Emergence of IP in Mass Notification Applications

The fire and security industries have had a long history of applying available technologies and putting them to good use in solving the many challenges faced. To that end, these industries are no different than other industries, but it's worth taking a step back and citing some examples, so that we can look and think ahead to the future.

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Today's fire and security products are heavily software based and have at their core the very best electronic components available today. But this was not the case, not all that long ago. There has been a logical and steady progression that has taken us from the era of relays, to the first ICs (integrated circuits incorporating basic logic building blocks), to more advanced ICs (more complex functions operating at higher speeds while consuming less power), to the first microprocessors, (4 bit micros), to advanced microprocessors, (progression from 4 bit, to 8 bit, to 16 bit to 32 bit. At each step along the way, the microprocessors have been able to do more arithmetic calculations at faster speeds, with increasing memory capacity, while consuming less power to function), to DSPs (Digital Signal Processors) which have the power of multiple microprocessors on one integrated circuit device.

Other industries embracing similar progressions in electronic technology are all around us. Some examples are portable telephones, televisions, personal computers and the Internet. Telephones progressed from rotary dialing, to touchtone dialing, to large portable phones, to compact cell phones, to advanced cell phones capable of accessing the Internet, sending pictures, emails and so forth. Televisions progressed from black and white, to color, to large rear projection units, to plasma and flat panel LCD technologies. Simultaneously TV broadcasts went from radio transmission, to high speed wire cable, to fiber optics, to satellites, from analog to digital and behold today we see fantastic color digital high definition broadcasts with exceptional quality.

The advent of PCs and the internet have brought wholesale changes to the world we live in. We watched as PCs progressed from being slow, to superfast. Monitors went from monochrome to having thousands of colors and having the sharpest images imaginable. All sizes are available today from very large to incredibly small and portable. The internet likewise went from slow and fairly inaccessible to extremely fast (today we can watch video feeds with TV picture quality) and available everywhere, including by hardwire plug in or wireless.

In these examples, and there are many others to choose from, one can clearly see that there has been and always will be constant improvement in technology and reuse of technology across various industries.

Over time, as the fire industry has continued to embrace new technologies, many advances have been seen. For example, the industry has made great strides in improving smoke detection technology. The devices themselves are highly intelligent and discriminating so it is rare to see a modern intelligent smoke detector false alarm, provided it is serviced regularly. No longer do we use lights to indicate system status, but we see text messages on color graphic displays and we have the option of viewing and interrogating status from a PC. Fire control panels today have the intelligence and power of PCs, and operate fundamentally on software.

Fire systems have progressed from large standalone systems, which had all the intelligence at a single location, to wide area distributed intelligence, thereby making them more sophisticated while simultaneously making them less vulnerable to single or multiple points of failure. In accomplishing this, advances in networking technology we're employed and are common place today.

Looking ahead, what can we expect? We expect that the fire and security industries will seek out and embrace new technologies as has been done historically to improve performance and capabilities. In our view the next series of changes will be driven by the demands of Mass Notification. One cannot attend an industry meeting or visit with customers, end users, engineering firms, fire chiefs associations, et al., without this topic being discussed.

When thinking about and trying to understand what Mass Notification is all about, think about the 9/11 event, terrorist attacks and hostage situations such as those witnessed recently at colleges and universities. The issue is about being able to communicate on a massive and real time basis what is happening at the site and to communicate instructions to those in need including fire fighters & fire officials, EMTs, police officers & police officials and all the people at and near the site. Essentially, what is required is eyes, ears and voice throughout the facility and we must be able to communicate both internally and externally to those in need.

Quite simply, the best means available to accomplish this is by utilizing IP Infrastructure and the Internet. Why? Because IP infrastructure: a) provides a high speed reliable means of communications, including the ability to provide top quality voice, data and video simultaneously, b) many products exist today that adapt to IP infrastructures including PCs, cameras, printers, email servers, etc, c) there is typically an IP staff or expert available 24/7 to support it (in today's world who can afford for their PC or IP system to go down?), d) tremendous investment has already been put forth and more continues today by a variety of companies around the globe, e) there are high and increasing levels of security available (to secure the infrastructure) that can be provided, f) the system can be hard wired but it also can have a wireless and/or cellular backup, g) in applications such as colleges, universities, hospitals, government facilities, commercial and industrial facilities, etc., such infrastructures are already in place.

