James Thalman

James Thalman

Story Vault

By James Thalman

Imagine, if you can, a dispatching center that is nearly 8,000 square feet and the view from the console includes floor-to-ceiling, 180-degree, glare-proof views of the outside world. The break area features a dispatchers- only deck. There aren’t private offices for the bosses because the best space is designed and used for the comfort of the folks at the consoles. The access to the electronics is a floor below, so when things go kaput, the center can operate seamlessly without supervisors blowing a fuse.

Imagine that communications isn’t an afterthought but the centerpiece—even the showpiece—of a multimillion- dollar public safety complex that is both a model of functionality and part architectural wonder. Its structure is broad-beamed steel welded to pillars sunk 50 feet below double-rebar concrete, and the frame is nestled into a series of giant shock absorbers designed to absorb the worst earthquake like a car’s front wheel hitting a pothole. And, the building is so energy efficient it leaves no carbon footprint whatsoever.

In your dreams? Pie in the sky? Nope. Everything anyone could think of that any dispatcher could want is included in the new Salt Lake City Public Safety Complex, which, when it opens in the spring of 2013, will go by the ten-code moniker “10-19” as its location.

They don’t want to brag about it, but the architect and the public safety facilities managers involved with its concept, design, and construction simply can’t help it. They’re as proud as new papas and came close to handing out cigars at the steel topping ceremony this past July.

As the ceremonial final steel girder was hoisted into place on July 13, perhaps the biggest smile in the crowd of city dignitaries and the group of bustling steelworkers momentarily milling on the ground floor was found under James L. McClaren’s hardhat. McClaren is the principal architect of the complex and is the M of MWL (McClaren, Wilson & Lawrie, Inc.) of Phoenix, Ariz.

“This is a center by which all other emergency communications operations will be measured,” McClaren said as the 1,500-pound piece of steel rose to the southwest corner of the complex where it was ceremoniously bolted into place atop the four-story structure. His statement was more matter-of-fact than boasting; his company has a pedigree of public safety projects that ranges from huge FBI data centers to county PSAPs, but this is the one he talks about everywhere he goes.

“As design professionals, the least we can do is treat dispatchers with respect, while creating environments that are humane,” McClaren said over a lunch of barbecue beef under a steel skeleton stairway. “It seems so simple. Yet, most 9-1-1 centers fail in providing the basics such as environmental control, glare, ergonomics, and noise. Sheesh!”

McClaren points out that his company’s surveys and those by several communications centers show that moving people into a better workplace environment dramatically reduces turnover. Give dispatchers room, a view, and as much control over their own spaces and replacement rates drop from 30% annually to almost zero, he said.

“We spent a lot of time watching dispatchers at work, and for people who are the key factors in the course of lessening the severity of a situation to outright saving lives through what they communicate, we listened,” McClaren said.

They also heard what dispatchers didn’t say—rubbing their necks constantly, rubbing their elbows, shifting their weight in chairs. “They were caught in an ergonomic hell, tethered to their own space, often literally. Dispatchers need to be separate with their own space to move and to decompress after a high-stress incident that has taken total concentration to handle,” he said. “In a way, they need to be able to climb into their own cocoon and stay there.”

The dispatching center couldn’t be described in any terms as closed off or cocoon-like in appearance, but both aspects are there and attended to in their way, building planners said.

Eloquent, not elegant

Basically, if it has anything to do with emergency dispatching, it’s been factored into the structure and array of services on the building’s third-floor plan that included a series of often marathon-length meetings.

Salt Lake City Police Sgt. Scott Teerlink, head of departmental facilities management, along with Deputy Chief Tim Doubt, department logistics bureau manager, have been at it full time for more than three years, putting every necessity and operational amenity into the $125 million building, from determining the best use of the 172,000 square feet on the interior to the four floors—two above ground and one below 143,000 square feet of secure parking.

The single motivating principle of the entire structure, the element that makes it both eloquent and elegant, is the capacity to communicate and work together in times of crisis, McClaren said. “Communication is what it’s all about in any emergency, and too often the crisis is manifolded by lack of interaction among the responding agencies at the command center level. This addresses that abiding knot in the system by just getting rid of it altogether.”

The idea is to have everybody work together but not interrupt each other, Teerlink told The Journal during a guided tour of the building’s third floor emergency operations center. “The walls that both literally and figuratively separate communications in the [existing] cramped building retract for big emergencies in the new complex. Those in the command center and all personnel having anything to do with communications, whether internal at the command center or externally to provide updates to the public through the news media, are in a few seconds literally working together.”

“We drew the line at what functions best,” Doubt said. “There were elements we had to cut back and amenities that could have been nicer, but as far as the form meeting the function of dispatchers and what they do, this is as good as it gets. We keep reviewing and looking for things we have missed, but so far, we haven’t come across anything.”

