FM Articles

The Right Tools for Emergency Detection and Response


The IAHSS reports that violence in U.S. hospitals has increased 40 percent in the past two years. And the FBI cites that active shooter incidents are increasing in frequency and lethality, with many of these tragedies occurring at educational institutions.

Incidents can be extreme, like a shooting or infant abduction, but mundane situations, such as an overflowing toilet or a false fire alarm, also have negative impacts. Does your facility have current, comprehensive emergency plans to mitigate risk and the tools to operationalize those emergency plans? Can you automatically detect threats and initiate the appropriate responses?

When an emergency occurs, confusion and panic often follow and so do communication breakdowns, delayed responses and costly mistakes. The first few minutes of an emergency are critical in determining outcomes, so it’s imperative that both on- and off-site responders know what’s happening, where it’s happening, and what to do about it based on carefully crafted emergency plans. The right information must go to the right people on the right devices so the right actions can be taken to protect life safety. This is where situational awareness as a risk management strategy and technology framework comes into play.

What is Situational Awareness?
Originally, a military term for a pilot’s operational status and knowledge of immediate threats, today situational awareness refers to real-time information about what’s happening in and around a given environment. Such knowledge is possible by integrating disparate alarm and communication systems for centralized monitoring, alerting and reporting. Any threat or deviation from normal operations requires that both on- and off-site responders have situational awareness as soon as a triggering event occurs. With a universal alerting engine, triggering events can be harnessed to drive awareness transactions – or alerts – with specific details about an unfolding event and how to address it, or avoid it all together.

Situational awareness isn’t complicated, but it is challenging because of the various alarm systems that may be at work. Then you have to factor in a combination of voice and data networks, not to mention a plethora of communication devices. Communication infrastructure has moved from rudimentary to super charged – from radios, handsets and pagers to smartphones and tablets, a proliferation of screens for sharing information. However, most of these systems operate independent of one another, in silos, and unmonitored systems generally only provide local alerting in the form of buzzers, lamps or annunciation panels. A fire alarm goes off when smoke is detected, but it doesn’t tell you where the fire is or where the nearest exits are located so the safest evacuation route can be determined.

Thanks to computer-telephony integration (CTI) and robust middleware, every sensor, alarm and communication end point can be unified to ensure that key individuals, select groups/response teams or entire populations can read, hear and see what’s happening and respond correctly. Administrators then can generate daily and/or historical reports to analyze response times and emergency protocols to make improvements. Such interoperability also means that legacy technology investments don’t have to be ripped out and replaced. In fact, their utility is usually expanded through integration with an enterprise awareness engine, providing redundancy and escalation paths to ensure that critical information reaches on- and off-site responders or other constituencies based on predefined protocols, or modes and actions (e.g., if this, then that).

Integrated Alarm Management and Automated Notifications
As previously mentioned, the world is full of screens, so it’s important to use all of them to deliver information during an emergency – especially the personal screens most of us carry or keep near at all times. Smartphones become even smarter when backed by an enterprise situational awareness solution. Alerts can be sent to any smartphone, but now these devices can be turned into mobile command-and-control centers for seamless situational awareness on the go. Users can respond to unfolding situations more quickly, initiate alerts and associated response plans more effectively, and escalate/notify others as necessary – all from one user interface. They also have the ability to see live video from integrated security cameras, plus view prerecorded videos, floor plans and photos through a capability called video paging. When Wi-Fi coverage weakens, the device switches automatically to cellular for uninterrupted alerting both on and off the premises.

Following are some examples of how situational awareness technology can be used for integrated alarm management and automated notifications:

  • Nurse call, infant abduction, smart bed, telemetry integration
  • Fixed or mobile duress in administrative offices, cash-handling areas and pharmacies
  • Mobile duress for teachers, staff and students with special needs (targets of bullying, those with injuries or chronic health conditions like food allergies)
  • Asset tracking (e.g., med carts, IV pumps, band instruments, computers, etc.)
  • Temperature monitoring/logging for medical-grade refrigerators and food storage
  • Environmental monitoring for the presence of water/humidity, smoke, hazardous substances, etc., plus sensors for generators, boilers, water pumps, etc.
  • Fire panel integration
  • Door/window contact alarms and integration with access control/intrusion and motion detection
  • Integration with indoor and outdoor security cameras
  • Glass-break detectors and audio sensors (e.g., gunshots)
  • Inclement weather warnings
  • Evacuation and lockdown notifications

Alerts should be delivered in real time to multiple groups via multiple channels – from phone calls and texts to emails and PA announcements. This sort of event-triggered mass notification provides redundancy, which is critical to life safety. However, mass notification also can be campaign-triggered, meaning tailored to a specific group. For example, if a student’s meal plan is about to expire, a phone call and/or text can be set up to notify the student so they can prevent the account from expiring. Situational awareness and its protocols are situation agnostic, so the solution can be used to drive awareness transactions for any situation deemed important by a school or healthcare facility.

Situational awareness is a big concept, but it boils down to preventing ignorance-based loss of life, property, business and convenience. Whatever the trigger – a mobile duress press, a leaking pipe or a malfunctioning HVAC – information about the situation must be conveyed in real time to the people most likely to be affected, as well as those responsible for investigation, containment and remediation. Real-time, end-to-end awareness through centralized monitoring, alerting and reporting takes a facility from siloed and reactionary to proactive and holistic in terms of risk management.

A technology veteran with more than 25 years of experience, Mike MacLeod is president of Status Solutions. As a CTI expert and the ‘chief vision officer’ at Status Solutions, Mike is passionate about using technology to make a societal difference.