PA and VA: changing mentalities, new technologies


The human mind likes to identify things and classify them. Often times, this can mean grouping two or more topics under an easily identifiable title, even though they may not necessarily belong together. This is true for the term PA / VA, which is a nice and clear grouping of two technologies sharing common principles but fulfilling very different functions.

The disparity between them has become more evident now that the PA (PA) has moved from its 100V line, its loudspeaker to column / horn roots (although modern versions of these technologies continue to be widely used) and adopted elements of pro audio. In some facilities – such as large football stadiums – the sound system is not only a way to make announcements about teams or the location of the pie stand, it can play concert-level music throughout. cabinets that would not be moved on a rock to visit.

In contrast, VA (voice alarm) has not received such widespread acceptance or understanding. Part of the reason for this is the hope that such systems will never be used, given that their primary function is to direct and reassure people during an evacuation or emergency. While there is a legal imperative to install VA systems in many buildings or public areas – which varies from country to country across Europe – the scale and sophistication of the installation is more likely to be dictated by money and the willingness to spend it.

“The market sees VA as a reluctant buy, something it must have,” says Peter Alberry-King, Managing Director (Technical) of Penton UK. “Commercial sound is slightly different. Many schools in the UK are installing locking systems, which is in part in response to a government directive on refurbishment. We’ll see more projects in the future, but it’s a slightly different take. VA is mainly used in emergency systems [but] containment can be considered an emergency.

Product standards and application guidelines for AV have been defined in two additions to the European standard EN 54 for fire detection and alarm systems. Both published in 2008, part 16 covers “equipment for controlling and indicating voice alarms”, while part 24 deals with “components of voice alarm systems – loudspeakers”. VA technology began to emerge in the early 1990s as an alternative to traditional fire alarms and bells, but there is a frustration in the business that despite much promotion and enthusiasm at the time , hasn’t changed much in 30 years.

“There is still a lot of ignorance about AV,” comments Alberry-King. “In the UK projects are self-certified by the contractor, but we continue to see situations where people want to spend as little as possible on such a system.” In an effort to tackle this persistent attitude and lack of understanding, the industry’s trade body, the Institute of Sound, Communications and Visual Engineers (ISCVE) has drafted a manifesto for voice alarms in the UK.

Released in May of this year, the document sums it up by stating: “VA is under-used and under-regulated in the UK compared to many other countries. It defines the areas where voice evacuation systems are to be installed, covering both public and residential premises. These include: commercial, commercial or exhibition buildings (single storey with an area greater than 3000 m² or multi-storey with a surface greater than 1500 m²); high-rise office buildings six storeys or more or designed for occupancy by more than 500 people; entertainment and sports facilities with more than 1,500 seats; cinemas and theaters with more than 600 seats; hospitals and health establishments with more than 200 beds in the building; high-rise public buildings of six or more storeys; high-rise apartment buildings and hotels with more than 200 beds or six or more storeys; metro and metro stations; stations and ports, intended to accommodate more than 500 people or classified as AC grades by the Ministry of Transport; airports, designed to accommodate more than 500 people.

The most important requirements formulated by the Manifesto are that VA systems should be mandatory for any building six stories or more that is occupied by the public and any building where 100 or more visitors are unaware of the building’s evacuation policy. to gather. Industry veteran and ISCVE lobbying chair Neil Voce has worked on the Manifesto and says the UK is “way off the top of the pile” in terms of VA. “Other countries have compulsory procedures because it is an important installation,” he adds.

This point of view is shared by Antonio Ferrari, director of the technical assistance group of the Italian manufacturer RCF. He observes, however, that while standardization has contributed to the growth of VA, entrepreneurs and end users have had more opportunities to reduce their profits. “It is growing, being a standards-driven market thanks to increasingly updated national regulations in European countries that specify EN 54 certified equipment in buildings frequented by more than one person,” he says. “On the other hand, certifications have flattened the VA business where now the piece of paper (certification) and the lowest price make the purchasing decision, mainly in small and medium facilities where budget is of the essence. “

