Indy Raises the Bar for Airport Command Centers

Rebecca Douglas
Published in: 

The new $11 million Airport Operations Center/Emergency Operations Center (AOC/EOC) at Indianapolis International is bound to become the envy of airport operators throughout the country and abroad. It's already the pride and joy of the staff working there.

"It's so state-of-the-art and so far above the average dispatch center," explains airport communications manager Andrew Burnett, a 28-year public safety veteran with plenty of basis for comparison. "We were almost in awe of it in the beginning; but after we moved in and the systems gradually came on line, it became second nature."

Feedback from the 22 airport communications specialists working in the new facility has been universally glowing. "Some of our staff have been in dispatch for 35 years," notes Burnett. "The new facility is the culmination of ideas and technology that weren't possible when they started. No detail was left uncovered."

Housing the command centers for operational functions that run 24/7 and emergency response activities rarely pressed into service, the new 15,500-square-foot facility provides marked improvements in coordination and efficiencies.

"Previously, everything was decentralized," notes the airport authority's special projects director, Jennifer Tillman. "We fit functions into existing spaces or retrofitted what was available to make it work." After emergency dispatchers outgrew their space in the old fire station, they were moved across campus to the Indianapolis Maintenance Center. The airport's Emergency Operations Center was previously located on the third story of the Administration Building - a space with considerable drawbacks since it had to be evacuated for safety purposes during tornado warnings and other critical events.

Combining the command center for everyday operations such as weather and flight tracking, security and environmental systems with the dispatch center for emergency response by police, fire and rescue personnel is expected to provide significant advantages during crisis situations.

"Everyone is now located in close proximity to one another for easy coordination of efforts, and they all work with the same real-time information," explains Tillman.

Facts and Figures

Project: Airport Operations Center/Emergency Operations Center

Location: Indianapolis International

Size: 15,500 sq. ft.

Cost: $11 million

Design/Construction Management/Project Management: $2 million

Construction: $7.6 million

Technology Systems: $1.4 million

Design: February 2006 - December 2006

Construction: January 2007 - May 2008

Architectural and Engineering Teams: RATIO

Architects, Loftus Engineering Inc. (MEP), RQAW (Civil Engineering), and C.E. Solutions Inc. (Structural Engineering)

Owner's Technical Representatives: Aerofinity and Transportation Consulting & Management

Technology Systems Designer: Ross & Baruzzini

Technology Systems Integrator: IBM

Construction Management: Shiel Sexton

General Contractor: Bruns-Gutzwiller Inc.

Technology Contractors Under IBM's Contract

Access Control and CCTV System: Honeywell/Koorsen

Electrical Contractor: Ermco

Electronic Visual Information Display System: Ultra Electronics

Distributed Antenna System: Alcatel-Lucent

Audio/Visual Systems: Sensory Technologies

Other Technology Contractors (Not Under IBM)

Fire Alarm/Paging System: Esco Communications

UHF Trunked Radio System Installer: ERS Communications

Other Team Members

Furniture for Dispatcher Consoles: Commercial Office Environments

Office Furniture: Business Furniture Corp.

The guiding objective for technology designer Ross & Baruzzini (R&B) was to enhance operational capabilities - during normal and emergency conditions. "A world-class airport deserves a word-class nerve center," notes Dave Kipp, R&B's senior vice president and chief operating officer.

Minimizing Constraints

Because the dual-purpose command center was designed and built concurrently with the airport's new mid-field terminal, planners had a relatively clean canvas to work with when conceiving the building.

"We had the unique opportunity to create a powerful entity that's vital to the airport working from the ground up instead of trying to fit such important functions into existing buildings and spaces," says Joe Briggs, associate principal at RATIO Architects.

Site selection was crucial. The building needed to be close enough to the terminal and other facilities it serves to tap into utility lines, but far enough away to provide physical separation from the very incidents and emergencies the personnel and systems occupying it will be called to manage.

Aerofinity, a member of the owner's technical representative team, assisted with the planning and site selection. "When we took a long list of factors into consideration, we had three or four sites to choose between," recalls Aerofinity director, Dave Fleet. "It couldn't be too close to the end of a runway, railroad lines or the fuel farm ... we had to orient the building with the prevailing winds in mind ... we had to think about access to and from the road systems. There were numerous possibilities to consider."

Given the technology-centric nature of AOC/EOC, adding the airport's data back-up center to the facility emerged as a winning concept during the early stages of the design phase.

All three critical functions (the data center, AOC and EOC) were built inside facilities designed to withstand a variety of destructive forces - including a direct hit from an F4 tornado. Such tornados are characterized by wind speeds of up to 260 mph and "devastating damage" - well-constructed houses are leveled; cars and other large objects are transformed into large missiles.

Built to Survive

Building to a higher tornado rating was considered, but statistical weather data for the area didn't support the decision to incur the associated extra costs.

On a practical level, the F4 rating translates into 12-inch thick concrete walls and a concrete roof nearly as thick. Outside access points are extremely limited and all doors and ventilation features are specially designed to withstand incredible impact. The F4 area, in the south/southwest portion of the building, is half-bermed for further protection. Support spaces such as offices and main restrooms are not built to such extreme specifications.

