building code digital signage

The Case for Building Code to include Digital Signage for Emergency Communication

People congregate in commercial and public facilities: educational institutes, K-12 schools or higher education campuses; corporate buildings or corporate campuses; public buildings or venues; and privately-owned business establishments of any kind – e.g. shopping malls or restaurants.  When an emergency arises, there is a need to communicate to the occupants of the building(s) or venue(s), for the safety of the occupants.

building code digital signageFire alarms were the first piece of equipment to increase the safety of the occupants of a building. Fire alarm building codes, in place for more than 100 years, save lives.

Over time, owners and legislators took on more responsibility for the safety of people in facilities where people congregate, work, or go to school. Smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, and public announcement audio systems are now part of the building code. And they are part of the building’s infrastructure.  Although digital signage is used in some commercial facilities for emergency messaging, it is not mandatory. Even more interesting, building code digital signage guidelines or standards around the messaging that plays on the displays in an emergency don’t exist.

What are some of the benefits of using digital signs, video walls and other public displays to enhance emergency communication?

  1. Displays enhance and compliment the audio building infrastructure for emergency communication
  2. The impact of visual communications is stronger than other types of communications
  3. Digital displays can be used for other purposes every day, all day when there is no emergency
  4. Mass notification systems can work in conjunction with digital displays

Visual Communication Enhances and Compliments Audio Emergency Communication

Most of a building’s emergency communications infrastructure is based around audio notification.  Alarms set off by fire or smoke detection, and an accompanying audio announcement, if there is an emergency public address (PA) system installed.

The alarm’s sound works well in general, except for someone who is deaf.  Maybe they see a flashing light and wonder what is going on.  Clearly, there is a fundamental flaw with focusing primarily on auditory emergency notification in the building code.  Certainly, deaf people would benefit from emergency messages on displays.

Hearing In Public Places

Hearing well in a public facility appears to be a broad problem and is not isolated to only the 15% percent of the population who report some trouble hearing.  There is also a problem called “hidden hearing loss”.  According to this Wall Street Journal article, “… there’s growing evidence that the causes of problems processing speech amid noise, are different than the causes of problems hearing sound.”

People with hidden hearing loss can’t hear well when there is a lot of background noise.  I personally fall into the latter group. I have a hard time hearing audio instruction in a venue with lots of background noise.  The background noise drowns out the audio announcement.  I strain and concentrate to try and understand announcements over a public address system.  I may catch bits and pieces of information, but typically I need to get clarity on what was said from other people or in other ways.

Similarly, a study in airports observed seniors gathering in bathrooms.  When they dug into why the seniors were doing this, it turned out that it was because they could hear the announcements better there.

Sound Quality in Buildings

Trouble hearing is often compounded by poor sound quality in buildings. Sound waves bounce and vibrate.  Some buildings deal with the bouncing and vibrating very well and others very poorly.  Reducing sound wave bounce and vibration costs money.  This cost is often left out when building because the results aren’t visible.  The poor sound quality can make a big difference in our ability to hear announcements.  Restaurants, in particular, seem to be expressly striving to increase the decibel levels in their establishments according to this article.

With less than ideal audio environments, hidden hearing loss, and an aging population, the need to address the hearing challenges with public safety and informational announcements increases.  Digital signs are an obvious solution.

Visual Communication Impact during an Emergency

Using visual communications in an emergency, compliments audio communications.  But, it may also be the best way of communicating specific information to the people in the building at the time of the emergency.

Why?

  • People look at displays, easily identify them, and view the messages on the screens
  • Visual messages play persistently without overwhelming viewers. And, when they play on large screens people quickly and easily digest the information
  • Emergency messaging on the screens is pre-planned precisely. Unique visual messages, prepared for any of the many types of emergency situations
  • Learning visually is the most prevalent style of learning. And for people whose primary learning style is auditory or kinetic, visual learning complements those learning styles.
  • Visual messages include almost any digital media type, e.g. images, graphics, tickers, videos or live camera feeds
  • Digital display content can be instantly triggered or changed when necessary by authorized personnel
  • Visual messages can vary by display location and be directed to specific displays in zones or areas as defined or required
  • Incorporating messaging from mass emergency notification systems within the digital sign’s canvas is possible
  • Digital displays can provide precise geographic oriented instructions to users that are viewing the information. An example would be identifying an exit route, each screen showing the direction of travel to the nearest exit.