The advantages of VA over a basic non-voice alarm are highlighted by Henry Rawlins, ASL Application Manager (Application Solutions Limited): “In an emergency, VA is more than just a simple alarm system. evacuation, it is designed to manage people safely. in all kinds of situations. In a typical application this is evident through the management and control of a progressive evacuation. Alternatively, during a terrorist incident, it could mean keeping people safe in a building. “

ASL produces a range of equipment for VA and PA applications, including IP-based routers, amplifiers and interfaces, as well as the iVENCS control system and loudspeakers. One consideration in all of this has been the audio quality of PA and VA. Rawlins comments that there was always the opinion that VA sounded bad because it worked in the vocal band. “But that may sound awesome,” he says. “It depends on the acoustics but in a stadium you can have a hybrid system [for PA and VA] with a fully monitored driving cabinet system. This saves money as you don’t need separate systems or speakers, with the added benefit of reliability.

Being reliable, with full redundancy, is at the heart of VA. This is also part of the irony of technology; as Rawlins points out, the hope is that the system is never used in an emergency, but it must be ready to go. He says it’s now used more for daily messaging, especially at large rail terminals, such as St Pancras International, and airports, where the hall has expanded to encompass large retail areas.

ASL produces EN 54-compliant PA and VA integrated commercial systems with Audinate Dante Audio over IP (AoIP) capability. The Dante component allows audio to run on a computer backbone, enabling full networking, while voice security is always independent and fully backed up.

According to Ian Bridgewater, director and technical sales director of TOA Corporation UK, technological advances in integrated intellectual property management have been crucial in improving a key aspect of how the system works. “They’ve made huge changes to the way VA / PA installation and maintenance engineers can communicate remotely,” he says.

“The ability to connect through industry standard network protocols has allowed manufacturers to work with software developers to combine products and technologies to provide greater flexibility in managing systems remotely. It also allows integration with VMS [Video Management Systems] and other network audio communication system integrations supported by ONVIF [Open Network Video Interface Forum] and SIP [Session Initiation Protocol]. “

The greater integration of technologies, facilitated in particular by IP, has not only brought PA and VA together, but also the developers and producers of new products and systems, which Bridgewater sees as only increasing. “The collaboration is between manufacturers of VA / PA systems and companies that develop specific software allowing remote access from a PC, giving engineers and system maintenance companies the ability to query the installed system. and make changes without having to be on site, ”he said. said.

Bridgewater adds that the Covid pandemic and the need for announcements about social distancing and other health safety requirements in public places will lead to a reassessment of what public audio systems do and how they do it. “We need to rethink the messaging side of VA / PA to make sure the systems deliver the important information sites need to convey, but, due to the increase in frequency, [they have to] make sure messages aren’t watered down or impinge on the consumer experience. Spaces that thought they did not need APs in the past now have an obligation to provide public messaging and this will lead to designing systems for new applications such as meeting rooms to enable compliance. social distancing protocols. “

PA messaging has become another area of ​​life and business where the cloud now plays a major role. Among the companies providing cloud-based PA systems that integrate with SIP phones is Manchester integrator AQORD. In addition to supplying and installing sound systems, the company works in VA, background / leading music and is the UK reseller of music service provider Soundtrack Your Brand (see April-May issue 2021).

Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Kenyon said cloud-based messaging would play a valuable role in allowing companies to provide Covid information (as well as more general announcements) but wouldn’t let that get in the way of people’s work. “Store managers don’t want to be busy going to the mic and making announcements, they want to focus on running the store,” he explains. “People use their PA a little more and if it’s done right, it doesn’t have to be a horrible experience.”

Peter Alberry-King of Penton agrees that Covid has “opened up more flexibility for pre-recorded messages”, as well as associated technologies such as text-to-speech. Penton also takes the AoIP route, but instead of Dante or any other commercial system, it uses its own point-to-point / peer-to-peer network based on Layer 3 switching. “Each box [on the network] has an IP address and we are able to install and configure what it does, ”says Alberry-King. “For example, it could have a background music input, which converts to a network audio channel.”

Such technology makes PA and AV much more flexible and adaptable, which will likely make them more attractive and accessible to architects, construction companies and building operators. But the importance of both technologies and the crucial roles they play – VA in particular – should not be forgotten or overlooked.


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