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School Safety

Unique emergency communication system combines public address and digital signage for a far-flung school district.

School Safety

Jan 23, 2012 12:02 PM,
By Cynthia Wisehart

Unique emergency communication system combines public address and digital signage for a far-flung school district.

Mass Notification Supplement

Systems Integration and the NFPA 72 Code

School Safety

Understanding EN 54

Learn the Code: NFPA 72

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This is a story about the intersection of a public address/voice evacuation system (Bosch Praesideo ) and a digital signage system (Alpha Video CastNET ). It’s an instructive look at a real-world situation in which mass notification/emergency communications and digital signage work together. The result is both a new technical product, as well as a new installation paradigm for a sprawling five-school county in northern Minnesota.

There has been a lot of discussion about what changes in the NFPA Fire Code will mean to systems in public buildings. The code would seem to present the need for more AV expertise and equipment because, broadly speaking, it requires that emergency systems include intelligible voice messages and that visual communications be available.

The details of those points of the code, and others, are still being worked out, as are rollout and enforcement. But as a practical matter, many institutions are already looking at how to improve their emergency notification systems, either in anticipation of the code, or because they have identified a need for these life safety tools. In most cases, says Alpha Video’s Todd Johnson, educational clients may be aware of the code and potentially inspired by it, but the greatest motivators is the need to improve the safety of their students and visitors.

Further, organizations that are considering new paging/PA and/or digital signage for communication can often improve their chances of funding and implementing a new system when it can also play a vital safety role.

What is important—and interesting—about this particular story is the unique way in which the system integrates Bosch’s Praesideo paging system with Alpha Video’s digital signage system CastNET. The result gives Minnesota’s five St. Louis County schools an integrated emergency communication system—one that with a single point of control feeds audio and video messages directly into the halls and classrooms, effectively “taking over” the hallway displays and classroom projectors for emergency communication through an applet that resides on the teacher’s workstations.

The seed for this idea germinated more than two years ago, when Alpha Video co-owner Kevin Groves attended a PSNI meeting about mass notification. At a presentation about the Presideo product, he had a brainstorm and approached the Bosch representative. As a systems integrator and a manufacturer of products, Groves had many years of experience building and refining Alpha Video’s CastNET platform as well as deploying it in the field. His idea was to find a way to work with Bosch to integrate the functions of Praesideo and CastNET via software.

Praesideo already had an established track record in emergency communications—it is compliant with the rigorous EN 54 standard and has seen great success in Europe where emergency notification standards are more established and specific than they are here. Significantly, it is also an open architecture system. CastNET had seen more than a decade in the field as a digital signage system. But like many people who sell digital signage, Groves knew that the systems were often considered a luxury, and were often an element that could be cut from a tightening budget.

With the Praesideo partnership, Groves and his collaborators on the Bosch team developed something that would become an indispensible infrastructure element to the schools: Emergency Visual Notification (EVN).

So in addition to having a digital signage and PA system that serves an everyday role, that same system becomes one of the most effective school alert systems in the country. In the event of severe weather, fires, and potential criminal activity, the system can be activated from a single point—a fire alarm or the command central, or any classroom. Monitors in the hallways visually show what the alert is, a voice message is broadcast through the paging system, and an interactive touchboard in every classroom displays the alert, which overrides the current content.

Alpha Video’s Johnson explains that in addition to integrating the Bosch Praesedio, the EVN system also integrates Extron’s Global Viewer software. “For the customer, this was really the magic,” Johnson says, because of the user interface and control it provided.

Johnson explains that the EVN—indeed any CastNET based system—can handle content distribution one of three ways: via IP networks, VGA distribution, or traditional analog cable. In the case of the St. Louis County schools, it’s all IP-based. A VBrick Systems encoder (plus CastNET server) at the head-end school and encoders (plus CastNET players) at each of the schools provide the option to distribute universal content or break it out individually by school.

The system can also be used for non-emergency content, providing for communication and shared programming in a district where the five schools are up to 80 miles away from each other.

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