Emergency preparedness at your fingertips

The new roles for technology in your emergency preparedness plans

by Liz Wolf — Originally published in the September/Octobert 2019 issue of BOMA Magazine

Building emergencies are nothing new. But, thanks to that glowing device in your pocket (and a little help from the cloud), there are new wrinkles to how we respond and how we recover.

With the ubiquity of sophisticated mobile devices in people’s hands today, tenant communication has improved drastically, Ian O’Neil, president and CEO of Electronic Tenant Solutions (ETS), notes. “In a Class A office, we’re seeing a 98 percent-plus smartphone penetration among tenants.”

Oftentimes, crises strike with little or no warning, and building staff must communicate quickly with tenants to ensure their safety. As a result, a mass notification system is a top priority among many building owners. It allows tenants to sign up online to receive alerts via texts, emails or voice during an emergency. For example, if an active shooter is on-site, text alerts can distribute real-time information on a large scale without using a public address (PA) system.

Akridge, for instance, utilizes a mass communication system across its entire office portfolio. It’s a tool that’s included in the lease, says Tommy Russo, the company’s chief technology officer and chair of BOMA International’s Technology Committee. ETS provides the service. “We have bi-directional communications,” Russo explains. “If you’re a client in one of our buildings and we have to close down for whatever reason, we can send a text or email message and see who received and didn’t receive the message.”

Russo recounts that in the wake of 9/11, many buildings were using Nextel. When the telephone lines went down, all communications halted. Today’s cellular networks are more reliable.

WORTH THE EFFORT

“When communications networks get compromised because they’ve been damaged or overwhelmed,” O’Neil says, “the first thing to go is voice communication. Typically, the longest-surviving communications mechanism is text messaging, so the ability to communicate across multiple mechanisms to get people’s attention is important.”

Such systems aren’t necessarily easy to administer, Russo points out. “Like any database, they’re tough to maintain,” he says. “Clients move in and clients move out, and you need to stay in front of that. We have 35 buildings in the Washington, D.C./Virginia metropolitan area. We’ve had a disaster recovery solution in place and services like this since Y2K—even before 9/11.”

The good news is that prices of mass notification systems are dropping. “Five years ago, mass notification was $20,000 a building; now, you can do it for far less than that,” Russo states.

What’s more, cloud-based data storage brings a new level of power to recovery. “For a small company, we’re fully redundant, and the cloud really enables that,” adds Russo. “If, God forbid, our headquarters building was destroyed, our data wouldn’t be lost.” Moving information to the cloud allows employees to access projects or documents remotely, and data also is backed up to a server that’s not impacted by weather conditions or other hazards.

Akridge has used the system for many disasters, such as power outages and weather-related emergencies. “Let’s say there’s a flood, and you don’t want people to drive an hour to D.C. to find the building closed,” Russo says. “To me, that constitutes an emergency as well. The ability to get and share that data is big. And, it’s not just getting a text message. It’s about confirming who got it and who acknowledged it.”

To better manage emergency communications, building owners and property managers can target groups of tenants, categorizing them by building, and send alerts only to the affected individuals. “It used to be that, in an emergency, some sort of blast would come through the PA system,” O’Neil explains. “Now, not only can you communicate directly to tenants, you can communicate specifically to groups of tenants by suite, floor, building or across the portfolio.”

For example, O’Neil says a fire chief on the scene may direct tenants on floors one-10 to evacuate, those on floors 11-15 to stay put and those on floor 16 and above to relocate to other floors. There are even response mechanisms, so if a blast goes out to tenants on a particular floor, you can ask them to press “1” if they’re okay and “2” if they need help.

That phone also can host such services as ETS’ own Electronic Tenant® Portal, O’Neil says. In an emergency, a link is created to provide access to information, including building maps.

SOLVING THE ELEVATOR RIDDLE

One critical area in any high-rise is elevator communication. There are 900,000 elevators in the United States, each serving an average of 20,000 people annually. In other words, the odds of an elevator emergency are enough to warrant the help of a high-tech emergency communications platform.

One such company, Kings III Emergency Communications, reports taking 1.3 million emergency elevator calls across all property types in 2018. Despite the inconsistency of cell coverage, especially in elevators, that phone may be the only link between an elevator cab and the outside world.

Dispatchers should be able to locate the address of a building, down to the elevator cab, without any help from the caller, as required by elevator communications standards from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and the I-Codes from the International Code Council (ICC). Properly functioning emergency phones have automatic location identification, relieving responders from having “to rely on someone who’s in a panicked state for location information,” says Katie Thomas, Kings III’s vice president of marketing. They also record, date/time stamp and store calls indefinitely.

“We have power redundancy, resilient networking and multiple telecommunications carriers to get the calls to our dispatch center,” says Dave Mann, technology vice president for Kings III.

Thanks to mobile technology and other high-tech capabilities, today’s office buildings are safer than ever. However, old school rules still apply, and it’s vital that property managers communicate with tenants to keep them well versed on their building’s security resources.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Liz Wolf is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer with 30 years of business and commercial real estate reporting experience. She previously served as editor of the Minnesota Real Estate Journal.

BOMA Magazine is the official magazine of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) International. It is a leading source for the latest news, issues and trends affecting the commercial real estate industry.