Designed for Survivability

The winter issue of The Call Magazine published by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) features our Quarry Run Regional Operations Center. The article "Designed for Survivability" by Canan Yetmen is below.

A tour of the Quarry Run Regional Operations Center (ROC), as given by Bexar Metro 9-1-1 Network’s Chief Executive Officer William “Bill” Buchholtz, doesn't start with its bright and sunny administrative spaces, or even at the high-tech, futuristic public safety answering point (PSAP). Instead Buchholtz starts all his tours in his favorite space: the electrical room located deep inside its hardened, mission critical core. The room, with its rows and rows of conduit aligned in an intricate, pattern of overlapping and parallel pipes is the building’s beating heart. Or, for Buchholtz, a work of art. “It’s like a Michelangelo ceiling,” he says, referring to the impressive order and organization of lines and ducts overhead.

The mechanical room also gives a sense of the complex and thoroughly thought-out systems that will make this building fully resilient and seamlessly operational in the event of any emergency. Designed by architecture and engineering firm Page, the Quarry Run ROC, which opened in July 2017, accommodates multiple agencies and can support different functions, but primarily serves as the primary PSAP for Bexar County Sheriff.  In addition, it provides backup communications for the San Antonio Police Department Communications Unit, San Antonio Fire Communications Division, and all communications units for two additional counties. Even all those units’ communications fail at once, this facility can take over.

The project is the culmination of Buchholtz’s vision, started some 20 years ago when he took on the Bexar County 9-1-1 job. At the time and to this day, San Antonio’s primary PSAP was and is a large facility located in the city at the decommissioned Brooks Air Force Base. Buchholtz, himself retired from the Air Force, saw that configuration as a potential liability. If something happened to the San Antonio PSAP, there was not enough capacity in surrounding areas to pick up the slack. He wanted a facility with maximum survivability, one that anticipated natural and man-made disasters, and could function independently in the case of catastrophic event. For 20 years he budgeted, gathered design ideas, and thought about how such a building “could” or “would” work. When the time came Bexar Metro 9-1-1 was not only able to pay for its $60 million facility in cash, it could design and construct the building on its own schedule.

That lack of an external deadline made an enormous difference according to Buchholtz. “We had time and we used it,” he says. They also used the input of the call takers, supervisors, and managers, who worked with the architects in a programming exercise—the design phase where the facility’s functional and operational needs are determined and floorplan organization is developed—that lasted two weeks. For their part, the architects listened and learned about the realities of call takers’ jobs. “I observed body language as they worked,” recalls J.J. Puga Senior Associate at Page who was the lead architect on the project. “These are people who help take care of others in very stressful moments. I wanted to figure out what can we do as architects to help them do their jobs better.”

For starters, the architects and engineers at Page combined their expertise in designing data centers with their health care and academic know-how. Like the call center, they are buildings that are used 24/7, require high levels of security and contain fundamentally high-stress, sensitive and critical operations. Because of its unique function as both call center and potential emergency operations center, Quarry Run has a more complex infrastructure than virtually any other building type. At the same time it is a workplace, where people spend the majority of their day, and in the event of an emergency, it becomes an operations center capable of crisis management and sustained emergency communications with first responders.

Blurring the lines between the hardened building’s necessities and the workplace spaces that address wellness and well being are at the heart of the building’s design. In essence it is two separate but integrated buildings, the transparent outer shell providing a buffer for the hardened core. “Working with our structural and MEP [mechanical, electrical and plumbing] engineers, we created pockets of liminal space,” notes Puga. “This concealed the flow of the systems.”

Page Principal and MEP Engineering Director Freddy Padilla also observed call takers at work. Considering the vast intricacies of the systems that support their work, he started building’s communications and engineering infrastructure design from a single, critical element: the phone. “I wanted to know, what happens if something goes wrong with the phone? How long does it take to fix?” he says. “The mission of this facility is to keep the PSAP floor operational through any human or system failures.” When you can’t lose operations—even for one second—the answer is, of course, redundancy. Padilla addressed this critical need at every moment along the system, working from the phone out to the computers, the communications infrastructure, the electrical system, water supply, even the air in the building. Every critical element has an identical twin, and in some cases more. Electricity and water are not just duplicated, they are provided from two separate external sources. Communications come into the building from multiple redundant locations. “During a human or natural event, basic 9-1-1 services will remain operational at the best possible and highest level of service,” says Padilla.

