The Facility Technologist: The Heart Of The Matter

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By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the September 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Until the recent past, most facility management departments have resided in relatively basic office spaces. Meanwhile, the “guts” of the facility were located elsewhere, with the security office overseeing cameras and access control, and the engineer’s office controlling HVAC systems. The facility management office has largely been an administrative location.

This separation of functions may have worked well in the past, but increasingly complex facilities and security threats have motivated many professionals to implement a more comprehensive approach. As a result, there is a growing trend to establish Building Operations Centers (BOCs), also sometimes called Building Operations Command Centers.

The BOC is an environment where managers can receive information, make decisions, and control the facility from a single location. The value of the BOC is twofold: during normal operations, facility managers have the information and resources they need to make better decisions faster. In emergency situations, the BOC becomes even more important by allowing smoother management of the incident.

Like many concepts of facility management, the BOC approach has its origins in the military. For instance, the Pentagon has always had a BOC, and it proved its worth on 9/11, when tight coordination between multiple departments and systems saved many lives. Air handling systems had to be manipulated just right to prevent carbon monoxide build up without providing too much air that would fan the flames. The chilled water cooling loop system was pressurized and used to provide water for firefighting. Power mains had to be shut down because of rising water and later reconnected after the water was pumped down. All this was made far easier because facility managers had access to critical information and control of HVAC, electric, security, and fire suppression systems. (Visit the Web site listed at the end of this article to read about some of what the Pentagon staff experienced on 9/11.)

Many high profile buildings like the Sears Tower and the Empire State Building have had BOCs for a long time, and they are very common in high tech office buildings in Hong Kong and other Asian locations. They are becoming far more popular in the United States as facility managers realize that tighter control of their buildings can save lives and property.

There are three key functions of a BOC. The first is monitoring critical systems such as security, access control, building automation monitoring, HVAC, and fire alarms.

Management and collaboration is the second key function. By having a complete picture of the situation, facility managers find it is much easier to make decisions and direct activities.

One of the most important aspects of a BOC is that all information comes together in a single environment. This is extremely valuable when managing events—whether routine or emergency—which involve multiple parties and large amounts of information. Collaboration is much easier in a centralized location where ample situational information is available.

Finally, control is the third key function. Distinct from simply monitoring, control of HVAC, lighting, or access via remote connections to these systems gives the facility manager the ability to execute decisions.

The intent to build a BOC presents complex issues, and it depends on the organization’s management style and philosophy. If an organization prides itself on high quality service, for instance, and it believes strongly in emergency preparedness, a BOC is probably a good investment. There is not always an easily quantified return on investment, but there will be definite benefits in better service to employees and the assurance that management will be better prepared for emergencies.

If an organization is going to create a BOC, there are some critical decisions. The first is the location, which is more complicated than it may seem.

A common misconception is that a basement is a good place for a control center. This bunker mentality dictates that the safest place is underground, but basements are subject to a variety of problems—the most threatening of which is water. The possibility of an influx of water from fire hoses, broken water mains, or flooding from outside should rule out this location.

On the other hand, the BOC should not be too high in the building. The top floor of a building is also dangerous, because it is subject to storm damage from high winds and roof tear-off. The safest place is usually one to three floors off the ground, in the center of the building and away from windows.

The next decision is how robust the BOC needs to be. At the highest level are government facilities that are hardened against weather and attack and can be self sufficient with on-site power generation and potable water. [For more about on-site power issues, see “Power To The Core” in this month’s issue.] At the other end of the spectrum is a more conventional office space that might serve as a call center and is not focused on survivability; these spaces use normal building utilities and infrastructure. Before establishing a BOC, the facility manager should clarify what makes sense for the organization.

The next important consideration is what kinds of systems will be needed in the BOC. Access to critical systems—HVAC, fire alarm, access control, security alarms, and surveillance cameras—is very important. If the building is equipped with older systems, it may present a problem, because it is often not possible to connect to them remotely. Newer systems use computer servers that can be accessed offsite by running network cabling to the BOC or by accessing them through the Internet.

If the computer system is not Internet enabled and is too far for a regular network connection, there are still methods of linking to them. Avocent, a provider of IT infrastructure management solutions, makes a device that allows users to access a computer securely from anywhere via the Internet.

A BOC relies on technology to derive an accurate picture of the environment. Typically, imagery is very important and requires high quality display systems. The best of breed systems are high resolution displays that can be combined in stackable configurations. These video “cubes” can be positioned to appear as a single screen with only a small divide between them.

Large format display systems are required to show more than security cameras. They need to be able to combine sources from other systems as well—such as computer screen imagery from fire alarms, access control, incident management, and other systems—and show these on the display wall.

Advanced control systems can combine these images seamlessly and allow users to arrange and resize these sources the same way windows are arranged on a computer screen. Imtech, a provider of real time data and video display systems, is one source for this type of service.

Integration between systems provides operational synergies that often justify much of the BOC’s construction. The ability of building systems to communicate with one another allows the technologies to do more work.

For example, at Chicago’s McCormick Place, when an access control, fire, or other critical system sends an alarm, the integrated system there notifies security personnel and immediately “pops up” the image from the camera nearest the location of the alarm. This dramatically reduces the time required to determine the location of the alarm. This type of integrated solution helps to free up personnel for other tasks.

Facility managers who do not have BOCs in their buildings should become familiar with the concept. As these command centers become more prevalent, more facility managers might find BOCs in their futures.

Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is a contributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Management textbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago, IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, and reliability of client business through technology.

 

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