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The right response

Voice, data, wireless and even body-area networks have created an unprecedented level of connectivity, and the power of this persistent connection makes it possible to do all sorts of great things.


May 13, 2016
By Mike MacLeod

The convergence of networks and devices has led to the Internet of Things, with Cisco’s Internet Business Group predicting that some 25 billion devices will be connected by 2015, and 50 billion by 2020. While this is an important technology trend and a key aspect of my own business, I have to wave the caution flag in terms of using Wi-Fi networks for life safety applications. When IT managers start talking to me about taking this route, I like to use this analogy/advice: Just because you can bungee jump with kite string doesn’t mean you should. The notion of multi-use doesn’t mean all use.

Would you ever put a fire panel on Wi-Fi? No, because a fire system needs to be separate, isolated without dependencies on routers, cabling, switching, access points, etc. Why do we put people in solitary confinement, with solitary being the operative word? Because we want to remove the variables, the unknowns, the risks. The same is true for any life safety application because the stakes are simply too high for compromise. Wi-Fi has its place, but life safety isn’t it because there are too many failure points and too much traffic. Therefore, life safety applications should always run on a dedicated, wireless mesh network. How do you argue this point with an IT manager or convince a CEO to listen to you over the voices of his or her IT department? I offer these facts about mesh networks based on more than 25 years of technology experience.

• No wiring/cabling considerations or expenses versus hardwired Wi-Fi. (Only the Wi-Fi- access point is wireless.)
• Battery-operated so no dependence on power. (If the power goes out, the network and the devices on it still work.)
• Self-healing/self-configuring and redundant for reliability. (The data will reach its intended destination even if it has to work its way around a broken node.)
• Flexible and scalable. (It can support a single mobile duress button or thousands of sensors for life safety, security and environmental monitoring.)
• Dedicated, isolated so free from variables and dependencies that affect. (Uptime is optimized.)
• Affordable. (Maximum performance and minimal maintenance lowers total cost of ownership.)

     
Integrated Alarm Management & Automated Alerting
Life safety is a special interest, and as such, all available steps should be taken to improve it. You help customers in this critical area by taking a consultative, discovery-based approach to ensure they’ve identified the risks inherent to their environments and installed the necessary systems to mitigate those risks. The next step is integration. While the advice prescribed above is accurate, it is Utopian because in reality, numerous life safety, security and environmental monitoring systems are at work in any existing facility at any given time. And they usually operate independent of one another, in silos, with no monitoring so they only provide local alerting in the form of buzzers, lamps or annunciation panels. For example, a fire alarm goes off when smoke is detected, but it doesn’t tell occupants where the fire is or where the nearest exits are located so the safest evacuation route can be determined.

You also have to factor in a combination of voice and data networks, not to mention a multitude of communication devices. The world’s communication infrastructure has moved from rudimentary to super charged — from radios, handsets and pagers to smartphones and tablets. There’s been a proliferation of screens for sharing information — big ones like those on digital billboards and small ones like those on our smartphones. Therefore, the goal of any organization should be to use all of the screens and communication end points within its control to ensure information reaches its constituents, especially if an emergency occurs.

However, it is possible to integrate every sensor, alarm and communication end point to ensure that key individuals, select groups/response teams or entire populations become aware of a triggering event and therefore can respond accordingly. Such situational awareness is achieved with the installation of an automated alerting engine to provide centralized monitoring, alerting and reporting. Inefficient alarms from stand-alone systems then are converted into detailed alerts for automatic delivery to the right people on the right devices so they can address an unfolding situation in the right way.

Both on- and off-site responders receive real-time information about what’s happening, where it’s happening, and what to do about it — all based on predefined modes and actions (e.g., if this, then that), with built-in redundancy and escalation paths.

Because right now matters
When an emergency occurs — such as a fire — confusion and panic often follow and so do communication breakdowns, delayed responses and costly mistakes. That’s why situational awareness as a risk management strategy and technology framework is so important. Integration and automation through a common alerting engine takes a facility from reactionary and siloed to proactive and holistic in terms of emergency communications and response management. If your clients can read, hear and see what’s happening in and around their organizations, they can do something about it. Then they can analyze response times and protocols to identify problems to continuously improve safety procedures. Such interoperability also means that legacy technology investments don’t have to be ripped out and replaced. Situational awareness technology ensures that alarm systems, networks, devices and response plans work in tandem to protect people and property by creating time to prevent and/or respond to any number of potential threats.

Shortly after Shaw Computer Systems Inc. completed installation of an automated awareness engine at the St. Peter’s location of Kawartha Participation Projects (KPP) in Peterborough, Ont., the technology alerted KPP staff to a smoke alarm, helping prevent a fire within one of the building’s apartments. Upon investigation, the fire department discovered a vacant but smoke-filled apartment where a pot had been left on an active stove burner. Without integration to the building’s fire panel, KPP staff and residents would have been unaware of a potential fire until it escalated. Because KPP’s staff received a direct alert from the alerting engine, instead of having to go to the fire panel itself, they were able to quickly investigate the alarm at its source and prevent escalation to a potentially dangerous situation. Time is a critical factor in emergency management. Delays can make the difference between life and death.

Mass Notification
Mass notification is a key application of situational awareness technology, ensuring that information about a triggering event is delivered to those most likely to be affected, as well as both on- and off-site responders responsible for investigation and remediation. It’s also possible to set up alerts for different types of emergencies: one signals a fire so occupants know to evacuate immediately, while another indicates a tornado, which means occupants need to shelter in place. In addition to automatically activating sirens and strobe lights, these alerts also can be programmed to send out instructions to the appropriate groups via multiple communication channels – phone calls, texts, emails, PA announcements, etc. This sort of layered, event-triggered mass notification provides redundancy, which is critical to life safety.

Mass notification also can be campaign-triggered, tailored to a specific group. For example, one fire department uses the automated alerting engine to notify its functional groups, such as the firefighters, hazardous materials team, paramedics, officers, etc., via both text and voice. Indeed the telephone is still a relevant and effective means of communicating information, especially for organizations that need to contact a large number of constituents. Mass dialing to landlines and mobile phones gives an organization the ability to make large volumes of calls, automatically triggered by alert type. For example, a school district can use this service to announce inclement weather warnings, school closings, bus delays, etc.

Of course, for all of this to work correctly your client must define who comprises the “mass” in mass notification, the appropriate layers of redundancy, and the multiple forms of alerting. Once the protocols and escalation paths have been identified, alerting is automatic. But clients have the ability to send alerts on demand if unplanned events or changes occur, in addition to making updated announcements as an unfolding situation changes. Situational awareness and its modes and actions are situation agnostic, so the solution can be used to drive awareness transactions — alerts — for any situation deemed important to an organization, especially matters of life safety.

It doesn’t matter what your clients want to know or how they want to know it. It just matters that they want to know, and you can ensure that they do with end-to-end situational awareness for centralized monitoring, alerting and reporting.

Continuing advancements to the technology platform for integrated alarm management and automated notifications include mobile dashboards for one-touch alerting, response and escalation via smartphones, universal alerting apps for use on any smartphone on any network by any constituent, and video paging, analytics and recognition. Yes, situational awareness is a big concept, but the purpose is simple: prevent ignorance-based loss of life. What’s more important than that?  

Mike MacLeod is the president of Status Solutions (www.statussolutions.com)