Slap It on The Wire

November 27, 2023

I spent a few years representing some mass notification products. I sold software that worked with VOIP phones (remember them?) and various types of networked end points like desktop computers (remember them?), cell phones and some audio systems. At the time, there was no term “mass shooting”. Critical events were few and far between. We still managed to move several pallets of software licenses.   

Fast-forward to now. “Active Shooter” is now part of the day-to-day vernacular. But what has changed in the enterprise space to deal with this? What has your company done to protect you from the likelihood that one of your coworkers is nuts? What are your clients doing to protect themselves from all the nutty people doing nutty things?  

Here is a little tutorial on how to use the tech we are already installing to possibly save the day. It is not hard. The conversations are hard, though. Disaster planning is only slightly more fun than the disaster itself. Yeah… no fun, but let’s dive in.

Reading this is Step One.
Knowing there should be a plan. The plan most companies employ is the fire alarm. “Pull the Alarm.” Everyone either ignores it or marches right into the disaster. Sometimes there is an “annunciator” system. For those of you who have been to InfoComm in Orlando, you know just how well those work. Nobody cares. Nobody even stops what they are doing. So, let’s make a plan together right now.

When a critical event occurs, it usually is a surprise and not what we expected.

Step Two is to get the smart people and leaders (sometimes the same!) together to start communicating.
This is the most important function of notification. It sets the table for everything that follows. We make a plan to get the management in a room. Those are the people that have prepared for this moment. We use whatever systems we have to do so. This needs to happen quite simply, without a ton of thought. We must have strategic panic buttons, software, signage – all pre-programmed to do exactly that. Let the boss people know they need to start leading right now.

If your AV equipment is all networked, it can easily serve as the system to get this done. Every display can get some sort of text on it. Every speaker can make a tone or a message that is known to only the people that need to know it. This does not alert the bad actors, it likely will not panic the entire staff, and it shouldn’t make the situation worse (fire alarm). Key employees must have a simple way to activate this. If it is a false alarm, at least we haven’t sent everyone into the street to get run over by homeless shopping carts.

Step Three is to act on the situation.
There are usually only two choices in a critical event: get away from the situation or stay put, lock yourself in, and hide. These steps are different depending on where you are and where the incident is. Every building, campus or office has some sort of logical zone. If we split up our tech and define these zones in advance, we can send some pre-programmed info to each zone. It is critical to have these messages done in advance.   Terrified people are terrible public speakers.

A simple “Shelter in Place” or “Safely Evacuate” message is pretty easy to record or type. There can be separate plans for separate incidents. Extreme weather, crazy homeless people wandering in, broken water-pipes, surprise birthday parties, can all be done in advance. This allows for a simple multiple-choice process to be executed by the terrified or overjoyed leaders (birthday). It is hard to think clearly when the sh!t is hitting the fan.

Now the smart people have been alerted, they figured out where the problem is, and were able to send the right messages to the right people quickly, correct? Maybe. If you rely on SMS text or cell phones, in a big event, (Super Bowl, Taylor Swift concert, etc.) that stuff all goes to heck. On top of that, the public emergency services immediately take all the bandwidth. Do not rely on those public communications services to act as your number one platform. USE YOUR NETWORK. Your network is awesome. Use it. Use some cool software on your phones and laptops. And use your AV. Use your digital signage. Use it all. There is no over-communicating when something bad is going on.   

The Farm represents some fantastic networked AV products. All of them can be deployed for something other than a Teams-call in a crisis. It costs a few bucks and adds a lot of extra programming time to do this. There are dozens of mass notification software products out there to look at. It is easy enough to do it straight from Q-SYS as well. All you need is a little time and a decent LUA programmer.   

So, is it worth it? I asked ChatGPT “What percentage of society is insane?” ChatGPT immediately scolded me as “insane” is a dirty word now. But one in four people are likely to experience a mental health issue. And other stuff happens. We all know that other stuff happens that can mess up a workday. Intruders are not always disgruntled employees. Sometimes they are fully-gruntled homeless folks just making a ruckus.   

Right now is the right time to talk to your AV professionals about how to use their systems to help when it really counts. Disaster planning after the disaster is… uh… disastrous.