We’ll Hopefully Never Know How Well This Place Works

Reports from the Field by • 07/10

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.”

Comments are closed.

New York Public Library 53rd Street Branch by TEN Arquitectos. Steele's role: Principal in Charge/Project Architect. Photo: TEN Arquitectos.
Featured Member: Andrea Steele, AIA Featured Member
Congratulations to @babkwth for winning our first-ever #ArchtoberSelects Instagram Challenge.
Field Condition Names Winners in Debut #ArchtoberSelects Instagram Challenge Reports from the Field
CLP 2017 Inaugural class: (l-r) Ayodele Yusuf, Jenna Leigh Wandishin, Daniel Horn (back row), Michael Caton, Michaela Metcalfe, Christina Hernandez, A.L. Hu, Shilpa Patel, Jack Dinning, Jessica Morris. Credit: Center for Architecture
Policy Pulse: Announcing 2017 Civic Leadership Program Class Policy Pulse
AIANY Emerging New York Architects Committee Civic Leadership Program (CLP) kick off at the Center for Architecture. Credit: Center for Architecture.
Civic Leadership Program Kicks Off At the Center for Architecture
Nike New York Headquarters by Studios Architecture and Workplace Design + Connectivity. Photos courtesy of Nike.
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
Submit your work to the 2017 AIANY COTE Awards!
New Deadlines New Deadlines
The Bier House by Kaneji Domoto, featured in "Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia,” on view through 08.26.17. Credit: Thad Russell
On View On View
Classifieds Classifieds
Public Square by FXFOWLE. Image: FXFOWLE/Driverless Future Challenge.
Driverless Future Challenge Names Winner Reports from the Field
Apartment, New York. Photo: Michael Moran.
Featured Member: Leonard Kady, AIA Featured Member
A temporal collage of the historic site by Seher Erdogan Ford.
Announcing the Recipients of the 2017 Arnold W. Brunner Grant for Architectural Research At the Center for Architecture
Hyper-Efficient Building Workshop on 06.14.17 and 06.15.17. Credit: Center for Architecture
Policy Pulse: New Hyper-Efficient Building Training Launches Policy Pulse
From left: Peter Lampen, AIA; Luke Surowiec, LEED AP; Steven Winter, FAIA; John Lee, AIA. Photo: Center for Architecture.
A Closer Look at 80×50 Initiative’s NYC Retrofit Accelerator Program At the Center for Architecture
Bartholomew Voorsanger, FAIA, Principal, Voorsanger Architects, and Alastair Gordon, Contributing Editor, Architecture and Design, Wall Street Journal. Photo: Center for Architecture.
Cocktails and Conversation with Bartholomew Voorsanger, FAIA, and Alastair Gordon At the Center for Architecture
Koray Duman, AIA, LEED AP, Founder, Büro Koray Duman. Photo: Nicholas Calcott/Surface Magazine.
Featured Member: Koray Duman, AIA, LEED AP Featured Member
Hilary Ballon (1956-2017). Courtesy of NYU Abu Dhabi.
In Memoriam: Hilary Ballon (1956-2017) In Memoriam
NYPL Mid-Manhattan Library renovation by Mecanoo and Beyer Blinder Belle.
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
Cast and Place by Team Aesop, winner of the 2017 FIGMENT City of Dreams pavilion competition.
New Deadlines New Deadlines
Harris House site plan by Kaneji Domoto, featured in “Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia,” on view through 08.26.17. Courtesy of the Kaneji Domoto Family Archive.
On View On View
Classifieds Classifieds
Waterproofing of the facade system and roof at 540 West 26th Street for Savanna. Design Architect: Morris Adjmi. Rendering: Morris Adjmi.
Featured Member: Howard Zimmerman Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
From left: Signe Nielsen, RLA, FASLA; Cynthia Rosenzweig; Susanne Desroches; Jeffrey Raven, FAIA, LEED BD+C; and Jee Mee Kim, AICP. Photo: Center for Architecture.
Climate Change in NYC: Bridging Science and Practice At the Center for Architecture
Courtesy of the Center for Active Design.
Policy Pulse: FitCity 2017 Lands in Queens Policy Pulse
Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, Astoria, Queens, NY. Somvanshi’s role: Associate, Project Manager and On-site Supervisor. Firm: Ennead Architects (previously Polshek Partnership). Photo: Jeff Goldberg/Esto.
Featured Member: Kalavati Somvanshi Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
Robert Michael Kliment, FAIA. Courtesy of Kliment Halsband Architects.
Robert Michael Kliment, FAIA (1933 – 2017) In Memoriam
Museum of Modern Art  east section renovation by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler. Credit: Iwan Baan
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
09.17.17: Call for Entries: 2017 AIANY COTE Awards
New Deadlines New Deadlines
Lurie House by Kaneji Domoto, featured in "“Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia,” opening 06.22.17. Credit: Thad Russell
On View On View
Classifieds Classifieds
New York City Police Academy by Perkins + Will. Photo: Courtesy of Perkins + Will.
Featured Member: Michael Plottel Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
AIANY Opposes Paris Climate Accord Exit From the Desk of the President
Manhattan Districts 1/2/5 Garage and Salt Shed by Dattner Architects and WXY architecture + urban design, 2016 Building of the Day. Credit: Center for Architecture
Call for Archtober Buildings of the Day New Deadlines
Upper East Side residence by Gabellini Sheppard, New York. Photo: Paul Warchol.
Michael Gabellini, FAIA, Delivers AIANY 2017 Gil Oberfield Lecture At the Center for Architecture
AIANY representatives at AIA New York State's "Architects in Albany Advocacy Day." Credit: Center for Architecture
Policy Pulse: 2017 Architects in Albany Advocacy Day Policy Pulse
Families make collages of their dream playgrounds. Credit: Center for Architecture
Draw, Design, Build! NYU Teams Up with the Center for Architecture for Family Programming Learning by Design
Weill Hall at Cornell University, Ithica, NY. Photo: Scott Frances.
Featured Member: Renny Logan Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
The Shed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Rockwell Group.
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News
New Deadlines New Deadlines
Siegel House by Kaneji Domoto, featured in “Kaneji Domoto at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia,” opening 06.22.17. Credit: Thad Russell
On View On View
Classifieds Classifieds
AIANY 2017 President David Piscuskas, FAIA, at the National Summit on Design and Urban Mobility. Credit: Center for Architecture
Are We Ready for Autonomous Vehicles? From the Executive Director
Reflections at Keppel Bay in Keppel Bay, Singapore. Photo: Keppel Bay Pte Ltd.
Featured Member: Daniel Libeskind Elevated to AIA College of Fellows Featured Member
Join us for FitCity 2017! Hunter's Point South Waterfront Park by Thomas Balsley Associates and WEISS/MANFREDI. Credit: Albert Vecerka/Esto.
Policy Pulse: FitCity 2017 Policy Pulse
Speakers of "Hesitation and Constraints: Barriers to Social Research in Practice." Credit: Center for Architecture
Social Sciences, Good for Your Bottom Line and Society At the Center for Architecture
The Quad Cinema, renovated by Projects Design Associates with rebrand by Pentagram. Credit: Marion Curtis / StarPix.
In the News In The News
Names in the News Names in the News