Command Center Design and Planning

"One size does not fit all."

Whether a command center on a local, regional, national or global level; whether a command center for public safety, campus or building; and regardless of the range of functions the command center must perform, truly, one size does not fit all. 

Discussing the considerations, tools and ideas that will create a more efficient command center were Daniel O’Neill, Senior Vice President of TSG Solutions; Roger Rueda PSP, Vice President, Risk Management, TSG Solutions, Inc.; and Kevin Tuohey, Executive Director, Research Compliance, Boston University, as they participated in a forum during the ISC West Premier Education Series (SM) at the Sands Convention Center in Las Vegas. 

O’Neill began by stating that ample space is desirable in a command center, but it is not the only goal of a design plan. In fact, sometimes a smaller, not larger, command center does a more efficient job. Technology has now created smaller monitors that deliver clear images and text so bulky monitors are no longer the necessity they once may have been.  Efficient use of space, rather than more space, can be a beneficial consideration in command center design. 

Operators in the command center should be at the room’s front, with the supervisor in the back, he recommended. Hydraulic chairs and tables will make it easier for personnel to stand or sit during their work. Ergonomic furniture and accessories enhance comfort—something vital to the long hours personnel spend in the command center. 

O’Neill also recommended battery backup for electrical equipment, sufficient generator capacity, CCTV, intrusion detection, a radio system, building automation, a fire alarm system, and easy access to news, weather and travel conditions. Round out the room with such communications as faxes, phones and e-mail access, some of which linked to different area codes, he said, in the event one region’s area code is adversely affected by an emergency. Information, and ease of input of that information into the command center, should be the goal, he said.

Roger Rueda added that another version of “input” is also needed—that of the people who will work in and supervise the upfitted or new command center. He recommended the design process involve a project team of public safety managers, the architect, a civil engineer, a structural engineer, and some of the personnel for whom the command center will be the “workplace.”

And because those personnel will be there, it is necessary to include planning and design for fire safety, physical protection, life saving, electrical safety and the information technology needed to support and operate all the functions that will or could occur within the command center.

Do a thorough risk assessment, Rueda stated. There is no “standard” that will apply to every setting. Know what the critical mission(s) will be for the command center and what those missions will bring to the organization as a whole. That leads to the items that must be considered in the design and planning, but Rueda stated, “Each facility is case by case.”

Analyze the expected peak activity of the command center. Know what call volumes can be anticipated, based on the historical data and observations of command center personnel. Calculate the peak operator workload and the number of operators required during peak daily, weekly and seasonal activity. Take that number and add at least one more, Rueda said. Provide workspace for the personnel, plus at least one more, to support the highest peak activity.  

Having personnel to handle the minimal level of activity keeps things operational, but if a major incident occurs, there might not even be an extra phone line for calls. Personnel could easily be overwhelmed. Freeze-up of some communications or equipment could occur. For these possible eventualities, Rueda said plan a “cushion” of response capacity because the command center is not just a centralized space, but an event coordination center. He added that it is necessary to have, each year, one or two full drills with command center personnel and others involved.  

Define the subsystems to be monitored, the media display monitoring needed, and the display capabilities (continuous display or spot display). Then determine the space allocation needed, plus room for additions, Rueda emphasized. The basis of the design elements is “unique” to the facility, Rueda said. What works in one situation might not work in another so be specific to the needs of the individual command center. Remember to include building code, UL, FEMA and other requirements / recommendations for safety.

If there will be a large team at the command center, Rueda said list the criteria needed for each individual or function, and assign responsibilities to each of those design disciplines, with no gaps. Engineering of the design plan will tend to follow the architectural process, Rueda said, but construction administration is important, to be sure the command center planning is coordinated and includes what is needed.                   

If the command center is new or so changed that a transition to the new center is necessary, plan for that transition, he said, adding, “Many projects fail in this.” The transition may require redundant operations for a while, plus testing and personnel training or re-training. “Allow for burn-in time” of the new command center, he said.  “It’s mission critical.”  

Personnel need time to learn about the new center, its equipment and its functions.  “Don’t just put people in the new facility and have them learn by doing—especially today, with all the technology involved,” he said. Maintain the existing command center, its space and its redundancies until everything is in working order in the new center, and the transition is complete.

Kevin Tuohey explained that at the Boston University Medical Center (a university and a public health facility), dispatch centers, command centers and facilities needed improvements to meet the needs of the security work done at the campus. The previous facility had unsatisfactory conditions that made response inefficient and, sometimes, in conflict. In essence, there were three separate facilities serving the same people.   

To create a better command center, a more efficient use of space and staff had to be attained. Standardizing the systems was an early step, along with having backup systems and power. Building windows were added so people in the center could see the weather and the conditions in which response teams would act. 

Flexibility in furniture and in the space for support areas was also planned. “Find the space and make the case!” Tuohey emphasized about creating a command center that works for its personnel, and getting the budget needed to build it. Tuohey also recommended leaving one of the previous sites in place until the full transition to the new facility is done.

Location of access and exits, alarms, CCTV, choice of construction materials, and selection of furniture and equipment are all part of the planning, he said. If everything can be in one location, so much the better. Define the needs first, and who will provide the services that will be part of the command center.  Design locations for all the monitoring and dispatch equipment. Tuohey added that even the break room and the restrooms will need phones, too. 

Devise a timeline of “milestones” to keep track of the steps such as consensus, operation recommendations, space needs, budget approval, permits, construction, commissioning, transition to the new center, and full operation. His facility included an adjunct command center and a separate area for external agencies, separated by a moveable glass wall to allow coordination or collaboration, when needed, between departments and/or responding agencies or units. 

Since the facility is at a research-intensive university, there are biological, chemical and radioactive materials present on campus, each sometimes involving different responding personnel in case of incidents. The adjunct command center facilities allow better cooperation in campus-wide incidents and enhanced management for better responses to incidents. 

Focus on progress, Tuohey said. Spend wisely on infrastructure for flexibility, even if that means “fewer bells and whistles.” Have an area for backup and network systems, and “put your eggs in more than one basket!” he advised. Keep current on technology, regulations and best practices. Meet with stakeholders to be sure the building and space design reflect what is needed. 

Track equipment by its useful life and maintain a multi-year review for the budget and for maintenance and replacement of equipment. Review assumptions regularly and, if there are changes, there may be a need for a change of some functions in the command center. Involve the personnel in those reviews, upgrades, changes / improvements in operations.

O’Neill said the future of command centers will see more technological improvements and enhancements such as physical security information management, behavior analytics, cloud services, visualization software, 3D imagery to “move through” and guide responders in a building or setting, ultra-high-definition monitors, and more portability with phones and tablets. 

Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D., J.D., writes in the fields of law enforcement and security. She can be reached at Photos courtesy of Mark C. Ide.

Published in Law and Order, Nov 2012

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