Towson University Notifies the Masses

Time is of the essence when disaster looms. Weather-related tragedies and terrorist activities of the past decade have created increased demand from public and private stakeholders for a reliable means of communicating critical information to large groups of people. This mass notification concept has received heightened attention from facilities personnel particularly in the military, educational, and commercial/industrial sectors.
Systems Assessment and Risk Analysis

According to Paul Parrish, Towson University’s environmental health and safety officer, “The issue of mass notification came up at Towson when someone asked how we can expect to communicate with students and staff in an emergency.”
With more than 21,000 students, Towson University is the second-largest public university in Maryland. The institution encompasses more than 40 buildings, covering 328 acres within the town of Towson, 15 minutes outside of Baltimore, and offers easy access to a wealth of University and community resources.
“When weapons of mass destruction or the possibility of a Hazmat incident came up, we had to ask ourselves if we could realistically notify the staff and student population of an emergency situation in time to make a real difference,” said Parrish. “It was about the same time that the Virginia Tech shooting took place. This placed our MNS (mass notification system) project on a fast track.”
On April 16, 2007, a lone shooter killed 33 and injured 15 on the Virginia Tech campus in what has been touted as the worst killing spree in the United States during peacetime. At the time, Towson utilized a text messaging system to alert students, staff, parents, and others of emergency situations. While such alerts proved to reach a good portion of Towson’s population, University officials understood it was not a comprehensive solution.
“We also have an outdoor public address system consisting of five [speaker] towers. University Police recently installed them on select buildings to provide adequate campus-wide coverage,” said Parrish. “But we realized that this was not enough. We also needed mass notification inside our buildings.”
The University already had standalone fire alarm EVAC (emergency voice/alarm communications) systems in half of its buildings. However, these systems operated independently, requiring users to be located within each building to activate communications.
According to Parrish, it was obvious the EVAC systems were not an effective option when faced with an immediate threat, such as a tornado alert. Hazardous spills and other Hazmat-related incidents involving a nearby, major highway were additional concerns driving Towson’s MNS initiative.
Looking for guidance, Parrish approached the school’s current fire protection contractors.
“I asked [our contractor’s] project manager, Mark Reedy, if there was any way to connect these EVAC systems together, so we can make announcements from a single location on campus. He looked into the technical details and came to the conclusion that it could be done,” said Parrish.
Integrated, Economic Approach
Per Towson’s specifications, Fireline worked to design a combination fire alarm/MNS with one point of monitoring and control. Making use of the individual fire alarm EVAC systems succeeded in saving the school a substantial sum of time and money.
“Reedy’s firm installed the in-building MNS systems we needed, which also are part of our campus-wide fire alarm system. Where the police department is responsible for the outdoor speaker system, I'm responsible for the mass notification/fire alarm system,” Parrish explained.
Twenty of the schools’ buildings are equipped with EVAC systems featuring standard pre-recorded messages and microphones for authorized users to provide real-time announcements. Systems in seven of the buildings categorized as high-rises also include firefighter phones that enable first responders to communicate directly with each other.
Currently, upgrading is underway to the EVAC systems in the remaining campus buildings. Once complete, all buildings’ systems will feature both fire alarm and mass notification protection, all of which will be tied together for centralized, campus-wide control.
In retrofit applications similar to Towson, capitalizing on the strengths of existing fire alarm communication and notification technology can deliver intangible benefits not common to alternative MNS offerings:
  • Supervision. These systems are self-monitoring, meaning immediate alerts are sent to central monitoring station personnel any time an issue that could compromise system functionality is detected (i.e. loose wire, detector tampering, etc.).
  • Survivability. Many of today’s fire alarm network technologies comprise distributed intelligence, which can help to assure functionality during a catastrophic event. As a result, if one part of the network is damaged, the remaining components continue to operate properly.
  • Intelligibility. Clarity of communications is critical (indoors and outside). Increasing speaker volumes can many times distort the message. Proper MNS design takes background noise, room size, and acoustics into consideration, while incorporating visual notification such as LED signage and special-colored strobes.
  • Testing Requirements. Per NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) code, all commercial fire alarm systems, in both public and private facilities, are to be tested and properly maintained on a semi-annual basis. Failure to do so typically results in the loss of occupancy permits.
Systems Unification and Control
The marriage of new and existing systems on one network, allowing for complete monitoring and control of all campus systems was key to Towson’s MNS plan.
Utilizing specialized, integrated network technology, Reedy has been able to tie different EVAC systems throughout the campus together. Connectivity between individual buildings has been accomplished using the University’s existing, campus-wide Ethernet network — another considerable cost saver.
A workstation located at the University police department provides school officials with a common point of command and control. Here, campus security and safety personnel can view all system events and maintenance alerts as well as issue critical instructions to specific areas or groups of buildings. Much like a public address system, this central workstation also allows for day-to-day announcements to be made.
Towson’s campus-wide network facilitates easy integration of similar systems during future campus expansions. The Internet’s worldwide reach make it possible for Towson to connect and control other fire alarm/MNS on a local, regional, and global basis.
Evolving building codes and public expectations continue to pressure for better, more comprehensive MNS within all facility types. It’s important for security directors and others in positions of responsibility to consider future MNS needs prior to performing a major building systems renovation, especially when upgrading fire alarms.
According to Parrish, “It’s better to upgrade to EVAC technology now, as opposed to traditional horns. So when mass notification is needed, the transition will be smooth and cost effective.”