Double-Duty Audio Technology

Next-generation audio technology now doubles as a paging and highly reliable voice evacuation system

Whether it’s background music, pre-recorded announcements, zoned paging, or emergency evacuation broadcasts, the latest generation of audio technology now integrates paging and voice evacuation systems onto one shared network.

Although these systems are most ideal for large venues requiring multi-zone paging and mass-notification capabilities, such as hospitals, airports, stadiums, and campuses, the fact that the two systems sit on one backbone may even make it cost effective for smaller facilities.

In addition, because some of these sophisticated products utilize a decentralized system where functionality isn’t dependent on a server or connectivity through a core switching system, there’s no single point of failure.

Furthermore, such products offer simplified troubleshooting and expandability, as the easily scalable design creates a building block effect, according to Marge McAllister, senior consultant at Schirmer Engineering in Phoenix.

“These systems enable us to provide the advanced paging requirements that hospitals need, [for example], but also offer the scalability for other features like voice evacuation or adding more buildings to the current system set-up,” explains Jeff Tappenden, AV systems engineer at Thomas Engineering in Los Angeles. His firm recently specified Biamp’s Vocia system at the Eisenhower Medical Center (EMC) in Rancho Mirage, CA.

With systems like this, Arvel Mecham, EMC’s biomed asset manager, points out, the building now has a system that’s end-user friendly and loaded with technically advanced flexibility, which will help meet the life safety requirements that could be required in the near future.

At the same time, Dragan Jargic, who’s in commercial sales at Axe Integrated Solutions in Edmonton, AB, recently specified Bosch’s Praesideo system at the Edmonton Northlands Convention Centre (see Canadian Convention Centre Boasts New Dual PA/EVAC System). He sees digital monitoring capabilities as the technology’s main strength. “The system truly shines. It employs a way to digitally monitor the whole system, from paging components to the speakers. This way, it allows the audio system to function almost like a fire alarm system; everything is monitored, and faults are reported back to the end user via PC or an annunciation panel.”

Yet another system benefit is the superior sound quality lent to the voice evacuation system, thanks to the PA system.

“Seeing a demo is good, but it doesn’t truly prepare you for what you’re going to hear. There’s a night-and-day difference between this and other audio systems,” affirms Tappenden.

Tappenden’s colleague, Joe Lire, a vice president with Thompson, adds, “It was like having a Disneyland-quality audio experience in the basement hallway of a hospital.”

Design Details
While these dual systems offer many benefits, it does take a knowledgeable integrator to put them together.

Bringing in some technical details, Philip Schramm, senior consultant with the Chicago-based security consulting firm, Sako & Associates, explains, “These systems are based on using an existing data network as the backbone cabling for announcement, interconnectivity of major components, supervision, and control protocol from a single location or locations. The system architecture utilizes existing data network components – switchers, routers, and UTP cabling – and, therefore, can significantly reduce the overall cost of overall system implementation.”

At the same time, a thorough understanding of the network requirements is essential, and inter-building connections must be accounted for to assure that the necessary infrastructure, throughput, and routing are available to connect the paging system together in a campus environment.

Also, because these systems offer so many control features, Jargic cautions against over-designing. By prioritizing ease of use, these systems should be designed with just the right amount of control as to not overwhelm the end-user.

In addition, McAllister says that all auxiliary components need to be compatible for a cohesive installation, ease of maintenance, and ease of expansion. Furthermore, if the system will be used for emergency evacuations, it must also pass a testing process with the city inspector.

Along these lines, Kari Aalto, security manager at Gage-Babcock & Associates in Vancouver, BC, brings up a few important points. Firstly, if not all system devices are UL Listed as fire alarm components, and appropriately labeled, they may not be permitted to be used as part of a required emergency voice communication system in a high-rise building.

“Secondly, even if the voice communication system were installed in a building on a voluntary basis, it would still have to meet the fire alarm/voice communication system standards for installation and verification. And, thirdly, any fire alarm or voice communication system must be equipped with an emergency back-up power supply,” she adds.

Overall, when specifying mass notification systems, Aalto provides the following punch list:

  • Check the supplier references. The supplier must also demonstrate the uninterrupted availability of its system.
  • The systems must be stable and error free, and, therefore, must ensure that the hardware, software, and communication links and networks are designed for robust, continuous duty.
  • Flexibility and adaptability may be key to fitting a supplier’s system to specific requirements.
  • Adequate scale may be a critical consideration. The system should be scaled to meet current and future needs.

While there are a number of complexities and details to account for, the benefits of utilizing this cutting-edge, dual-audio technology may just be worth it.

Barbara Horwitz-Bennett is a frequent contributor to building and construction publications (