The hardened core contains the PSAP, the emergency operations and network operations center, two data centers and all the redundant engineering systems that support these elements. The power coming to the 13,000-square-foot PSAP floor is fully redundant and uninterruptable, and also designed to run for an extended period of time—several days—in the event of an outside utility failure. The space is organized for maximum efficiency and call taker comfort. A video wall of 56 large screens displays television, news, building security cameras, and call statistics, as well feeds from Texas Department of Transportation highway cameras, and video from the San Antonio Police Department and Texas Department of Public Safety Helicopter Units. Lights are kept low to reduce glare and eye strain, acoustics were a consideration to absorb the sound of chatter and keep ambient noise to a minimum. The 104 consoles (100 for call takers and four for training) are Airbus Vesta equipped 9-1-1 workstations with duplicate screens, are fully ergonomic and located on a raised floor to allow easy access to the mechanical equipment underneath. The consoles can be configured for either sit or stand, and have individual temperature and lighting controls to allow call takers to create their preferred work environment.

Supervisor offices line the PSAP floor on three sides and emergency operations can take over a second floor conference room that overlooks the PSAP floor. Windows are tinted for privacy when needed, and can be rendered transparent with the punch of a (secured) button. From this vantage point the entire PSAP floor, the call takers’ computers and wall of screens opposite are surveyable at a glance, appearing like the bridge of a starship in science fiction movie.

Supporting this hub from deep inside the core, two data centers are designed to Tier III standards. Mechanical and electrical systems will automatically respond to any failure without creating a system outage on the PSAP floor. A computer monitoring and control system designed by Siemens allows constant, real time at-a-glance monitoring of every component in the system at any time. Even water tanks were designed to withstand ballistic forces to ensure clean water supply to workers in the event of an extended emergency. The MEP courtyard which houses the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems is itself protected by a breathable steel-grate roof which provides protection from wind and flying debris in a tornado rated as high as EF3 (with 165 mph winds). Padilla emphasizes, “Keeping your critical equipment safe is key when you are looking to provide such important service to the public during a natural disaster.” A helipad was added, rounding out the building’s emergency capability. A highly sophisticated and fine-tuned machine, the facility is designed for the worst-case scenario, according to Padilla, where every eventuality has been considered and addressed. The significant investments in this resiliency and double infrastructure are the heart of its innovation.

Part of the building’s resiliency, however, is also found in its non-hardened areas, which wrap around the hardened core. Psychologically and physically these spaces—office, staff amenities, and public spaces—act as a buffer between the outside world and the disaster-ready core. Designed along an east-west axis and resting on a natural site elevation, the building’s E-shaped plan creates three courtyards: one at the entry, one exterior north-facing courtyard used for lunches and company events, and an interior courtyard that provides an atrium-like view to offices and conference rooms, creating access to natural light and sights to greenery from within the heart of the building. Buchholtz might have rather used the square footage for more office space, which is always in high demand, but the light flooding into the adjacent spaces adds a pleasing connection to the outside world, where changes in weather and the movement of sunlight help vary the quality of the interior throughout the day. There are typical office areas—a generous light-filled double-height lobby, conference and training rooms, and informal meeting space all designed in a bright, yet calm palette of browns with splashes of red and burnt orange.

The architecture also does more than immediately meets the eye here. In addition to accommodating the different cultures of fire, sheriff, and police and integrating them into one facility, the building’s offices and plan are intentionally focused on adding a wellness factor. That access was paramount to Puga and his architectural team, as access to nature and sunlight–even only visual, has been proven to support the well being of a building’s users by reducing stress and boosting productivity. “Blending the seriousness of call-taking with the colors and textures of the landscape design became a defining moment in our design thinking,” says Puga. “Add a little Texas daylight and you have a winning combination.”

