London Calling - AvNetwork.com

London Calling

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The black hand of terrorism hit London the week I am writing this-more than 50 dead and hundreds injured in deliberate bombing attacks on the civilian population. Yet however horrible, the numbers pale in comparison to the quantities involved in the World Trade Center attacks.

Without any inference of equivalency, there are very different standards for emergency evacuation system design and implementation between our two continents. I can't help but wonder whether or not our American failings in taking emergency evacuation seriously for the last few generations may have had an impact of the quantities of those killed and injured in the WTC.

It's certainly not a unique thought on my part. In fact, the National Institute of Standards and Technology came right out and said it in its report on the WTC bombings, "The agency's report also examined emergency response efforts after the attack. It concluded that some of the 2,749 lives lost at the World Trade Center might have been saved with stronger evacuation systems and better communication among rescuers."

The 3-year probe gathered reams of data on everything from fire tests on steel to office worker behavior in evacuating to create an exhaustive sequence of exactly how the towers fell. The report calls for "the development and evaluation of new fire-resistive coating materials, systems and technologies with significantly enhanced performance and durability to provide protection following major events."
"We believe that the recommendations are realistic and achievable," said Shyam Sunder, who led the NIST investigation.

Let's get back to basics here. There are a number of voice-evacuation standards in the European markets for which the U.S. has no truly functional equivalent. Specifically, the BS 6259, BS 5839 and IEC/EN60849 standards all include a speech-intelligibility requirement. Each standard recognized that voice alarm systems form a critical part of an evacuation procedure. The intent of the standards is to set requirements for performance and system integrity to ensure 100 percent reliability and availability of the voice alarm system.

The standards include permanent self-surveillance of the voice alarm system that must provide warning of failure to any component critical to system operation. This includes: fireman's microphone, message and siren generators, all signal and trigger paths, amplification, power supplies including battery backup, loudspeakers and their circuits.
Stop reading this article for a moment and perform an internet search of IEC 60849. Roughly 3,000 entries will pop up in a multitude of different languages from different standards, manufacturers and integrators.

Admittedly, we have our UL 1638 and UL 464. At present, no speech intelligibility requirement is included in these standards. But there's a rub. Those standards generally travel with fire protection systems, not our "entertainment" communication or paging systems. The same fire protection systems that have an extraordinarily limited array of technology available compared to our side of the systems integration business. Horn for horn, cone for cone, there must be 1/100th of the product available coupled with a dramatic decrease in speech intelligibility performance.

How many fire protection system integrators routinely calculate and predict ALcons, RASTI or anything approaching an intelligibility measurement in the design phase? My guess is that unless the design engineer grew up on our side of the house, the pickins might be a little slim.

We Americans do not have a comprehensive speech evacuation standard in place four years after 9/11. There have been no significant advancements in the related technology four years on either. Perhaps most importantly, the folks best qualified to implement such a system appear to be deliberately disqualified from being able to do so.

It is long past time our industry leaders to pursue this avenue with sufficient vigor that proper standards are in place; our people are qualified and certified to design and install them; and our manufacturers build the necessary certified product.

Compare the two communication systems for a typical new sports facility. We have line arrays, distributed flat-panel televisions, multiple large-projection screens, and highly trained sound engineers working with complex computer-controlled automation systems intended to provide extraordinarily intelligible messaging. The fire alarm system's ability to communicate to a mass audience is of far less ability, generally consisting or a remote unmanned microphone and possibly a few canned messages.

There is no reason one of our systems could not be integrated to evacuate a facility in far less time than a conventional fire alarm system. Additional links are required as well as monitoring, reporting and powering systems. It's not like we don't already know those fields down cold.

Thus said, it is time for us to take ourselves to task for having played such a passive role in a highly lucrative business opportunity as well as one that will save lives. We must support our industry organizations to make these types of systems reality.

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