Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) come in all shapes and sizes. Every state, county or big city has some sort of facility to address emergency situations. You will also find EOCs at universities, hospitals and businesses. Sometimes they are permanent, purpose designed spaces; other times they are just a simple, flexible conference room that can turned into an EOC as needed. At their core, these operations centers are collaboration spaces where staff provide information management, resource allocation and tracking, and/or advanced planning support to personnel on scene or at other EOCs (e.g., a state center supporting a local center).

Audiovisual (AV) Technology has always been a critical component of Emergency Operations Centers. The AV system allows users to see and share information for better decision-making and situational awareness. When people think of AV in the EOC, they think of many large screens that display different types of information. But AV technology is much more than just large screens. What technologies are changing the way we share visual information?

Video Walls

Video walls have been used in EOC’s for many years, but there are some exciting new developments allowing video walls to be used differently. Bezels (the frame around a display device) on many flat panel displays are becoming increasingly thinner. This means that the spacing between monitors is getting smaller, and the overall wall looks more like a continuous display. They can be combined in many ways. The most basic configuration is a 46” or 55” monitor used in a 2 high by 2 wide matrix. Monitors can also be arranged in different combinations such as 3 x 5, 2 x 6, and so on. While these different combinations offer intriguing non-standard aspect ratios, it’s important to ensure you have a video wall processor or computer that will match that resolution.

The next big trend in video walls is direct view LED. Direct view means that you can directly see the LED module that is emitting the light. We are familiar with this type of LED display — they’re typically used in large outdoor venues, sporting arenas and digital billboards. Traditionally, the spacing between the LED modules can be large. But when viewing these displays at long distance, the spacing becomes unnoticeable. Many manufacturers are working on decreasing the spacing in LED modules, and for the first time we are seeing indoor applications with viewing distances as short as five feet away. Direct view LED has many advantages. The tiles are smaller than a 46” monitor, and there is no bezel. This allows them to be pieced together in a number of different aspect ratios and configurations. A good example of this is the LED banner surround display that runs around the inside of many stadiums and arenas. I’m not suggesting that we have a banner that goes around the EOC, but this feature offers the ability to design video walls that convey data like we have never seen before.

Another advantage to video walls, both monitors and direct view, is that they typically can be mounted about 6 inches off the wall and are front serviceable. This means that we no longer need large rear projection rooms that take up valuable space in the building. Additionally, the power supplies and other electronics can be remotely located in an AV closet. This helps reduce both noise and heat in the EOC.

Source Switching and Transport

A typical EOC has many sources that need to be viewed on large displays in the room. These can include computers with GIS information, shelter status, social media feeds and CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) call information. Sources can also be from TV tuners / cable boxes, feeds from traffic cameras, and even the security camera outside the door to the EOC. All of these need to be selected or switched to allow the signal to be seen on the video wall and other displays in the EOC. The AV equipment that switches and transports the signals from the sources to the displays is usually located in a rack in the back of the room or in the AV closet.

Traditionally the rack will hold a large matrix switcher with a fixed number of inputs and outputs. This type of switcher can be limiting. For example, if you need to add a traffic camera feed and all of the inputs were in use on your 16 in x 16 out switcher, you would have to upgrade the switcher to the next size, usually a 32 in x 32 out. This can be costly and might not fit in the rack.

Currently we are seeing equipment that can send 1080P and up to 4K video and audio signals over a “switched packet data network”. Each input has an encoder box, and each output has a decoder box. The signals can travel over a private AV network, or with some planning, reside on the building network. Using this configuration, there is the ability to send audio and video to remote rooms or locations, as long as there is a solid network connection between the two. This allows us to create a scalable matrix switchers that are not limited by a fixed number of inputs and outputs. Need that additional traffic camera feed? Just add an encoder to the network, and you are up and running.

4K Displays

Many of us have walked through a major electronics store and seen one of the impressive new 4K displays. We may even have one or two of them in our homes. So what exactly is 4K? The displays are referred to as 4K because they have a screen resolution that is four times that of 1080p display. This means the resolution is 3840 wide by 2160 high (vs 1920 wide by 1080). We are already seeing that 4K is the “standard” resolution for many display sizes. So why would anyone want 4K displays in the EOC? The main advantage is the higher resolution, which allows a couple of things. First, you can sit closer and not see the individual pixels. Second, you can have a quad view of 1080p signals and not lose any resolution. When it comes to viewing very detailed sources, such as GIS applications where there is a lot of fine information that needs to be resolved, the overall higher resolution is the biggest advantage to 4K displays. If you do consider adding 4K displays to your EOC, keep in mind that the signal transport and switching system may also need to be upgraded.

BYOD – Bring Your Own Device

We all carry many devices with us, and the same is true for those that work in an EOC. They will most likely have a resident computer at the work position, a personal smartphone and /or tablet, and may also have a laptop and/or a smartphone issued to them by their agency. At a minimum, we need to plan for each physical position to provide power/charging, network services (wired or wireless), and workstation space to support all these devices. In some cases, videos, photos and data will need to be shared from these devices with other users in the EOC. This can be done by providing a wired video connection (HDMI or DisplayPort) at each location. If a wired connection is available, remember to have adapters for Mini DisplayPort and mini HDMI, common on many of today’s smartphones, tablets and laptops. Another way to provide users the ability to share information is through a wireless collaboration device. Users download a small app to their device, enter the login information and then connect wirelessly via their network connection to share presentations, photos and video. This can be a great approach since it allows you to provide everyone the ability to share information without having to wire every location. There are many types of these systems on the market each with a slightly different feature set. Make sure to evaluate the model that is the best fit for your situation.

Software-based Video Conferencing

Software-based video conferencing has moved into the mainstream. Many of us are already using this technology in our daily lives to stay in touch with our friends and family (i.e., Skype, FaceTime). Traditionally, video conferencing in the EOC has been limited to hardware-based codecs. These systems tend to be very expensive and limited to what end points can be connected. While there may still be a need for this type of video conferencing, software-based video conferencing can open up many more applications. For example, the operations group could directly communicate visually with someone in the field to easily “see” the scene. Subject matter experts can easily and quickly be included into EOC briefings. Volunteer support members can be part of the team, even if they are in geographically diverse areas. The Public Information Officer (PIO) can easily give media interviews without having to bring the media into the EOC.

What do you need to support software-based video conferencing? Think of all those extra devices that each user has with them. Many of those are great candidates for sharing content to and from, provided they are connected to the network. Each user will also need a good way to get audio in and out of their devices. In an active and crowded EOC, a headphone with a microphone works best. For the best video to the far end, make sure the camera is at the proper height and angle. A stand or mount may be needed to achieve this.

If you’re considering building a new EOC or updating your current one, make sure you work with a skilled technology design professional to help you select the best technology for your specific application.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Don Fisher CTS-D is an expert in designing systems to do more than just present information — his focus is on integrating technology into the EOC workflow to facilitate critical decisions and enhanced situational awareness. His 30 years of experience include designing high-end command and control centers, emergency operations facilities, and mobile command posts. Don has presented at regional and international Emergency Management conferences on rapidly changing EOC technologies. Reach out to Don at 919.275.6100 x187, or at DFisher@TheSextantGroup.com.  

Above images of EOCs (c) Liam Frederick