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Published:  29 September, 2014

Digital communications systems really are proving their value in shopping centres’ emergency planning

It is essential for shopping centre managers, security and cleaning teams to be able to communicate quickly and effectively with each other and with the public, especially when dealing with an incident or emergency. Radio systems are the tried and tested method when it comes to two-way communication, but they can be used in a number of other ways.  

In what is thought to be a UK first, Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield has commissioned radio specialist DCRS to design, manufacturer and install a solar powered public address evacuation system linked with the centre’s existing Motorola radio system. 

“The team at Meadowhall has been successfully using Motorola’s MotoTRBO radio equipment for a number of years,” says DCRS director, Steve Luscombe. “They were one of the first shopping centres to introduce the MotoTRBO DMRAlert guard tour application to allow them to coordinate the security, cleaning and maintenance teams and track and monitor staff movements throughout the site, improving safety and offering a better service to both visitors and retailers.”  

Meadowhall approached DCRS late in 2013 seeking advice about the possibility of introducing an external public address tannoy system to each of its eight assembly points. DCRS met with the Meadowhall team and the centre’s managers at Smith Young to discuss their requirement before designing a bespoke system to meet their needs. 

Meadowhall wanted a solution that would cause minimum disruption when installed so they specified a wireless system and one which could be run without mains power. They asked that the centre’s MotoTRBO radio system transmit messages to each point which could then be broadcast to both staff and visitors in an evacuation situation. 

“Customer safety is at the heart of everything we do at Meadowhall, as one of the region’s largest shopping centres, with more than 25 million visitors per year, it is vital that we have an effective public announcement system in place in the event of an evacuation scenario,” says Meadowhall’s head of operations, Dawn Osborne. “We needed a system capable of quickly and effectively delivering clear communication across the entire site to both our staff and members of the public whenever it is called into action.

“After considering a host of options, we asked digital radio communications experts DCRS to design a bespoke solution to meet all of our needs.”

The solution was to turn each assembly point into an individual tannoy by installing posts at each point containing a MotoTRBO DP3400 Series radio integrated with an amplifier and a set of TOA Horn speakers. A pair of solar panels on top of each post power the system and charge internal sealed batteries to ensure the system is always ready to use.  

“The pioneering kit not only meets all of our customer safety requirements for evacuation procedures but is also an environmentally friendly solution powered entirely by solar energy,” says Osborne. “As a green shopping centre with a commitment to operating with the environment in mind, using a renewable source to power the equipment was a key specification of the design brief.” 

The system allows the control room to communicate with the centre’s eight assembly points individually, and the security team can radio back to the control room from each point as well as passing messages out to the public as and when required.

The system is controlled via MotoTRBO’s TRBOnet application, allowing security to communicate with all assembly points, make individual calls to separate points or to send out pre-recorded messages.

“The evacuation marshal goes to their designated assembly point, and unlocks a panel door to access a radio mic, using that to talk to the control room and confirm they’re in position using MotoTRBO radio or passing live messages to crowds gathered at the assembly point,” explains Luscombe. “It gives the team the flexibility to control crowds around the site. And everything is recorded on the TRBOnet system which can be played back for training or insurance purposes.” 

“It was a crucial part of the functionality that the system could be used centrally from the control room with pre-recorded announcements or locally so that each assembly point marshal could use specific communication based on the circumstances they had at their assembly point,” adds Osborne. “Other functionality proved very useful such as providing direct intercom communications from each assembly point to the control room essentially supplementing staff’s personal radios.”

The centre’s existing internal public address system was designed to aid in evacuation but the new system had to be able to communicate with staff throughout the process and with the public both during evacuation and afterwards, to encourage them to continue shopping once the all clear had been given.

“The new system allows the centre to control the crowds while evacuation is taking place, keeping them informed and getting them outside as quickly as possible,” says Luscombe. “And, once the all clear is given, it helps to get people back inside as quickly as possible, obviously something the retailers are keen on. Before, communication with the crowds outside the building would have been done with a handheld megaphone.” 

And a number of the assembly points around Meadowhall have been designed to provide messages to both the upper and lower car parks. 

The whole project took three to four months from initial discussion to install and only 10 weeks once the spec had been decided. It has been successfully used on a number of occasions in test evacuation scenarios and has been used to control crowds at events including the Christmas Light Switch On and activity around the Tour de France. 

It has been approved by the police and independent health & safety consultants and it’s something DCRS hopes to roll out to other shopping centres. 

“Since its installation earlier this year, the DCRS radio system has been utilised in a test evacuation scenario with all occupants within the centre vacated quickly and without incident,” says Osborne. “It has exceeded all performance expectations and gives us the confidence that in the event of a real emergency situation we could deliver very effective communication in turn ensuring an even more controlled and efficient evacuation.” 

“This wireless public address tannoy system utilises both MotoTRBO equipment and an application and is just one example of how digital radio can be integrated into systems to offer our clients bespoke solutions,” adds Luscombe. “Radios can do a lot more than people think.”

One of the other uses of digital radio is guard tour management, adding applications and equipment to existing systems to track personnel by passively monitoring staff movement throughout the site. 

Designed to tighten security, improve response times and promote a coordinated effort for tackling criminal activity, Meadowhall was one of the first shopping centres to adopt it three years ago, working with Motorola and DCRS to set up DMRAlert. Every member of the operational team carries a radio which gives off signals that are picked up by beacons on the mall, allowing the management team or those in the control room to communicate with and deploy the nearest person to an incident or spillage.   

And it’s becoming more commonplace. Intu Uxbridge recently added the DMRAlert application to its existing MotoTRBO hand portable radios for indoor tracking and guard tour management capabilities. And DCRS is installing TRBOnet at Beaumont shopping centre, with beacons that will allow the team there to use the system for route management, replacing their old Diester system. 

Radio systems can also incorporate reporting features, allowing management to review repair checks, toilet checks and spillages. And intu Watford has recently purchased a new digital radio system with the TRBOnet application which they use for voice recording, allowing them to store and review staff actions in the aftermath of an incident.Radio is a tried and tested method of communication, particularly in shopping centres where the need to send messages fast and effectively, both to staff and visitors, is vital in dealing with an incident or emergency. And it’s an ever-evolving technology with plenty of added benefits interlinked with and moving beyond the act of direct communication. 

Trinity Leeds: the digital mall

When Land Securities opened Trinity Leeds in 2013, it declared it the UK’s most digitally enhanced mall. And digital technology was to extend to communications, both in connecting centre staff and in sending messages out to shoppers.  

All management and operative staff across centre departments communicate via Motorola digital portable two-way radios, ensuring that open channels of communication are constantly maintained in order to keep the centre running smoothly. There are four channels - one for the security team, one for the cleaning team, one for the maintenance team and one for use in emergencies - to ensure clear lines of contact, and all front of house staff wear ear pieces at all times to maximise efficiency. 

When it comes to interacting with visitors and providing customer service, security ‘hosts’ on the mall floor carry iPad Minis, equipped with the Trinity Leeds welcome app, which allows them to help customers with directions, links to events and third party sites, store directories and special offers. 

 “Trinity Leeds is designed to deliver the definitive digital retail and brand experience – this ethos extends to the way in which we communicate both internally and with our customers,” explains Emma Lawson, portfolio manager, retail, Land Securities. “The ways in which customers interact with retail environments has evolved enormously over the past few years, and as such we are committed to ensuring that customers are never far from a friendly member of the Trinity Leeds team who can quickly, easily and effectively answer any of their needs. Our carefully curated iPads and welcome app provide the perfect platform to achieve this.”