Emergency Preparedness, Facility Security, Security Hardware and Technology

Back to Basics: Comparing One-Way and Two-Way Emergency Communication Devices

Back to Basics is an article series highlighting important, but possibly overlooked, information that security professionals should know.

In April 2022, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) is celebrating its first Emergency Communications Month. The agency aims to support the ability of emergency response providers nationwide to communicate with other security professionals and the public during natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and other hazards.

Security professionals and the public can utilize one-way or two-way emergency communication systems.

One-way emergency communication systems allow an individual or a group to quickly communicate an emergency to others, while two-way emergency communication systems allow an individual to give details about the emergency to emergency personnel.

One-Way Emergency Communication Devices

Fire Alarms and Emergency Exit Doors

To notify building occupants of a fire, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) says the fire alarm system should have:

  • A visible component—a strobe;
  • An audible component—tones, voice signals, or horns with a single tone; or
  • One unit that includes both a visible and an audible component.

Fire alarms are activated when smoke is detected and when someone pulls a fire alarm pull box. Emergency exit doors are alarmed exits to be used when quickly evacuating a building and as part of an emergency exit route. The facility’s main office should have a control panel to show security professionals which smoke detector, fire alarm pull box, or emergency exit door has been activated.

Additionally, security professionals should inform building occupants of the location of fire alarm pull boxes and emergency exit doors.

Public Address System

Security professionals should activate the building’s public address system to inform building occupants of the type of emergency that has occurred and how to react. A prerecorded message can be set up, or a security professional can give an announcement live. Depending on the type of emergency, the public address system can broadcast to specific areas of the building, but visual messages should also be available for those who are hearing impaired.

Moreover, the system should be assessed to ensure it can be heard clearly throughout the facility. Larger facilities should consider directional loudspeakers to prevent echoes and reverberation, but smaller facilities can install ceiling loudspeakers.

Wireless Emergency Alerts

Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) are short emergency messages sent by tribal, local, territorial, state, and federal officials that are broadcast using cellular towers. They consist of 360 characters or fewer and have a unique sound and vibration that are repeated twice to get everyone’s attention.

WEAs will include the type and time of the alert, the action that should be taken, and the agency issuing the alert. These can be messages from:

  • National Weather Service (NWS)—severe weather alerts
  • National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMCE)—missing child alerts
  • The president of the United States—disasters and threats to public safety

Security professionals should encourage building occupants to have their mobile devices set to receive all emergency, government, and public safety alerts. All major cellular providers and some smaller cellular providers participate in the WEA system.

Emergency Alert System

The Emergency Alert System (EAS) alerts citizens through a variety of mediums, including:

  • Television and radio broadcasters
  • Satellite digital audio services
  • Direct broadcast satellite providers
  • Cable television systems
  • Wireless cable systems

The EAS includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio All Hazards, which broadcasts continuous weather information, including official warnings, watches, forecasts, and other hazard information, on a 24/7 basis. The NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards has more than 1,000 transmitters nationwide and requires a special radio receiver, which can be purchased online and at most major department and hardware stores. It is also available for free at NOAAWeatherRadio.org.

Within 10 minutes of a national emergency, the president of the United States can activate the EAS. It can also be activated by state and local authorities to deliver weather information, imminent threats, America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response (AMBER) alerts, and local incident information.

Security professionals should decide whether their workplaces need to have televisions, radios, and/or NOAA Weather Radios so they can receive important updates on local, state, and federal emergencies.

Two-Way Emergency Communication

Security professionals should encourage people to be familiar with two-way emergency communication devices. Users should remain at a stationary location until help arrives unless doing so puts them in immediate danger.

Cellular Phones

Security professionals should remind building occupants to dial 911, the nationwide universal emergency number, from their cellular phones in the event of an emergency. According to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), the 9-1-1 association, about 96% of the geographic United States is covered by 911. However, security professionals should ensure employees know of other emergency communication devices for those who do not have a cellular phone, for those whose phone has a dead battery, and for those in remote areas without cell reception.

Amateur Ham Radios

While Federal Communication Commission (FCC) licenses are required for those operating amateur ham radios, a license is not necessary to purchase equipment or listen to frequencies. These radios are great tools when cellular networks fail or get overloaded.

Emergency Blue Light Box System

Emergency blue light boxes are usually located on tall, bright-blue pillars or mounted to walls and have a highly visible blue light. They have an emergency hotline with a call button and speaker that provide instant communication with a local police department or public safety agency.

These systems can be found at:

  • K–12 and university campuses
  • Healthcare facilities
  • Corporate, military, and government complexes
  • Mass-transit areas and parking facilities
  • Stadiums
  • Golf courses, waterfront areas, and recreational areas
  1. Plain Old Telephone Service

Older blue lights are analog and rely on Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) and power lines for communication and power. However, some college campuses have phased these out because these units have been discontinued by their manufacturers, making it hard to find parts. Instead, those campuses use emergency apps on smartphones.

2. Voice Over Internet Protocol

However, the Security Industry Association (SIA) suggests that older analog systems be replaced with newer digital systems that utilize Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), as well as solar panels and backup batteries. Some facilities have installed digital systems, acknowledging that cellular phones cannot solely be relied on in an emergency because of issues with both users and the phones themselves.

Motorist Call Boxes

Motorist call boxes, mostly located on rural highways, are usually yellow, and those located in remote areas away from electricity hookups have solar panels.

Some boxes have telephones, while others have buttons a motorist can press to indicate he or she needs assistance, and a light will come on to signal to the motorist that the call was received and help is on the way.

Motorist call boxes are designed to be used for:

  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Vehicle breakdowns
  • Medical emergencies

Usage of these boxes has decreased as cell coverage has improved. But while the decreased usage has resulted in some call boxes being removed, those remaining are used by motorists as a last resort, such as when they are without their cellphones or their cellphone battery has died.

Suicide Prevention Boxes

Areas prone to high incidents of suicide, such as bridges, have call boxes that are usually red and dial to a crisis counseling services department or public safety agency.

Some of the most famous bridges that have these include:

  • The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco
  • Five bridges in the Catskills region in New York
  • Aurora Bridge in Seattle
  • Sunshine Skyway Bridge in St. Petersburg, Florida

While officials at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline admit that some lives may have been saved as a result of these phones, they advocate for bridge barriers, as well, to further help prevent suicide.

Whether security professionals are utilizing one-way or two-way communication systems, they should work in conjunction with facilities management personnel and local emergency personnel, including police, fire departments, and EMS, to determine the best solution for their location. Regular maintenance should also be performed by security and facilities management professionals to ensure these systems are always working properly.