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Emergency Communication in Buildings: General Guidance for Message Providers
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Issue 67: Emergency Communication in Buildings: General Guidance for Message Providers

By Erica Kuligowski, Ph.D.

At present, many buildings and building campuses in the United States are installing mass notification or emergency communication systems to improve communication between the emergency responders and the public. In the United States, there is little guidance regarding the content and dissemination strategies for emergency messages. The National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code (NFPA 72)1 begins to provide guidance on message content and dissemination techniques; however, the guidance focuses mainly on messages provided over public address systems.

Additionally, British Standard 58392 discusses emergency messages and dissemination techniques. Some mention is made of the components of message delivery, including the manner in which messages should be delivered (e.g., clear, concise and in a calm and authoritative manner), intelligibility, message duration, and the importance of an alert tone. However, little guidance is given on the specifics of the message, including message content and length, speaking rate, frequency of delivery, and other important aspects of emergency notification.

Overall, message providers, including building managers, emergency personnel, alarm system manufacturers, codes/standards committees, or others responsible for emergency communication, often lack all of the necessary tools, techniques, guidance, and training to effectively provide information to building occupants when an emergency event is imminent or unfolding. This problem exists across all modes of notification, whether visual, audible, tactile, or social networks are employed.

Irrespective of the mode used, it is necessary for emergency communication to be effective in order to facilitate the desired public response. To this end, a National Institute of Standards and Technology Technical Note was recently published presenting general guidance on emergency communication strategies to alert and warn building occupants of impending rapid-onset events in buildings and building campuses in the United States.3 Guidance was based on a consensus of the emergency warning literature,4 as well as social theory and expert opinion on human response to emergency information in disasters. This article introduces some of the guidance provided for emergency alerts and warning messages, more specifically, how alerts and warnings should be created, formatted, and disseminated.

There is a distinct difference between an alert and a warning message. An alert is simply meant to grab people’s attention that an emergency is taking place and that there is important information to follow. The purpose of a warning message is to give that important information to building occupants. The literature suggests that it is imperative to disseminate an alert to let building occupants know that a warning message will follow. Regardless of whether the warning message is provided audibly, visually, or via tactile means, an alert is necessary to gain people’s attention and should be provided separately from the warning message.


An alert in a building can take many forms. For audible messages, a sound or series of sounds can be provided. Alternatively, a word or series of words can be audibly provided. In the case of visual alerts, strobe lights or visual signage, for example, can be used to obtain people’s attention in the building. The following bulleted list presents guidance on emergency alerts taken directly from Kuligowski:2

  • Alerts should be significantly different from ambient sounds
  • Buildings should reduce background noise, if possible, when initiating audible alerts
  • If chosen, an alert should be tested for its success in getting occupants’ attention in the event of an emergency and used as part of the building-wide training (this subject is the topic of ongoing research)
  • Flashing rather than static lights, preferably one standard color for all buildings, can be used to gain attention to visual warning messages
  • Message providers should consider alternative methods to alert building occupants to an emergency: disruption of routine activities, tactile methods, social networks, face-to-face, etc.
  • An alert signal should be accompanied by a clear, consistent, concise, and candid warning message

Warning messages are meant to inform building occupants on the state of the emergency and what occupants are supposed to do in response to the emergency. Warning messages should be disseminated after an alert signal is given. Guidance is provided2 on the message itself, including content, order, structure, and the number of messages that are appropriate. Guidance is also provided based upon the method by which the message will be disseminated; either via audible or visual means. Finally, guidance is also provided on how to disseminate the warning message, including the importance of multiple channels, message repetition, timing, and communication type. Table 1 provides examples of guidance on emergency warning messages. (Please see Kuligowski2 for a full list of guidance on warning messages.)

Table 1: Guidance statements on emergency warnings in buildings for rapid-onset emergencies

Communication Topic


Guidance statement

Warnings – The message



A warning message should contain five important topics to ensure that building occupants have sufficient information to effectively respond

  1. Who is providing the message (i.e., the source of the message).
  2. What people should do (i.e., what actions occupants should take in response to the emergency and, if necessary, how to take these actions).
  3. When people need to act (i.e., in rapid-onset events, the "when” is likely to be "immediately”).
  4. Where the emergency is taking place (i.e., who needs to act and who does not).
  5. Why people need to act, including a description of the hazard and its dangers/consequences).



The source of the message should be someone who is perceived as credible by the building population



Emergency messages should be written at a 6th grade reading level or lower


Multiple messages

Building managers and emergency personnel should anticipate the need to write more than one emergency message throughout a building disaster: feedback messages or updates, for example

Warnings – Visual


Perception/ Line of sight

Signs are reliably conspicuous within 15 degrees of the direct line of sight


Perception/ Font

A mixture of upper and lower case letters rather than the use of all capitals makes the text easier to read



Printed text should accompany symbols or pictorials



Provide color-contrast for any word or statement that occupants should read first and/or perceive as more urgent than the rest



Perceived credibility and risk are increased if occupants are shown that others are also responding

Warnings – Audible



Voice announcements are most effective when accompanied by simultaneous visual text



Message speakers should not be heavily accented and should speak with a rate of approximately 175 words per minute



Audible warnings should be delivered using a live voice

Warnings – Dissemination


Multiple channels

Use multiple channels to disseminate the warning message,  including visual means, audible means, and tactile means



A warning message should be repeated at least once



Messages should be stated in full, and then repeated in full rather than repeating statements within the same message



Disseminate warning messages as early as possible


Communication Type

Messages should be disseminated using a combination of both push and pull technologies; with push communication being most appropriate for alert signals and initial warning messages.  [Note: pull technologies require individuals to make a concerted effort to seek out additional information without specific prompting, whereas push technologies do not.]

This article presents only some of the strategies to alert and warn building occupants of impending rapid-onset events in buildings and building campuses in the United States. Additional guidance statements can be found, with supporting research literature, in the full report.2  A follow-on document will be published to provide more detailed guidance; specifically, message templates based on the emergency type (rapid-onset emergencies only) and technology type, and the ways in which to test the effectiveness of alerts/warnings for a specific building population.


The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate, supplemented by The Fire Protection Research Foundation, is currently funding this NIST project on the effectiveness of emergency communication.

Erica Kuligowski is with the National Institute of Standards and Technology

  1. NFPA 72 US National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. Quincy: National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 2013.
  2. BS 5839-8. Fire Detection and Fire Alarm Systems for Buildings – Part 8: Code Of Practice For The Design, Installation, Commissioning and Maintenance ff Voice Alarm Systems. British Standards Institution, London, 2008.
  3. Kuligowski, E. "General Guidance on Emergency Communication Strategies for Buildings." Technical Note 1779, National Institute of Standards and Technology: Gaithersburg, MD., 2013.
  4. Kuligowski, E., Gwynne, S. Butler, K., Hoskins, B. and Sandler, C.. "Developing Emergency Communication Strategies for Buildings." Technical Note 1733, National Institute of Standards and Technology: Gaithersburg, MD., 2012.

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