Federal requirements for timely emergency notification and National Fire Protection Association codes and standards (NFPA-72, 2010 edition) are directing safety efforts on campuses nationwide, with NFPA-72 itself providing code language on emergency communication systems and their operation and supervision. The University of Washington’s goal was emergency mass notification, with a comprehensive system providing timely communication campus-wide. That’s about 150 buildings of varying types, sizes, and ages.

The short story is that UW brought in a three-pronged team of consultants: EHS Design, for project management and architectural design; Rolf Jensen and Associates (RJA), which handled mass notification compliance; and Sparling, for electrical engineering.

The end result: a system with audible and visual notification that was completed and installed in March 2012, according to Curtis Bales, director of EHS Design. It was a major undertaking — he says it took “nearly two years from start of design through construction close-out.”

The project cost about $8M. Construction took the lion’s share, $5.5M, with $3M of that “for fire alarm and mass notification equipment, which was procured and installed under contracts direct to UW,” and design and engineering costs coming in at $2.5M, Bales recounts.

The Starting Point
Now, for the backstory: the process started at least eight years ago. The old fire alarm monitoring system functioned well and was maintained well, but was outmoded and lacked capacity for growth — “we’re talking almost telegraph technology,” and needed to be replaced, says Mark D. Murray, UW’s assistant director of Environmental Health and Safety.

University officials got busy. Several traveled to other campuses, including Harvard University and the Miami University in Oxford, OH, to see their solutions, according to Murray, who was one of the platooning quarterbacks for the initiative.

“That was the first step,” Murray recalls, “then we asked, ‘How are we going to pay for this?’” Basic question. Complex answer. The first attempt to secure funding from the Washington State Legislature failed — so campus officials went back to the drawing board with an eye on the Legislature’s next funding cycle two years later.

The plan changed in at least two key ways.

The first change: a fiber optics link between fire alarm panels for the centralized, University-owned system by SimplexGrinnell that took the proposed replacement system from monitoring to broadcasting voice messages and other remote functions, according to Murray.

The other change: capturing in a name the essence of what the University envisioned: hence, the term “SafeCampus.” It helped University personnel to advocate for the plan, and state lawmakers to get a fast handle on what was being proposed.

Approved and Underway
The state approved the funding in 2009, with the stipulation that it must be spent within two years. UW was off and running. Picture a track relay team, in this instance consisting of Facility Services, Environmental Health and Safety, University IT, Capital Projects, University Police, and Capital Resource Planning, which handled the budget and liaised with the state. There were representatives from a separate Campus Crisis Communications Committee — which itself consists of University IT, Media Relations & Communications, and the UW Office of Emergency Management. The Seattle Fire Department was also involved.

Things were predictably unpredictable. Planners fighting the funding clock discovered that just 90 of the 150 campus buildings slated to be included in the new mass notification system had full voice capability — a plan for the remaining 60 had to be devised. In retrospect, it was the second biggest challenge, after the funding, that confronted the University’s team, Murray says.

On the other hand, Bales says that the highest hurdle for the design team was “to define the specific scope of work for every building.” He says, “In more than 150 buildings, the age and condition of the fire alarm and communications systems varied enormously from new to decades old. In some cases the electronics of the fire alarm and communications panels could be updated, in other cases the panels had to be replaced first, in itself a major undertaking.

“The entire project team visited more than 150 buildings, rapidly collaborating to determine the design and engineering solution required for each building, and no two buildings were the same in terms of panel upgrades; determining horizontal and vertical paths for raceways; interface with existing building systems; [and] locations of new amber horn-strobes, signage, speakers, and electronic text-messaging boards,” Bales reports. He explains that “many building spaces were kept locked, so the fieldwork had to quickly gather all the key information in the first visit while the space was available to us.”

Teamwork and Cooperation
The field team, consisting of architects and electrical engineers, key UW personnel, and consultants, walked through all of the buildings together, precluding much guesswork later. The team spent much time “in mechanical and electrical spaces, utility tunnels, locked back-of-house areas, and too many back stairs to count,” Bales recalls. “At times we felt like we should be leaving markers to help retrace our steps!” Work continued “until the level of detail of the documents was complete, down to matching paint colors,” he says.

Given such complexity and the deadline, UW, in what Bales calls “a very unique approach,” requested that the design team combine architectural, engineering, and hazardous materials content on a single drawing sheet.” The goal there: “To minimize change orders and to enable contractors to find information by looking at one drawing for each floor of each building, rather than flipping back and forth between architectural, engineering, and haz-mat document sets,” he says.

In a broader sense, teamwork was the answer, Murray recalls. “Everyone had to work together,” and did, creating an “incredibly collaborative” process that 
got results.

Murray adds, “Universities have an obligation to be prepared to communicate with the campus in the case of emergency. Yet there’s many different ways and systems that may be employed to do that. Thinking about that need comprehensively when you have such a project is important. It will help you make decisions.”
Scott Berman
is a freelance writer with experience in educational topics.

About the Author

Scott Berman is a freelance writer with experience in educational topics.

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