Safety and Security Without the Fortress Look

Designers of public-sector emergency-response buildings eschew the bunker image and incorporate transparency, sustainability, and state-of-the-art technology

October 2007
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By Joann Gonchar, AIA

Continuing Education

Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this month’s ARCHITECTURAL RECORD / AIA Continuing Education article.

Learning Objective - After reading this article, you will be able to:

1. Describe the design requirements for emergency-response centers.

2. Explain the typical program of an emergency-response center.

3. Identify redundancies needed in mission-critical facilities.

By the morning rush hour on August 8, personnel from New York City’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) had already shifted into high gear. Just as New Yorkers were preparing to begin their commutes, an intense summer storm dumped 3 inches of rain on the city in an hour, flooding and crippling the subway system. OEM officials were closely monitoring public transit system conditions and at the same time were coordinating the agencies sent to assess damage in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge, where heavy winds, later determined to be a tornado, toppled trees and tore roofs off houses. And they were keeping track of the weather forecast, readying cooling centers around the city to help residents cope with expected temperatures in the 90s and high humidity.

The nerve center of this activity was the OEM’s new headquarters in downtown Brooklyn. Completed in the fall of 2006, it is just one of several of the generation of public-sector emergency-response buildings designed and built in the U.S. after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It is the agency’s first permanent home since its former headquarters, at Seven World Trade Center, was destroyed in those attacks.

Though a variety of configurations are possible, emergency-response centers like that in New York City generally have similar programs. They include a large room that is dormant most of the time, but activated during emergencies. The room, known sometimes as the emergency operations center or the incident-response center, provides workstations for representatives of federal, state, and city agencies. Usually adjoining this often double-height space is a smaller meeting room for high-ranking officials to gather and develop a coordinated response.

A key element of emergency-service buildings is one room—called the “watch command” at New York City’s OEM—staffed 24-hours a day. From here, personnel continuously monitor information sources such as news broadcasts, weather data, 911 calls, and police and fire dispatch systems. Emergency-response centers also generally include facilities such as press rooms, conference rooms, kitchens, and sometimes sleeping areas. And they also must provide office space for full-time staff engaged in activities such as preparing evacuation plans, developing responses to specific hazards, and educating the public. In New York, about 150 people are focused on such efforts. “We are more like a think tank than a heavy-duty emergency-response organization,” says Rachel Dickinson, the agency’s deputy commissioner of administration.



A copper scrim at the Illinois State Emergency Operations Center screens the interior but allows daylight into the building and provides views of its wooded site.
Photography: © Barbara Karant/Karant Associates


For New York City’s OEM, officials chose a downtown site with an existing low-rise office building built in 1954. The location was attractive because of its easy access to public transportation and City Hall in Lower Manhattan, within walking distance just over the Brooklyn Bridge. In addition, the existing building, at the edge of a city park, had no immediately adjacent structures—a rarity in such a dense urban environment. “The building had the advantage of being stand-alone and securable,” says Henry Jackson, OEM deputy commissioner.



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Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Architectural Record.

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