Voice alarm and evacuation alert systems are vital for public safety

From the outside, it’s clear the building is on fire. And the people inside can hear the alarm, but no one is evacuating. Sadly, delayed reaction to alarms is all too common—people don’t take them seriously or think they have time that they don’t have. Public address and voice alarm systems can combat this issue by providing people inside buildings with timely verbal warnings and instructions. Occupants are 75% more likely to react to a voice command than an alarm.

The latest VA/PA systems are designed to provide safe, fit-for-purpose solutions for buildings and have sophisticated zone, directional, and situation messaging capabilities. These increased demands result from COVID-19, trends in outdoor event management, school lockdown requirements, changes to the mandatory ‘stay put’ order in the event of a fire, and the UK Draft Building Safety Bill.

What is a PA/VA system?

Public address systems comprise a series of speakers built into the walls and ceilings of buildings. They are ubiquitous in shopping centres, commercial spaces, airports, schools, high-rise buildings, and office blocks. They fulfil several functions, including communication with many people and even playing music. However, their life-saving value is when they are used as part of an emergency evacuation alert system. 

Public Address and Voice Alarm systems allow safe, controlled building evacuation to be managed in the event of an incident or emergency. The Fire Rescue Service (FRS) can send clear voice messages through directional and zoned communication to groups of people based on their location and give instructions telling them where, when, and how to evacuate. In high rise buildings, PA/AV systems can also be used to address individual tenants in their flats.

Why are PA/VA systems important?

Public address systems amplify the human voice and ensure that clear messages can be triangulated to precise people or locations within a ground or building complex. As a result, they are integral to public awareness, health and safety, and occupant wellbeing.

For example, if there is a fire on the 12th floor of a block of flats, the FRS may decide to carry out a vertical phased evacuation by first evacuating that floor, followed by the floors directly above and below. The rest of the building will then be evacuated last. In this scenario, PA/VA systems are potentially life-saving as using them avoids the risk of everyone simultaneously evacuating, causing panic and injury. 

Most common applications of PA/VA systems

Public address systems are routinely fitted to major transport hubs (train and bus stations, airports), sports stadia, leisure facilities, museums, large public buildings, shops, hospitals, large commercial buildings, hotels, schools, and universities. Additionally, they are increasingly found in managed outdoor venues as well as modern workspaces and multi-tenant buildings.

Public address systems and fire safety

Fire safety regulations are becoming ever more rigorous, and many building managers and owners are worried about current compliance and future regulation. The RRO and Fire Safety Act 2021 establishes that most business and residential blocks of flats should have a comprehensive fire emergency evacuation plan, which will differ depending on the size, nature, and requirements of each building. 

One function of the fire emergency evacuation plan, for instance, is to detail the actions of staff members in the event of a fire and the method established to notify the FRS. Moreover, consideration must be given to how people will be warned in the event of a fire and how the building will be evacuated. Depending on the requirements of the building, installing a public address system can address both these questions and go one step further to help resolve poor human response times to traditional fire alarms.

Why install a Voice Alarm?

Research over the past 30 years concludes that people are more likely to take seriously and respond swiftly to an alert if voice messages are used instead of tone sounders. Benefits of voice alarm include:

  • People are 75% more likely to react to a voice alert than an alarm sounder
  • Live messages can give exact instructions to people not familiar with surroundings, stairs, doorways or evacuation routes
  • Customised pre-recorded messages can be deployed in multiple languages
  • Average building evacuation time can be reduced by 20 minutes
  • Alarm cancellation and manual evacuation override cancellation can reduce panic
  • Other systems can be integrated – including emergency lighting, BMS, access control, video systems, fire doors, and shutters
  • Background (ambient) music can be played to enhance a visitor experience 

What are the regulations for Voice Alarm?

BS 5839 Part 8: 2013 is the code of practice that sets out the requirements for the design, installation, commissioning, and maintenance of Voice Alarm Systems. Every building has different requirements, so depending on the use, size, age, and construction materials used, it is vital to have an in-depth understanding of the code and the steps that should be taken as the system meets the application’s needs.

Depending on the requirements of your construction, additional relevant standards should be consulted:

BS EN 5839 Part 1

Design, Installation, Commissioning and Maintenance fire detection and alarm systems

BS EN 54 Part 16

Design of Voice Alarm Control and Indicating equipment

BS EN 54 Part 24

Requirements for the design and construction of loudspeakers

BS 7827

Code of practice for sound systems at sports venues

Evacuation management considerations

Choosing a VA System is a delicate process, and the evacuation procedure for the building must be taken into consideration: 

  • Should the building be evacuated simultaneously?
  • Or is a phased evacuation required?

Once these questions are answered, the fire safety consultant will choose what voice alarm system should be used. Important considerations about what type of system should be chosen revolve around assessing the level of manual control and the need for live messages versus using automated messages.



What to consider when choosing a VA/PA system

In addition to the specific characteristics of your building and its size, the following issues should be considered when choosing a VA/VP system. However, the most important advice would be to consult a fire safety expert and the Fire and Rescue Services.

  • Background noise levels
  • Appropriate spacing based on risk (not physical features)
  • Vulnerability and profile of people inside the building
  • Calculations for loudspeaker load
  • The Fire Emergency Evacuation Plan
  • The requirements for EACIE in buildings to manage risk (not regulation)

Compliance with BS 8629:2019 – Evacuation Alert System

BS 8629:2019 provides guidance on ‘the design, installation, commissioning, and maintenance of Evacuation Alert Systems (EAS) for use by the FRS in buildings containing flats. An EAS, which can include a VA/VP system, should only be operated by the FRS via a control panel, also known as an EACIE (evacuation alert control and indicating equipment). 

Read our blogs to learn more about who needs an EACIE and how they relate to Fire Emergency Evacuation Plans, which apply to almost all buildings, places, and structures that are not individual homes.

Conclusion: combine voice alert systems and fire alarms 

Smart system integrations enable the digital coupling of fire alarm systems and voice alarm systems, and the combination offers both functional and economic benefits. Combined systems are not that much more expensive than sounders alone. But, most importantly, integrated PA/VA and emergency alert systems significantly reduce the time it takes for the FRS to evacuate a building—which can save lives. 

RRO & the Fire Safety Act 2021

Kevin Burraway
Written by Kevin Burraway

Kevin is a fire protection and fire suppression specialist and Director of Ace Fire & Security.