"We essentially built a fortified box inside another stand-alone building for the AOC, EOC, data center and all their necessary mechanical systems," explains Briggs.

Members throughout the large project team praise the architects' skill in creating a pleasing aesthetic for the fortified facility.

"RATIO did a wonderful job making sure it provides the security and strength of a bunker, but it doesn't look or feel like one," Tillman raves.

Staff working in the new facility are equally, if not even more, complimentary.

At most operation or emergency dispatch centers, complaints about the accommodations are common. "People don't like working in a dungeon," says Burnett. "Unfortunately, that's what most centers seem like. They have to be safe and secure; they don't have to be pleasant."

Gypsum-covered walls, carpeted subfloors that are raised off the concrete slab, acoustic ceiling tiles and abundant uplighting all contribute to the "normalcy" of Indy's AOC/EOC. The biggest feature, however, is the natural light that filters into secure areas through bullet-proof windows with explosion-proof glazing. Sometimes it gets so bright in the center that the automatic shades have to come down to prevent glare on the screens. The windows also offer a view of the control tower from inside the bunker.

"It's especially impressive at night, with the central corridor lit from inside against the dark sky," notes Burnett. "We're not used to working in a building people compliment."

Cultivating the look, feel and acoustics of a regular office was a top objective for RATIO.

"The people operating in this space work long shifts, sometimes under tremendous stress and pressure," Briggs explains. "It was very important that we did everything we could to make them feel comfortable. Elements like exposed concrete would have adversely affected the psychology of the space and everyone in it."

For further comfort during extended crises, the facility was equipped with a quiet room/lounge, showers and cooking facilities. A conference room to accommodate meetings of airlines and other pertinent players during aircraft incidents and a "policy room" for executive-level meetings involving airport management, legal counsel, political leaders, etc., were also added. "It's important to have appropriate facilities for the side meetings that become necessary during crises," notes Briggs. "They need to afford calm and privacy for the decision-makers yet still be directly connected to the main flow of information."

The physical separation between the AOC/EOC and the most likely crisis/accident areas (the terminal and aircraft operation areas) not only removes distractions and takes decision-makers out of the "hot zone," it also provides a buffer for them from the news media.

The "hard" and "soft" areas (Briggs' nicknames for the spaces inside and outside the F4-rated box) are connected with an elevated steel "spine" of a corridor, creating a "clear story" window system along the length of the building, infusing natural light and adds a half story exterior design feature. The "clear story" window system adds a half story exterior design feature for visual interest.

A diesel generator as large as a conference room provides backup power, including heating/cooling, for the building.

Driven by Technology

Information technology functions housed in the building, as conceived and designed by Ross & Baruzzini, drove much of the project. The design phase officially began in February 2006 and the building structure was considered "operational" in March 2008. That's when technology subcontractors coordinated by the systems integrator, IBM, began their on-site construction and installation work.

A large video wall, 7 feet tall and 20 feet wide, is one of the easiest technology elements for non-techies to embrace. The wall includes ten 50-inch screens that can display separate images or coordinate to act as one giant screen. At any given time, images from the closed-circuit television security system, weather information, access control, flight tracking, local or national news, fire alarm or security information and a host of other feeds can be displayed. The AOC's bank of six dispatcher consoles, each with 10 flat-panel screens, usually attracts plenty of attention, too.

But it's the less-flashy elements, like the dedicated Distributed Antenna System (DAS), dual feeds from the main power grid and the redundant 288-strand fiber-optic cables that connect the building to nearly every system at the terminal and elsewhere at the airport that really drive the AOC/EOC.

"The building needed its own DAS due to its sheer size and high volume of radio communications," says Jeff Chambers, project manager for IT Systems of Transportation Consulting & Management (the owner's technical representative for IT systems). "Reliable radio communications are critical to so many of the airport's functions."

The data backup room is another unsung hero of the facility. "It's really impressive," says David McGhee, senior project engineer for R&B. "It's like something out of a movie with the HVAC rumbling and all the racks of equipment. Data redundancy and protection are crucial to the entire airport."

Never Too Early

Because the technology package was bid after the building design portion of the project, some subsequent adjustments were needed. "It all came out surprisingly close," reflects Briggs. Adjusting power requirements from anticipated levels - real power vs. conceptual power - and changing how conduit was run were two minor tweaks that became necessary.

"Everyone really pulled together to make it work," notes Tillman. "You got the sense that everyone wanted to produce the best building possible."

Clay Dilts, field superintendent for construction management firm Shiel Sexton, noted that even though the technology consultant Ross & Baruzzini was injected into the design process much earlier than usual, including the firm even earlier would have made the impressive project run more smoothly than it did. "This building is so technology-driven, they could have been at the table from the very beginning," Dilts says.

Having numerous team members in key areas such as technology and project management working on the AOC/EOC and new terminal enhanced efficiencies.

When it all came down to it, everything - the building and systems within it - needed to be ready months before the terminal's mid-November opening. And it was. Systems and operations were gradually transferred to the new facility, with multiple layers of backup and redundancies built in during the transition.


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