Flying over Fairfax County's sprawling, futuristic McConnell Public Safety Transportation and Operations Center, or PSTOC (West Ox Rd. and Fairfax County Pkwy.), one might be tempted to look for a runway - and a lunar module or two in the shade.
Born largely of the cataclysmic events of 9/11 and designed to support the day-to-day emergency communications of a county that is one million residents strong, as well as facilitating operations in the event of another disaster (manmade or natural), the 144,785 s.f. McConnell PSTOC progressively houses the county's Department of Public Safety Communications (911 communications for police and fire), Office of Emergency Management, Virginia State Police Division 7 call takers and dispatchers, and Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). The four entities join strategies and spirit in a cutting-edge structure that might be described as equal parts urban fortress, Alvin Toffler and college fraternity.
"I think, like with many of the institutions around the country and the federal government, the idea of big disasters and responding to them had been overshadowed by more urgent priorities,” Kessler said, noting the shift in priorities after 9/11. “When they investigated the World Trade Center rescue efforts, they found that the (NYC) fire department couldn’t talk to the police, and ‘faulted communications’ was the term that kept coming up in reports,” he recalled. “McConnell PSTOC’s goal was for communications to be seamless.”
With the Pine Ridge school inadequate at best, though not unlike other county emergency response facilities the architects eventually visited that all resembled big gymnasiums, the quest was on to design a state-of-the-art hub that brought together all manner of emergency response personnel under one roof. With dual goals of trumpeting leading technology in a multi-team driven setting, articulating the human side of emergency response – the individuals who would staff the center 24 hours a day – was also a design directive.
Those objectives withstanding, two separate facets in the design criteria stood out. The space would need to support a massive emergency communications center, as well as a command center for emergency response in the event of manmade disasters such as 9/11, the beltway sniper and other acts of aggression, or natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, snowstorms, seismic shifts and the like. Additionally, media needed to be accommodated, as did extensive training sessions for the dozens of agencies that would avail themselves of the space and technology, all without disrupting the intensive, round-the-clock choreography of the 911 call takers, department dispatch personnel, VDOT teams and others who would call McConnell PSTOC home.In the first facet: the emergency communications center, architecture responded to need with a cross-type floorplan design that supports all four PSTOC entities – one in each wing of the cross, with a total of 96 consoles boasting five computer screens each to assist staff (the consoles and screens redolent of a NASA floor design - maybe better!). An oval-shaped raised platform where the cross intersects contains the combined supervisors’ table, facilitating critical, open and immediate communication among the four agencies in the event of another disaster. A 26 by 8-ft. cube wall with rear and front screen projection and LED screens facilitates a fluid visual data flow of freeway information from closed circuit cameras along routes 495 and 66. Various related aspects of the Obama inauguration were monitored and controlled from this room.
“One of the very important aspects of McConnell PSTOC’s design was acoustics,” Kessler explained, noting that headphones or not, everybody is on the phone at the same time in the same room. Integrating what he called “calming and modern materials” into the mix, high quality acoustic elements that included ultra sound absorbent fabric panels and carpet tiles were used. With a ceiling height of 32 feet and special equipment and personnel that would consequently be required to change light bulbs, Kessler’s team was charged with uplighting along the edge instead. Consequently lighting is along the perimeter and no one walks into the center (and climbs) for maintenance issues – a potential distraction to trauma-focused emergency responders.
Below perimeter rails, accommodation for additional video and digital elements will support emerging and evolving technology that will eventually supersede the center’s state-of-the-art Cat6 cable networking capability. Where the HVAC system is concerned, air comes from floor vents and may be adjusted separately by each of the cross’ four wings. In fact, some of the consoles are designed with ductwork directly from the floor so that much like a car’s interior, airflow can be individually controlled.
With long, intense stretches of work in the cards for many emergency workers, innovative consoles operate on hydraulic principles and can be raised to standing height for variation in the work environment. “Great care was taken about ergonomics,” Kessler said. “A lot of thought went into picking these consoles, whose screens are designed for peripheral vision.”
While eliciting optimal performance from each emergency employee through technology was a program priority, Kessler said the “human element” was a driving design force. “How can we keep their spirits up and imbue the space with positive energy for them?” he posited, citing “esprit de corps” as a key McConnell PSTOC ingredient. Among many things, the answer came in the form of clerestory glass and a north siting to eliminate glare. In this regard, blue sky and white clouds (weather permitting, of course) are not relegated to a 30-minute lunch break, visible at all times of the day to people whose work so often is defined by the darkest of events. A courtyard and terraced eating area, along with a fitness center and men’s and women’s staff locker rooms, promote sunlight and healthy lifestyles.
Rooms with a view
Though the county’s Office of Emergency Management is housed at McConnell PSTOC, the emergency management center – the other facet of McConnell PSTOC’s design – is only activated in the case of a disaster. With a dedicated space defined by appropriate tables, phones, more north-facing clerestory windows and another behemoth cube wall for fluid visual data flow from freeways, the emergency management center is surrounded by breakout rooms, conference rooms, joint operations rooms and the like. In quiet times, which are the norm, this center is utilized for training purposes. According to Kessler, as many as 30 different agencies (some from adjoining counties), including public health and public works departments, come to hone their disaster response skills, with interoperability with the building’s communications center possible. Citing fog and a potential 50-car pile-up as an example, Kessler said video from a police helicopter can be seen on this screen (as well as the other). “Everyone in both centers can see what’s going on and formulate strategies to deal with the specifics of an emergency.”Where the building’s exterior is concerned, Kessler noted McConnell PSTOC has its own cell tower and maintained while resilience and security were certainly mandated, it needed to align with the neighborhood and not stand out like a bunker. In this respect the structure embraces a berm, and not unlike other secure facilities in and around D.C., bollards and walls are integrated into garden landscaping. Elements like a dramatic truss with a 90-foot span where it pulls away from the building, and skewed glass façade, emphasize the cantilevered entry and reflect the building’s kinetic character. “It’s a building of movement and action, so it looks like the whole lobby is kind of rotating out,” Kessler said, noting this is where tours assemble and the media comes in as well.
Because media coverage is as much a part of emergency and disaster protocol as anything else, in older facilities it is not uncommon for hordes of reporters to infiltrate a center just doing their job. In Fairfax, very close to the bollards, a pedestal wired for television and satellite trucks averts a potential security breach where running cables might otherwise force doors to remain open. Cameras already established inside a dedicated, glassed-in media area facilitate broadcast, and the area itself (on the second level) has a birds’ eye view of the emergency communications center below. When media isn’t there, the area is another training room, or used as a perch for tours that include emergency and disaster data-gathering delegations from different countries.
Redundant communications and mechanical systems and chillers anticipate equipment failures and isolation in the eventuality of a disaster, where the structure would be the axis of the community.
"McConnell PSTOC is a calm and modern high-tech element of public safety,” Kessler said of the $131.5 million project, which also includes a 44,000 s.f. attached forensics laboratory. “It’s one where not only the defensive qualities of what they’re doing are expressed, but the human qualities as well.”
For design story ideas, please email Beth at bh @ dcrealestate.com
photo credit: Lee B. Ewing