State of Emergency

What you need to know about the new NFPA-72 code and its implementation

Audible fire alarms are no longer enough. Several highly publicized incidents have taught safety officials how crucial it is to be able to tell people exactly what they need to do in an emergency.

For that reason, the National Fire Protection Association has released a new fire alarm and signaling code, the NFPA-72, 2010 Edition, which includes voice notification installation requirements for use in various types of emergencies. This change will affect nearly every large organization in the United States.

It is important to note that federal, state and local authorities, rather than the NFPA, set the legal requirements for fire alarm and voice notification systems. It may be that the authority under whose jurisdiction you fall has not yet decided to require emergency paging. Once they do, however, or once you decide, on your own, to install such a system, then the NFPA-72 2010 standard will apply.

Overland Park Soccer ComplexThat being said, we expect the new code to be widely adopted within the next few years, so that virtually every new or remodeled building, campus and place of assembly that serves 300 people or more will be required to meet these standards.

It's also important to note that NFPA-72 now permits "combination systems" that allow the transmission of evacuation announcements via voice or public address systems not specifically designed as fire alarms.

For those who are planning a new paging, alarm or sound system, the question becomes, "How can I be sure that what I buy now will be compliant with local codes in the future?" Those who plan to keep using an existing system may ask, "How can I bring my system into compliance?"

What's in the code

The NFPA-72 2010 update is the most extensive fire code revision in many years. It includes:

  • An intelligibility standard with specific measurements to ensure that voice communications are not only audible but understandable.
  • Monitoring. The system must constantly monitor itself, so that if there is any failure of any component, it will automatically notify an administrator who can rectify the fault.
  • Prioritization. The system must establish levels of priority, based on risk analysis, determining which messages will get through and which may be overridden during an emergency.
  • Non-auditory signaling. The standard also requires visual transmission of emergency messages for those with hearing impairments.

In addition, the 2013 edition of the code, now in draft form, will include a redundancy requirement stating that notification systems cannot have any single point of failure. If a given component fails, the system must still be able to deliver an emergency message.

How to meet the new requirements

Today your best options to meet the new voice notification standards include building a custom audio/video system or implementing Biamp's Vocia® critical paging system. Vocia is designed to be used in voice notification systems in North America, as well as in Europe where there are more stringent life safety standards. We have worked on several of each of these types of solution for Conference Technology clients.

The Vocia solution is unique in that no central processing, control or routing unit is required to create a critical paging system. Biamp calls this a "distributed network" architecture, and they offer a series of input units, output units, controllers, amplifiers and servers that reside on an IP network and interact with each other. Because Biamp built the necessary logic and processing into every Vocia component, you can mix and match them as needed to create a custom critical paging system. The system keeps running even if one or more units fail – and then it notifies the administrator so that the issue can be addressed.

What would such a system look like? It might be helpful to look at a series of building-wide paging systems we designed for a large national client.

We began two years ago in an office building in Tempe, AZ, where we installed emergency paging in lobbies, offices, restrooms, conference rooms plus a number of areas not typically covered, including stairwells and parking garages. We worked with acoustical modeling software to ensure adequate intelligibility and carefully measured it after installation. Because we assumed that, in an emergency, stairwells and certain other areas would be crowded, we adjusted speaker volumes there to 15 to 20 dB above the normal ambient sound level.

We set up a number of ways that users could address the system: network paging stations, a digital recorder with prerecorded messages, and the ability to dial into the system, either from an internal or external telephone. Pre-recorded messages can be helpful in many situations because they ensure that instructions are complete and delivered in a calm, reassuring voice. One of the reasons we added dial-in capability was that normally, in an evacuation, everyone would go to this client's parking garage. Dial-in makes it possible for safety officials to address the assembled staff from a cell phone.

We carried all paging signals using CobraNet® components on two fiber optic networks. If one network fails the other kicks in automatically. We used UPS units to ensure that the system will continue to function even if the building loses AC power. We addressed the monitoring requirement with very simple devices at the end of each speaker run that detect a periodic electrical pulse and return a confirming pulse. We addressed the non-audible requirement by sending emergency messages to the client's digital signage systems and also to the projectors in their training rooms. In areas where there was not already some kind of display, we installed LED crawlers to carry a text-based version of the message they would be issuing through the PA system.

An easier way

The biggest problem with these systems is that they had to be custom designed. If Vocia had been available, we could have provided all of these capabilities more quickly, at a lower cost and with an easier upgrade path should requirements change in the future. It is also practical to use Vocia components for much smaller paging systems. Vocia is easily scalable, very flexible and works well with more standard audio equipment, so you have a lot of choices as to which components you will install in which order.

For example, if you have a working paging system but your amplifiers are aging, you may decide to replace them with Vocia components but keep your loudspeakers for now. Or perhaps you'll replace your paging headend but hold off on amplifiers and monitoring. As you replace more components, your system will become more intelligent and closer to full compliance with the new code.

Some clients opt to upgrade one department or one building at a time, working toward a goal of putting their entire campus on a single, multi-zone emergency network. Whatever your final requirements, we suggest you at least consider the Biamp Vocia system to maximize your reliability, scalability and flexibility while ensuring that you have a future- proof system.

Given that local requirements will vary somewhat and that the code continues to evolve, it's crucial that you work with a knowledgeable sound or AV contractor. A good contractor will be able to able to help you to plan your system's upgrade in a way that makes sense for your local codes and for your budget.

Please contact Conference Technologies, Inc. ® to learn more about emergency voice notification systems.