This discussion features CTSI Director of Engineering, Mike Wilson and Director of Healthcare & Education Solutions, Robin Nishiyama, as they cover the evolution of mass notification systems and the critical role communications plays in public safety.
Q: Can you define critical communications? When does communication become critical?
Robin: Critical communication solutions are incredibly essential to the day-to-day operations of an organization as well as in an emergency. Critical communication means different things to different organizations, whether that be a school, hospital, government building, or workplace.
Mike: Mass notification systems have been around forever. They provide clear and concise messaging or communications to the public both visually and verbally through technology. It wasn’t until most recently that we have started to put more emphasis on the awareness of mass notification. With the increasing need to react more swiftly during emergency situations on schools and campuses, the term “critical communications” has been pushed to the forefront. As Robin mentioned, how critical communications is defined varies on the market vertical. Critical Communications is an umbrella term that can mean various things to various organizations.
For example, inside an education space, this might be visual cues, an intercom system, or message board signs. In a hospital, this could be Public Address (PA), nurse call, or a Real-Time Locating System (RTLS). In a corporate environment, it could be background music or speech privacy, also known as sound masking.
Q: You mentioned critical communications varies upon the industry. Can you elaborate on more ways this is used?
Robin: Unfortunately, schools are having to be prepared for emergencies more frequently. This is not just about mass shootings or suspicious behaviors; this could be weather-related emergencies or emergencies nearby that necessitate lock-out status. Communication plays a vital role in these situations. These systems allow organizations to not only share a message that reaches a large number of people almost immediately, whether that be staff, patients, students, workers, or employees. Facilities want to be able to keep their occupants safe during those critical first couple minutes during an emergency.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about situational awareness and why it is so vital in critical spaces?
Robin: Situational awareness, in general, is an intentional mindfulness of the surroundings, people, and activities. Over the years, with violent events becoming more frequent, we’ve all become so much more aware of our surroundings at big sporting events, movie theaters, and spaces where people are congregated. Now we’re checking out and continually being reminded of where the exit points are. Whereas a decade ago, we didn’t think about these things. So, situational awareness is a choice. The same goes for a lot of other verticals like schools and hospitals too. Now all organizations need to be aware of the perimeters of their organization. There’s an obligation to keep employees and customers safe.
Q: Can you describe how critical communications solutions have evolved over the years?
Robin: I think communications has always been a need in all of these facilities. Intercom and Public Address have been a part of schools for a very long time, but that was more of a general, basic announcement and bell system. Now, all these facilities are taking a closer look to find out ways that they can make their technology a useful tool for other levels of communication and making sure that their system is still providing the coverage that they need.
Mike: I agree with Robin, there have been vast improvements in critical communication systems, and it continues to evolve. The demand for visual communication has increased a lot, and we are retrofitting facilities all the time. As technology advances, we see more applications aside from standard. It’s the advancement of technology that is making it easier to create a safe space for our clients. The American Disabilities Act (ADA) has also played a part in enforcing guidelines around these systems.
Robin: What the American Disabilities Act has done is enforce facilities to have not only audible, but visual indicators throughout notification systems that are also required to be installed at a specific height for optimal line of sight.
Mike: Visual capabilities are becoming a big thing in the K-12 critical communication market. We’re adding devices such as LED message boards and flat panels with digital signage. Digital signage has also become a form of critical communication. So, I think critical communications are now more at the forefront of people’s minds when they’re building new facilities and or doing upgrades.
Q: What are some of the technologies that facilities should look for when considering critical communication systems or mass notification systems?
Robin: Any technology and visual indicators implemented must be straightforward, and again, I’m relating to emergency situations, whatever that emergency is. It has got to be as simple as a button press. There is no time for complications when in an emergency situation. People are panicking. They must be able to quickly activate a sequence of events that continues the communication path. The first minutes are the most critical in an emergency.
Mike: There’s a big request now for prerecorded playback. In the past, most of the systems installed just required a microphone at a reception desk. For instance, if a client needed to make an instant voice message, they would pick up the microphone and page their overhead system to make an announcement, right? Well, people have different accents. People could be in varying states of stress, altered states of duress, so picking up a microphone and making an announcement is going to probably not be the best way to reach everybody on a speech intelligibility level. Now with prerecorded messages, clients can hear a clear & concise message without fail.
Robin: Now that’s from a more general broad perspective, inside hospitals specifically, the request that we’re hearing is almost against the public address, because they’re trying to quiet down the facility. They’re trying to get away from the nuisance of paging and calling staff overhead. The push in hospitals is to drive to a quieter healing environment. So, they’re trying to find other ways to get a pre-programmed alert notification out to mobile devices of staff members. So again, it’s a simple one-button process that alerts a team of people quietly. There may also be visual indicators that the staff will identify without panicking other patients or visitors that are going into the facility.
Q: There are many ways to provide public safety and critical communications. How do you decide what solutions are the best fit and then tailor them to the client?
Robin: I think it starts with doing a collaborative assessment with the client; a discovery process to find out their current state and their desired future state. What technologies do they already have? Maybe they can upgrade, tweak, utilize it differently. What do they have for a safety plan? Assuming they do at all. We are then meeting with the clients to discuss their pain points, issues, and areas of concern.
Q: How often would you recommend these systems be revisited and updated?
Robin: Old analog systems were made to be simple and built to last. This increases the average lifecycle to last around 10 to 15+ years. Now with software-based systems and other technology innovations, the needs of the industry have changed and caused the refresh cycle to shorten.
Mike: Now we’re looking at security in the sense of hackability. The last thing that we want is somebody to be able to get into a mass notification system and send out a false announcement that there’s an active shooter or other state of emergency. Older analog systems have no cybersecurity capabilities, making businesses vulnerable and exposing them to nefarious activities. Businesses probably are more likely to do a technology refresh of their AV infrastructure more quickly than their critical communications infrastructure. However, businesses should also consider looking at it from a safety & security perspective. How reliable is the critical communication system which supports my business and keeps my employees and customers safe?
Q: When is the right time to start upgrading critical communication and safety systems and what are key points clients should look out for when discussing those system upgrades?
Robin: From a background working with healthcare and education professionals, an unfortunate event or emergency of some sort often leads to this discussion with our clients. This is often not a situation that happened directly to them. It could’ve been something that happened at another school district. Situations covered in the news, that campuses may not be prepared for, frequently lead facilities to reviewing their current policies and safety protocols. Threats can change quite often, and these events are what raise that awareness.
Clients also need to find an outcomes-based integrator willing to partner with them in conducting a detailed deep dive into what their needs are, because every organization is unique. One product may not solve all their problems, and maybe a combination of three or more different solutions all integrated together will be exactly what they need. We want to make sure they are not just getting the biggest shiniest new thing off the shelf, but we are building a system that meets every objective and customized to the way that they work. You can’t just have someone unwrap a great solution for you. You need someone that understands all those pieces to provide you with a system that’s going to deliver those results. You want someone that looks at it very holistically. I always feel our solutions should support their safety plan or initiative, not necessarily change it. Our main goal is to make sure that we’re supporting the outcomes that their organization is driving.
Mike: Think of critical communications systems as being as important as the fire alarm system. Requirements should always be communicated at the same time rather than as an afterthought. Critical communication is something that should be discussed early on. No building is authorized for development without having a fire alarm system built in. With the requirement to have systems like these, we as a system integrator are brought in to talk about fire and/or security early on, and then we can talk to clients about mass notification, intercom, public address, and nurse call systems.