Back to Basics is an article series that highlights important, but possibly overlooked, information facilities management professionals should know.
With April being Emergency Communications Month, let’s spotlight facilities that are vital in responding to emergencies.
Public safety answering points (PSAPs) and emergency operations centers (EOCs) are critical facilities that provide essential services to the community during emergency situations. As a facilities manager, it’s important to understand the purpose and functions of these facilities, as well as the unique challenges and requirements involved in maintaining and operating them.
PSAPs and EOCs: Understanding the Difference
PSAPs are responsible for answering emergency calls, which usually are from 9-1-1, from the public, collecting essential information about the situation, and dispatching the appropriate emergency response teams to the scene. Typically operated by local law enforcement agencies or emergency services organizations, PSAPs are staffed by trained operators who use specialized equipment such as voice recording systems and global positioning systems (GPSs) tracking tools.
Although they’re equipped with dispatch consoles, it’s important for these facilities to have computer-aided dispatch (CAD) that shows callers’ location and geographic information system (GIS) maps that show incident response locations, road closures, and building floor plans.
EOCs, on the other hand, serve as central command centers for coordinating emergency response efforts across multiple agencies and organizations, providing a way for officials to communicate with each other during weather, chemical, and radioactive emergencies, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which also notes that these centers can be fixed locations, temporary facilities, or virtual.
“Jurisdictions establish EOCs to meet their unique requirements and needs, so no two EOCs have exactly the same design,” according to FEMA’s National Incident Management System (NIMS) EOC How-To Quick Reference Guide from October 2022. NIMS helps guide government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector to “prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from incidents.”
EOCs should have enough space for many occupants from multiple governments, departments, and organizations so they can coordinate information and resources. Cots should also be provided in case personnel need to stay overnight.
Additionally, these facilities should have hybrid teleconferencing capabilities to communicate with those who aren’t able to come to the site. Personnel are responsible for securing a safe place to hold meetings, paperwork, and their devices.
Therefore, facilities professionals should work with emergency personnel and management to ensure any new PSAP and EOC meets emergency preparedness goals and FEMA requirements.
Location, Location, Location
According to a 2022 report on PSAPs, there are an estimated 6,100 primary and secondary PSAPs in the United States. While primary centers receive emergency calls directly, secondary PSAPs receive calls that are transferred from the primary PSAPs.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports there are over 3,000 local and tribal emergency planning districts with EOCs in the United States, and each district needs at least one representative from the facility.
While PSAPs and EOCs can be separate buildings, there are clear advantages to locating both facilities within close proximity.
“Locating an EOC near the PSAP increases coordination and communications during major incidents and improves the performance of both agencies. Co-locating these agencies is nationally recognized as having significant value and is driving a trend to include an EOC in any new construction,” according to the Minnesota PSAP Consolidation guidebook.
While many local, county, state, tribal, and federal governments have their own PSAP and EOC, some municipalities, especially in rural areas, have regional PSAP and EOC centers. Additionally, many large facilities like college campuses, healthcare facilities, and major employer campuses find it beneficial to have their own PSAP and EOC so they can better respond to emergencies on their properties.
Essentials for PSAP and EOC Planning
The facility can be part of a larger complex that could include a police station, a fire department, municipal offices, and a conference room for public use. Facilities professionals should determine each department’s and office’s needs before constructing the building.
Consider retrofitting an alternate temporary facility or having agreements with other municipalities if an alternate site is temporarily necessary, such as if a PSAP has a technical issue or an EOC is inaccessible or at capacity.
They recommend having plenty of parking, multiple restrooms, a training room, an internal briefing room, storage areas, a special equipment room, and a break room. Other amenities could include breakout rooms, a public information room, lockers and showers, and a workout room. Lastly, determine whether contracts need to be made with catering, maintenance, and janitorial services.
It’s important for PSAPs and EOCs to have state-of-the-art equipment, such as Next Generation 911 technology (NG911), which, according to the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), would operate on an Internet Protocol (IP) platform and allow communication with a variety of public and private networks, including wireless networks, the Internet, and regular phone networks.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), this would allow text, images, videos, and video calls over Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which uses a broadband Internet connection instead of a regular phone line.
Consider having large screens to display critical information, as well.
Digital video surveillance cameras should be set up to protect these centers, including cameras in rooms, entryways, hallways, and parking lots.
On-site security should also be present to ensure only authorized personnel enter these centers, as they could contain sensitive information. Moreover, consider high-tech security like thumbprints for the most sensitive parts of the facility.
Consider installing a multiagency digital radio communications tower so emergency personnel can talk with each other and other facilities even in dead spots that could be caused by mountains or natural disasters.
For example, some municipalities, like Mansfield, Ohio, have found that their old communications systems, such as very high frequency (VHF) radios, are obsolete and are no longer supported by the manufacturer. These systems were voice-only and couldn’t communicate by video.
Facilities managers should therefore work with emergency services personnel and communications professionals to determine what equipment is best for their needs and what technological upgrades are needed to remain current.
Conversion from Old to New
It’s important that the conversion from old PSAPs to new ones be seamless to avoid dropped calls, so if necessary, consider using secondary PSAPs. Also, old EOCs should remain fully operational until construction and setup on the new ones are complete.
Unlike other buildings facilities professionals construct, PSAPs and EOCs are vital in protecting the communities they serve.
Emergency Communications Month is therefore a great time to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of all those involved in the communication process among various emergency agencies and the public.