The call takers’ break room was deliberately designed to encourage people to leave the PSAP on their two 15-minute and one 30-minute daily breaks. At these times, they can emerge from the darkened call center into sunlit spaces, and within a few steps be in a small café, where they can purchase food or grab their lunch from the large commercial-grade refrigerators. The café also has cooking facilities, which can provide food in the event of an emergency that keeps staff in the building for an extended period of time (a second kitchen is located inside the hardened core for the same reason).  Floor-to-ceiling windows and access to the adjacent fenced courtyard, with umbrella shaded tables and lush landscaping beckon workers to step outside into the sun and fresh air, encouraging interaction or reflection, depending on your state of mind.  It’s one of the call takers’ favorite things about the new building.

As of August 2017 the Bexar County Sherriff staff had fully moved into the building, awaiting the arrival for the San Antonio fire and police contingent and enjoying the vast differences between their old facility and this one. In fact, Daniel Cedar, a Bexar County Public Safety Operator since November 2016, marvels at how the new building allows him to do his job better. The old Bexar County facilities downtown were antiquated and in bad shape, overcrowded, and unaccommodating. Workers had to control entry themselves, keep up with supplies, and find new and creative places to store materials.

Bexar County Publications Safety Communications Supervisor Beth Perez, a 16-year veteran with the county, now has a place to train her call takers and store her training supplies. She agrees with Cedar, saying “there’s just no comparison.” Now staffers also have room to store lunches brought from home in the commercial-grade refrigerators, or to purchase food on-site. Cedar says he enjoys the courtyard almost daily so far (Texas summers are brutal). The fact that worker needs were considered and addressed means a lot and frees up mental space for the job. “It allows you to focus on the work,” he says. Even things like the entry control on the lobby, which is manned by an officer, and the ample parking—not previously available at the downtown location—are daily benefits that make coming to work a little easier.

Buchholtz agrees about what he calls the “creature comforts.” “If you work at a place you enjoy walking into, you’ll do a better job,” he says. In addition, because the building houses multiple agencies, including the fire department, there are sleeping rooms—simple, small rooms with a bed and a chair—where firefighters on longer shifts can rest. A decompression room, which also doubles as a lactation room, offers respite for those needing privacy or time to reflect on a difficult call. A small fitness center provides exercise machines (a firefighter request) with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to landscaped views, further reducing any bunker-like sense and providing visual connection to the outside world.

The building’s location, on the northern outskirts of San Antonio provides a sense of space and met two basic criteria: It can be serviced by two different electrical substations, and it is accessible but also out of the way. “We don't want to generate a lot of attention,” Buchholtz says. Indeed it’s far enough from downtown that if a sizable event were to occur in the city, the building would be removed from the epicenter yet still be easily reachable. It’s a geographic luxury in a part of the country, where there are still relatively wide open spaces abutting a major city like San Antonio. No doubt the city will grow around the building in this booming region, but Quarry Run was built to meet the needs of 2050 population projections and the accompanying level of 9-1-1 calls. “We should be good for a while,” Buchholtz laughs, lamenting the building will likely run out of office space long before its operational capacity is tested. It’s a classic case of “if you build it they will come,” and, in a way, Quarry Run is a victim of its own success.

Attendees at the June NENA conference were treated to tours of the building, and elected officials have been through the facility, elevating its profile and showing people what is possible, both technically and architecturally, for a facility focused on providing emergency services. Buchholtz fields constant requests from agencies wanting to enjoy office space in the building, so even though the PSAP is not yet filled with call takers from all the agencies, the offices are all spoken for.

Before the July opening, Buchholtz led the agency through a series of soft openings, another opportunity afforded by the project’s lack of a hard deadline. As a result the day the PSAP went live went off without a hitch. “We didn't have to be ready until we were ready,” emphasizes Buchholtz. That time factor paid off on virtually all aspects of the building, which Buchholtz considers one of the most sophisticated facilities of its kind, certainly in Texas.

Quarry Run’s survivability and resilience of its systems are its reason for being, but those notions have spilled over into a much bigger benefit. Resilience and survivability aren’t just designed in the stone, mortar, and glass of the building to ensure its survival of a disaster. They also inform and relieve the day-in-day-out stress of the work of 9-1-1 call takers and public safety professionals. That support is palpable in the building when the soft northern light is streaming inside and the view of the wide-open Texas sky draws your attention outward. Turns out that resilience and survivability is for people, too.

The digital version of the The Call Magazine can be viewed here