We’ll Hopefully Never Know How Well This Place Works

Event: Designing for Emergencies: New York City’s New Office of Emergency Management (OEM)
Location: Science, Industry and Business Library, 06.28.07
Speakers: Henry Jackson — Deputy Commissioner for Technology, OEM; Joseph Aliotta, AIA — Principal, Swanke Hayden Connell Architects; Steve Emspak — Partner, Shen Milsom & Wilke
Organizers: Shen Milsom & Wilke

OEM Headquarters

An abandoned structure from the 1950s has been upgraded with security measures needed for major disaster relief.

Courtesy Shen Milsom & Wilke

Less than six years after the NYC Office of Emergency Management (OEM) lost its headquarters in the collapse of the original 7 World Trade Center on 9/11, and one day after this June’s partial electrical blackout, New Yorkers attending this panel on the agency’s new building, designed by Swanke Hayden Connell Architects, understood how vital such a center is when any form of chaos intrudes. “This is in such a prominent location! A terrorist could just bomb it,” suggested one citizen. “Shouldn’t it be in a more secure location?” Amid edgy laughter, panelists expressed confidence in OEM’s security systems; they’d already cited a range of reasons why the converted American Red Cross building on Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza is an appropriate site. With Walt Whitman Park and various limestone-clad federal, state, and city courthouses nearby, OEM now occupies a district defined by sober, imposing civic structures. But the question exposed this building’s unsettling implications: however much confidence its advanced technologies and award-winning, LEED-certified design may inspire, it remains vulnerable.

Henry Jackson, deputy commissioner for technology at the OEM, first sketched OEM’s history and mission, from its roots in the 1940s Civil Defense program and its establishment as a mayoral disaster-planning office in 1996, to its post-9/11 peregrinations through various temporary headquarters — including a bus, a West Side pier, and a police-academy library. The agency has been resilient and improvisatory, returning to operation 72 hours after losing its original home and beginning the search for a new permanent site within a week. Site-selection criteria included securability, avoidance of flood zones, easy accessibility via multimodal transportation, and the capability of supporting diverse backup systems for power cogeneration and telecommunications.

As Joseph Aliotta, AIA, principal at Swanke Hayden Connell Architects, recounted, after the Red Cross offered this abandoned 1950s-era three-story structure, the gut-rehab job and adaptation for OEM’s functions constituted a technical tour de force. Contractors stripped away everything but the concrete, moved the central mechanical core to an addition on the south perimeter to create spaces large enough for urgent gatherings, and elevated the roof to accommodate the extensive wiring and large-screen sightlines needed in the third-floor Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Here, police, fire, utility, and other officials will assemble to share information under emergency conditions. The unspoken goal is to keep interagency communication from ever again being as uncoordinated as they were on 9/11.

The EOC’s audiovisual and multimodal communication gear is as advanced as any cinematically imagined operations center. Systems expert Steve Emspak, partner at Shen Milsom & Wilke, recounted how the EOC and the 24-hour watch-command center were organized to maximize connectivity and flexibility. With extensive audio systems and data networking (29 miles of assorted cables in the building’s 60,000 square feet, plus wireless access), along with a “scoreboard” in the EOC comprising 160-inch main video screens and multiple auxiliary screens, Emspak says, “any piece of information can appear anywhere” during a large meeting. Acoustics are tuned for clear conversations amid the hubbub of a crowded disaster-response scenario. Media facilities allow for rooftop broadcasting through 54 antennas and reasonably comfortable ergonomics for reporters enduring marathon sessions likely if the center sees active duty.

Emergencies on a 9/11 scale are rare, but less cataclysmic events, Jackson pointed out, can bring the EOC to active status some four to six times a year. Severe weather, Con Edison foul-ups, and water main breaks account for most such circumstances. In between events, the bulk of OEM’s work involves planning for disasters (both specific and conjectural), public education about emergency readiness and evacuation procedures, and periodic training to keep city personnel from confronting steep learning curves should they encounter this building’s systems during “an actual emergency.” Emspak takes understandable pride in the state-of-the-art facility, while voicing what’s on the minds of everyone pondering its purpose, and what may not have changed much since the Cold War: “I hope to hell it’s always empty.”