Digital Displays can be Used for other Purposes

Most of the building safety infrastructure for emergency notification is put in place and hopefully never has to be used.  It is there for when an emergency arises.

Digital signs, on the other hand, can be used each and every day, all day long. They can be used to display:

  • General corporate communication or messaging
  • Current information – News, weather and other
  • Specific information re transportation schedules
  • Television programming – iPTV, satellite, cable
  • Art – images or videos
  • Nature – images or videos
  • Advertising
  • Welcome messaging
  • Inspirational or motivational messaging
  • Townhall
  • Wayfinding
  • Room availability and booking information
  • Performance metric or dashboards
  • Combinations of all of the above

Due to the fact that people are used to TVs, and it is easy to identify screens, people look at them.  Investing in digital displays provides many benefits beyond emergency notification.  This is not the case with other building infrastructure dedicated to emergency management. And, if the venue is open to advertising, the digital display infrastructure helps pay for itself and may become a profit center.

Digital Displays and Mass Notification

Mass notification systems (MNS), are fantastic when you have the ability to collect and register the mobile number and email address of the majority of regular occupants of a building or campus, e.g. higher education institutes.  Certainly, MNSs aren’t foolproof in getting their messages to building or campus occupants and digital signs can be a great complement to them.

Why and How?

  1. Sending messages to someone’s mobile devices doesn’t guarantee that they will look at it right away. If their mobile is in their purse, if their battery is drained, or if their phone is buzzing so often with messages, they may not look at the phone when an emergency message is sent. And timeliness in emergencies is critical.  But if they are in a facility, they will immediately see digital signs as they move around.
  2. Even if you have most or all of a campus or building’s occupants registered with the MNS, including visitors when an emergency strikes is a problem. Digital signs can cover occupants who are not registered with the MNS.
  3. MNS messaging can be integrated with and connected to the digital signage platform. Any MNS messages can pop up immediately on digital signs, overriding, or on top of the normal content being played.
  4. For buildings or venues where the occupants at any given time are unpredictable, MNSs are not a reliable emergency communication medium. However, digital signs work easily with the MNS.

Building Code Digital Signage for Emergency Communications

Facilities managers are experiencing, “Increasing requests for interior building signage …” as indicated in this University of Waterloo, Plant Operations, Policies, and Guidelines. If you read that policy a little further down the page you will see how restricted the policy is, on how digital signs can be used.  Maybe the building policy makers and building code managers need to re-think their policies for digital signs in buildings.  And, if they strive for increased safety in their venues, then evolve the policies and building code to include more digital signs.

It seems like we should harness the demand for these displays by allowing them to be installed according to guidelines.  And specify that the displays become part of the building’s(s) digital display emergency notification system.  A technology platform to support building code digital signage is needed.  Furthermore, the platform must:

  1. Provide advanced emergency management capabilities (see this blog to understand what that might include)
  2. Be able to support the many other use cases for public digital displays for everyday content display. See the list above.
  3. Work with the widest variety of screen and player types. Screens and players continue to get cheaper and easier to put up.

Building and Campus Policies and Guidelines for Digital Signs

The case for digital signs being part of the building code increases safety in the buildings and will build momentum.  Also, playing content on the digital signs each and every day makes the case to use them even more compelling.

As more digital signs find their way in facilities, how should they be managed in an emergency?  What do you need to look for in a platform which will enable many of the capabilities listed above?  Certainly, a digital display software platform with an Advanced Emergency Management module will do the job.

Our next blog details what to look for in a platform which can manage all the public digital displays day-to-day and more importantly, when any kind of emergency arises.

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