As for the internet, look how far it has come and continues to improve! The speed is simply amazing. Video feeds can be viewed in real time just as if you are watching TV. It also provides an excellent means for wide scale communications, not only to PCs, but to cell phones, PDAs, Blackberries, etc. Good examples are Windows Messenger and Skype for simultaneous live video and audio communications.

Fire systems tend to operate on proprietary networks that are robust and independent from any other network in a facility, and for good reason. That said, we have fire systems today that interface to the IP infrastructure and internet and this is used typically as an adjunct means to communicate status and for diagnostic purposes. Security systems also take advantage of IP in a similar fashion as do some video technologies, paging systems, HVAC systems, and the like. The problem historically has been that these systems rarely "talk" to one another, especially when they are manufactured by different companies from similar or different industries, and all tend to operate over their own independent proprietary networks.

There are a tremendous number of facility managers facing the problems brought about by growth and expansion over time. At different points in their evolution, they will have installed fire, security, HVAC, IP and other systems likely manufactured, installed and serviced by different companies. It gets really hard, if near impossible, to support and expand these older systems over time, and typically these systems do not interface with one another. Huge re-investment is often called for especially when the only alternative proposed to comply with Mass Notification requirements involves tearing out all these systems and replacing with new. It is simply too costly and gets exponentially worse the larger the facility/site. There has to be a better way!

There have been attempts over many years for BMS (building management systems) to help facilitate intercommunications between the various systems. The problem has been either lack of cooperation across the various industries, or that the standards are slanted to favor or give priority to one or the other systems. Solving the Mass Notification challenges will likely force these various sectors to somehow find a way to co-operate together for a common good, but how? It seems impossible, but this needs to happen. There appears to be a solution staring us in the face.

The IP infrastructure provides a near perfect means for fire, security, video, paging, HVAC, and other seemingly disparate and/or proprietary systems to communicate with one another in a Mass Notification scenario. In a non Mass Notification scenario, the equipment may and should continue to operate independently, but during a Mass Notification, priority would have to be given for that purpose.

By making use of the IP Infrastructure and the Internet, one could provide live (or stored) video feeds from a camera or cameras in real time located inside and/or outside a building, and distribute the feeds inside and/or outside the building. At the receiving end can be authorized PCs, Blackberries, PDAs, cell phones, etc., and the video can be sent out on a wide broadcast or selective basis through these means. The same can be true for an audio signal from a microphone or microphones. Just for comparison, think about what products like Skype can do, and these work extremely well allowing people to connect on opposite sides of the globe.

What else is readily available and possible via the IP/Internet to aid in Mass Notification? Controlling all speakers in a facility whether they are independent, connected to a fire system or a security system. Using IP, one could control all simultaneously to broadcast a live message from say a fire or police authority. In fact, the fire or police control officials would be able to do this at a safe secure position not necessarily at the site. The reason this is made possible is due to the advantages of the internet.

An email blast is also possible. Take for instance a large College or University campus. An alert or instructional message may be sent simultaneously to all students, faculty, police and fire officers. It is highly common today to see people carrying cell phones, blackberries, PDAs etc. All support email but also can support video over IP. So it is possible today to send a live or recorded voice message and a live or recorded video message on a wide scale using existing technology.

Other possibilities include: controlling outdoor speakers and sirens, electronic signage, desk top pops ups, SMS text messaging, IM (Instant Messenging), automatic voice dialing, pager and tone alert radio. All are possible to control via IP.

Reliable IP technology today is provided in both hardwired and wireless fashion. The two may be used such that one may back up the other in case one should fail. Furthermore, cellular networks are prevalent and they too may serve as a backup.

One other beauty of IP infrastructure/Internet is that it is a scalable platform to build off of. No site would be too large to support. As for security and reliability, there is widespread use of this technology by government, banks, and military. The technology exists today making it robust, reliable and safe.

In conclusion, we see the emergence of IP Infrastructure and the Internet in helping to solve the Mass Notification challenges and improving life safety. These technologies are already here today, readily available and reliable, so it makes sense that it is only a matter of time until they are taken full advantage of for these applications.

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Posted in Computer Post Date 04/16/2015






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