look like spaghetti bowls, with conduit and wiring for the fire alarm, intercom and electricity running all over,” says Alonso. “Anything we can do to not run conduit all over a school is a great benefit in a retrofit situation.”

Finally, administrators appreciate the financial savings benefit that comes with all of this technology. It begins with lower implementation cost, again because wiring doesn’t have to be run, and it continues with lower maintenance cost.

“Our speakers are supervised on the system,” says Steve Young, vice president of Sales and Marketing for Phoenix-based Altas Sound, which manufactures communications products. “So, if you want to adjust a speaker, it’s accessed via the Web browser. And our clocks all sync back to the server, so you never need to send out a technician to adjust the system. These are savings when you consider the long-term cost of ownership.”

Davidson concurs with Young: “Centralized management saves on personnel, as well as the cost of personnel time, gasoline, and vehicles traveling from school to school to solve challenges.”

Alonso and Barimo debate the savings incurred from wireless clocks. On one hand, says Barimo, because they’re wireless, they can be hung anywhere and moved as needed, even to another school. On the other hand, says Alonso, there are more than 100 clocks per school, they run on batteries, and those batteries have to be changed forever more. This results in a lower installation cost, but greater maintenance cost. Does the maintenance cost exceed the installation cost? That remains to be seen.

Changes Bring Challenges
Along with the benefits to these improvements come some challenges, including equipment quality, integration with existing technology, and the need for IT help.

Alonso is quick to point out that, through the years, the quality of the sound of announcements has greatly improved. Unfortunately, that improvement is countered with equipment that’s simply not designed to last. “I have to say that the new systems, like anything else in the market today, are not built for the longevity they were 20 years ago,” says Wilfredo Sabater, coordinator III with MDCPS’ Facilities Design and Standards. “Sure, they’re more reliable and user friendly, but they’re not intended to last for 20 years because technology changes so rapidly.”

Similarly, keeping up with changes in technology is a challenge when replacing broken components or renovating an existing school. “It’s quite a task, as you can imagine,” Alonso points out. “When we build a new addition at an older school, the compatibility often requires we upgrade and replace the system in the existing school if we can’t come up with a working level of compatibility.”

Sabater notes that the cost of the upgrade to achieve system continuity is often balanced by the cost of trying to maintain separate components.

Finally, all this technology requires someone onsite who understands it. Schools can’t afford to have an onsite technician in charge of each school, so the responsibility often falls on an astute lay person, who, obviously, already has other responsibilities. “The electronics are more complicated, and it’s more difficult to figure out what’s going on, and so troubleshooting is more difficult,” Barimo says bluntly. This is especially true of the fire alarm system and surveillance cameras, where applicable.
“It used to be that the building shell was 80 percent of the cost of construction,” says Barimo. “Now, building systems are 50 percent of the cost of construction. That’s a tremendous amount of money that you don’t always appreciate because you can’t see it. And those systems become more and more technically oriented all the time. It certainly is different from the way schools were built 50 years ago.”

There’s More to Come
As already noted, technology continues to change as improvements are made.

Young notes two changes his firm is working on. First, the evolution of the clock display will soon support scrolling text, which will meet ADA requirements. Also, they’re implementing onboard contact closures to loudspeakers to trigger closures, locks, and strobe lights.

And, administrators at MDCPS are going to pilot a countdown system indicating the start of class that’s more thorough than what is currently offered. Right now, the tone generator sounds to end class, and then sounds again to indicate that class starts in five minutes. The pilot will include additional tones, such as a two-minute warning and then a one-minute warning, so students have a better idea of how much time is left before class starts and will hopefully result in fewer tardy slips being written.

It’s clear that public address systems, intercom systems, and clocks are all key to effective school communications. Technological improvements in these systems allow administrators to realize benefits beyond improved communications, including financial and maintenance savings. This makes the answer to the trendy question, “Can you hear me now?” a hearty, “Yes!”