Public safety is a particularly nettlesome building process because departments tend to reorganize and organize again constantly, McClaren said. That makes pegging exactly what each agency needs a kind of moving target within a moving target.

To avoid that double conundrum, Doubt said, “We used exactly the opposite tactic to what is the normal approach in building new space—at the first and regularly along the way, we met with employees and not with the bosses. We had input from the supervisors but often simply told them, ‘No, you can’t have that corner for an office,’ or ‘No, you can’t have your own printer.’ The employees do the work, so they’ve had the most input and most say. That’s how it should be because they’re the ones who are at the stations, at the consoles day in and day out.”

And they were more than willing to say what’s what, McClaren said, noting that in the dispatching portion of the third floor, space for supervisors and private meetings are located at the center of the operation, not around the outside, which is customary for an agency in most public buildings.

“This is no minor achievement, and I’m quite sure it will contribute to the flow of information that most agencies in older buildings and new ones that didn’t maintain the employees-first concept didn’t have,” McClaren said. “That fact is, and I learned this from my father who was a San Diego police officer hurt on the job so he became a dispatcher, they are the first, first responders, as you at the NAED have so eloquently demonstrated. “This is the definitive ‘fusion center’ of communications,” he continued. “It will be able to fuse all the media in all its itera - tions in one, synergy-enhancing place. Just like the one we just finished in Buffalo, N.Y., this will not be just the emergency response center. It can monitor everything from purse snatching to a commuter-aggravating pothole.”

The big picture, along with views from the dispatching “crow’s nest” of the flagship building, includes a stunning element that no public safety complex should be without: a floor-to-ceiling JumboTron-type video board in the center of the third floor that displays in real time picture-in-picture exactly what’s happening out there. A communications supervisor or individual dispatcher with a particularly difficult situation—a fire at a refinery or a crime scene in which the relative risk to rescuers isn’t clear—can be reviewed and discussed at the moment, foregoing the usual control center briefings to those in charge.

Some centers have projection rooms for such live broadcasts and deliberations, but they have an inherent glare problem in which details can be washed out in daylight or are too thin to facilitate educated evaluations at night. The four individual panels at the new complex can create panoramic video picture windows that can be sectioned off and monitored in one place from inside the center.

“It’s basically the real life representation of an incident with the goal that everybody involved can see everything they need to instantaneously,” Teerlink said. “Again, it’s all about function; that is the backbone of the building and the work that goes on inside it.”

Keeping the flow of information flowing is a less noticeable element that is no less important to Kevin B. Miller, principal architect of the local firm—GSBS Architects— overseeing the project from the home base in Salt Lake City.

“This is a building that has to last 50 years,” Miller told The Journal from a blueprint festooned office area located in a nearby former bank building that provides its own picture windows on the project’s progress. Looking across the next five decades, Miller brings up the past 15 years.

“Back then, when there was a traffic accident, the center would get maybe one or two calls,” he said. “Now dispatchers report that getting 500 calls is routine on even the most minor fender-benders. Given the course of information technology, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what’s coming. We all get enamored with technology, but we have tried to keep central the idea that it’s people who do the work.”

That’s a problem, not just in volume, he added. “I was just in a meeting with a dozen public safety personnel and there wasn’t one laptop in the room; it was all e-pad devices,” he said. “The public we serve can’t wait to buy the next new device, but they are practically obsolete the moment you buy them. That’s a difficult reality for folks trying to get the most public service and safety out of a single centralized location.”

But that’s also all the more reason to have the flow of emergency information coming into a single clearinghouse-type center, he added.

A zero-sum building

Another type of energy—energy emissions— is worthy of note in a profile describing the ideal communications center.

The structure is the first public building in the country to be a “net zero energy emissions” building. That means it will produce at least as much emissions-free renewable energy as it uses. Heat and electricity will be produced by panels located on the roof in combination with the building’s canopy that also provides shaded walk and sitting areas for the public.

Along with using all natural light available during the day, louvers will be placed over the windows to help direct natural sunlight and create lighting inside. The lights within the work stations of the building will turn off automatically to save energy when there is enough natural light in the room, thanks to the level of occupancy and daylight sensors.

Water will be heated by the solar panels for the sinks and locker rooms. Radiant tubes are seated in the floor to heat and cool the building, a design element that Miller points out as far more efficient than the standard forced-air systems commonly used in public and private businesses, commercial buildings, and residences in the Mountain West.

There was a time when—barely a generation ago—that the dispatching center was a pseudo-convalescent center for hurt officers or post-surgery mending, McClaren said, noting that his own father became a dispatcher after being hurt on the job as a police officer. “Dispatching has been part of my life all my life. That connection is the heart of this state-of-the-art building.”