Technology And FM: Communications Central

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By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
From the May 2014 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

As facilities grow more complex, and the threats they face are increasingly sophisticated and severe, organizations are realizing that managing facilities effectively requires a central location to manage operations, security, and incidents: a facility command center. More than just a security office, or a management office, a command center brings together the people, information, and technologies required to manage daily operations as well as emergencies. This is a somewhat new concept for many facilities where, in the past, each department had its own offices and spaces, and often the only common area where all staff interacted was a conference room.

Today, organizations are starting to realize the value of a true facility command center and are beginning to build them, albeit slowly. Oddly enough, the U.S. lags behind Asia in the adoption of facility command centers. In places like Singapore and Taiwan, it is standard practice for all large buildings to have a command center (which are usually called a building operations center, or BOC). Yet here in the U.S., even new buildings and facilities often do not have a command center or BOC, and many facility managers (fms) are finding they have to build their own.

There are two main drivers behind the adoption of facility command centers: First, the need for collaboration and coordination between departments is greater than ever before, especially in emergencies. For example, in large facilities like airports, sports arenas, or convention centers, dangers including severe weather, security threats, and fires require a multi-departmental response. Security staff must neutralize threats and control crowds; engineering and maintenance staff mobilize to repair damage; and managers coordinate internal staff, work with external emergency responders, and address the media. This is a lot of activity involving many departments, and the facility’s response efforts can be quickly compromised by lack of coordination; a command center helps the organization as a whole react faster and more effectively.

Second, the primary source of information required to make decisions in a large facility today is digital information. When managing operations or responding to an emergency, managers are watching live video feeds from inside their facility, viewing real-time dashboards on system performance, and referencing other digital resources in order to make effective decisions. They need a place where all this data can be accessed, viewed, and interpreted, and modern command centers have the technology to do this. In the best designed centers, all systems and information can be accessed from a single multi-monitor workstation. Large video displays are viewable by all staff, allowing managers to communicate visual information instantly to the entire group. Robust communications allow command center staff to be in touch with mobile facility staff as well as public safety teams. [To read more about communicating in emergency situations, read this article.]

Consoles have evolved dramatically in the past few decades. In the past, operators interacted with systems directly through buttons and switches, which meant consoles needed to house significant amounts of electronics. Today, operators interact with computer based systems through a keyboard and mouse, so the majority of the equipment that was once housed inside consoles is no longer necessary. These computer based systems offer the ability to interact with the systems from any location that provides network connectivity, freeing operators from having to be in close proximity to the systems. The main item found in a console in a modern command center is a PC, and even these are disappearing as they are relocated to data centers, with thin client and KVM (Keyboard/Video/Mouse) extension connecting them to users.

A third driver is that, sadly, there seems to be an upward trend of life threatening incidents occurring in facilities. Whether these are driven by malicious individuals committing shootings or bombings or severe weather events, fms are faced with an increased likelihood that their facilities may be the stage for extreme incidents. They need to plan for the worst, and a facility command center can be the best tool for dealing with a crisis.

The company that I work for, SDI, recently completed a facility command center for one of the world’s largest airports. SDI designed the technology systems for an integrated command center that brought security, airfield operations, facility management, and other departmental representatives together in a single environment. All of these departments’ staff members do not work in the command center; only the staff that need to coordinate activities with other departments and some key decision makers work there. These people have access to a wealth of technology, including video surveillance and access control systems, a Physical Security Information Management (PSIM) system, an asset management system, and over two dozen other specialized systems integrated into a unified command interface.

Space is laid out so that staff members from individual departments have their own work groups that contain working tables so they can work closely on interdepartmental tasks. But when they need to coordinate with other staff, they are within earshot and can also quickly meet in nearby side rooms for privacy. A 20′ wide video wall at the front of the space and other large LCD panels communicate a wealth of information to all staff simultaneously, including system dashboards with health metrics, system alarms, work order status, live video of situations, news feeds, etc.

The results of this command center have been significant; coordination between groups is now far more efficient, allowing them to respond to incidents faster and more effectively. Routine work is also improved because information is visible to all groups, and managers are able to see how their actions affect other departments.

When building a facility command center, it is important to recognize it is not just a collection of technologies in a room. To reach full potential, the right technology systems must be specified and fms and other stakeholders must integrate these to work together, re-engineer the business processes, and possibly change the organizational structure. Designing a command center requires an understanding of all these elements, and typically it is more than a single architect or technology designer can handle, so a qualified consultant is recommended.

Condon

Condon

Fms already have a tremendous amount of responsibility, and challenges continue to expand. A facility command center is one tool that can help fms achieve higher levels of efficiency not only in their daily routines, but also in the event of an emergency.  

Condon is Principal and Solution Executive at System Development Integration (SDI), a Chicago, IL based systems integrator focused on facility and security technologies. He is a former facility manager, contributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Management textbook, and has written numerous articles and white papers on facility technologies.

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