Sunday, December 09, 2007

Designing emergency centers

Architectural Record, October 2007 has a continuing education article on "Safety and Security Without the Fortress Look" by Joann Gonchar. This discusses the design of New York City’s new Office of Emergency Management (OEM) building. The previous center was destroyed 11 September 2001 in the World Trade Center. The new building is a standalone renovation of an existing concrete building into a high tech emergency center.

There is a risk that such buildings can look like a concrete bunker, with plain featureless (and windowless) walls. An extreme example of this is the former Communications Centre, under the John Gorton Building, Parkes (Canberra). This has 450 millimetre thick reinforced concrete and was designed with a single entry point. It had murals and works of art, but was still basically a concrete bunker. It has been refurbished with light wells cut in to let daylight in and is now a successfully office space and conference center.

A second example given in the AR article was the Illinois State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) in Springfield from 2005. Most usefully the article has a photo and floor plan of the center. As the article notes, such centers feature a large central Incident-response center. These generally have large screens on one wall, rows of desks for different staff and private meeting and support rooms surrounding (Communications center, Data center, Conference center, Support and infrastructure). The back walls of the center may have glass walled meeting rooms, allowing staff to see what is happening while having a private meeting.

Like many similar military operations rooms, the Illinois center has a double height ceiling. But unlike the usual design, the Illinois Incident-response center appears to be a mirror image design, with screens on two walls and operators facing each other across oval shaped tables. This would make better use of the floorspace than the traditional unidirectional design, at the risk of some lack of common focus by staff.

Such incident-response centers have similar designs to flexible learning centers. This is due to the common requirements to have a group of people who have access to computer and telecommunications equipment and can share common data, work in small teams and then collaborate as one group.

It would be interesting to see if, for example, MIT's TEAL 360 degree design could be applied to an incident-response center. Expanding on the Illinois State Emergency Operations Center design, TEAL has screens on all walls and the teacher (equivalent to the incident commander) in the center. This design has less team focus, as people can be looking in all directions, but has the advantage of having the commander in view of the participants, for at least part of their time. It also potentially makes better use of floor space. It also better allows for group working, whereas the traditional design assumes one person per screen and any small group discussions are in ancillary rooms.

Also it would be interesting to design a multi-purpose conference/training and emergency facility. Emergency centers are expensive to build and maintain as they are used for only a few days a year for exercises and real emergencies. The rest of the time a large facility and its computer equipment is idle, using up maintenance budget. An alternative would be to build a facility which could be used day to day for training and for meetings. In an emergency these activities would be cancelled and the facility taken over by emergency personnel. Apart from lowering the cost of maintainace, this would ensure that any faults with the equipment and facilities would be noticed and corrected in day to day use, rather than only becoming apparent during an emergency.

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