Students’ Corner – Fire Alarm Mass Notification in Active Shooter Scenarios

Posted: July 23, 2015 in Fire Protection
Tags: , , , , ,

by: Matthew Gentzel

Mass Notification by Gentzel

Having spent my first semester of college at the United States Air Force Academy, I have been exposed to a lot of mass notification during drills. In general, by using the same systems to communicate information for fire evacuations, as well as other events, organizations have the opportunity to save money, streamline reaction times, and to frequently check that their emergency systems work. On the other hand, they also face the risks of causing confusion if alarms are not paired with specific information and direction (e.g., at the Academy there were many different alarm sounds for different types of threats, but not everyone knew the difference between the tones). Despite these and other possible problems, integrated mass notification systems are likely to be very beneficial, especially when paired with voice notification.

Although technological developments and improvements have affected mass notification systems, much of their implementation has been primarily affected by historical incidents and trends:

“The motivation to expand NFPA 72 to include mass notification and emergency communications systems beyond just fire events was driven by a number of fatal events such as the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996 and the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. The Department of Defense (DOD), through the United States Air Force, first petitioned NFPA to develop a standard on mass notification in 2003.” [1]

With increases in the trending frequency of mass shooting in the recent years [2], a corresponding increase in mass notification is likely to continue, and to be beneficial to life safety. In a recent 2014 NFPA workshop, a panelist from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) described the scope of active shooter incidents, and more specifically how they affect schools. In 14 out of 16 studied school shootings, the shooters were students, which indicates a need for mass notification systems that cannot be abused by insiders.

Similarly, a problem was discussed by the panel about the issue of having too much communication. Due to the presence of social media, there is a high likelihood that during an emergency there may be reduced phone service from the high use of personal mobile devices. To prevent this, mass notification to mobile devices should be able to instruct message recipients to only send vital messages so that first responders can communicate situation updates.

Among other data considered, there was discussion of the effectiveness of lockdowns. Lockdowns are security measures taken during emergencies to prevent people from leaving or entering an area, and often involve taking shelter in place. Mass notification provides a rapid means of implementing a lockdown policy throughout a building or area, and can harden potential targets against harm, giving emergency responders more time to react to such situations. Although the median police response time to an active shooter incident is approximately three minutes, having building occupants seek shelter before this amount of time is likely to make a significant difference. According to the FBI, “The five highest casualty events since 2000 happened despite police arriving on scene in about 3 minutes.” [2] Because most of the damage inflicted in an active shooter incident is often early on, reducing the reaction times of potential victims is likely to be one of the highest leverage areas for reducing deaths. Though pre-training methods such as the “Run, Hide, Fight” technique are likely to be most effective, mass notification may play a future role in preventing bystanders from unknowingly entering an area that they are likely to be harmed.

Another type of potential problem for mass notification in the event of direct attack is that an attacker could deliberately send false information. Emergency responders have already dealt with the problem of false alarms and potential traps for years. The new complication of having mass notification is the potential for false information to be rapidly distributed to others. Systems should be designed so attackers cannot access voice notification systems, and so that fire alarms do not give access to secure areas during a lockdown.

Despite the benefits of emergency text alert tones in instances where there is a direct attack, there is the chance that this type of notification could be abused. Since part of the point of a lockdown in an active shooter incident is to make it harder for a gunman to find targets, loud emergency tones could assist such a person in differentiating between empty and occupied rooms. Ultimately, it is up to phone service providers to create the software so alerts can be sent with or without tones.

With over 160 mass shooting incidents recorded by the FBI, there is still a great deal of analysis left to tackle this specific type of problem. Security from an attack is very expensive, so good solutions to these sorts of problems will be dependent upon risk assessment as well as cost effectiveness. Based on the threats that are the most likely and the most harmful, reasonable measures can be taken to increase the resilience of mass notification systems and to streamline their integration with fire alarm systems.

 

  1. “How NFPA 72 Defines Mass Notification.” Facilitiesnet. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2014.<http://www.facilitiesnet.com/firesafety/article/How-NFPA-72-Defines-Mass-Notification–14311>
  2. “Active Shooter Events from 2000 to 2012.” FBI. Web. 7 Dec. 2014. <http://leb.fbi.gov/2014/january/active-shooter-events-from-2000-to-2012>
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