The Facility Technologist: Mission Critical Facilities—Part One

By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the October 2004 issue of
Today’s Facility Manager

One of the most interesting and fastest growing types of commercial structures is the mission critical facility. These buildings are designed to support and protect the organization’s people, equipment, and data to a level that far exceeds standards for normal facilities. In the next two articles, this column will examine the distinct technological needs and management challenges of these new and exciting spaces.

A mission critical facility is one that must operate absolutely reliably around the clock, 365 days per year, under any circumstances. It must be able to support the organization’s mission despite threats or lack of support from the outside world. Even if electricity, fresh water, or natural gas are no longer available from the local suppliers, these facilities must operate using only what is available within. Examples of mission critical facilities include corporate data centers, 911 dispatch centers, military installations, and government emergency management agencies.

All of these facilities have specialized technology systems to support their organizations. This may include high capacity redundant HVAC, electrical, and other building systems that can operate independently. In fact, redundant electrical generators are the norm, and they are often powered by multiple fuel sources (usually natural gas and either diesel or gasoline). For critical HVAC systems, ice storage is often used to provide a reserve of cooling BTUs when electrical power is limited.

There are other entirely new systems that do not even exist in most ordinary facilities; therefore, they have their own management challenges. For example, potable water storage tanks are usually considered a requirement, so the space can be occupied and employees can be comfortable over long periods of time. It is not unusual to find sleeping quarters, showers, and kitchen and laundry accommodations for those who live in the space during an extended emergency.

There are several types of distinct physical spaces in mission critical facilities. The nerve center, situation room, or emergency operations center are some of the names given to the space designed to bring together decision makers. In this space, leaders are provided with the information they need and the resources they require.

The room itself is a tool for managers and must house huge amounts of information. It has to support both collaboration (for meetings and group consultations) and privacy (in case managers choose to work alone). These rooms usually have large video display systems, tiers of work stations, and generous tables for interaction and discussion.

Typically found in government organizations, these rooms are fairly quiet except in ‘activation’ mode’when some sort of crisis needs to be managed. When status is elevated, these areas are the scene of intense activity and require extreme attention to ergonomics, reliability, and flexibility. This space is an extremely stressful environment that may need to house personnel who stay for days at a time while managing a large scale emergency’such as the recent hurricanes in the southeastern portion of the U.S.

Another room common to the mission critical facilities is a dispatch area or communications center. This space houses people who will receive calls, process information in a computer aided dispatch system, and communicate with managers and field personnel.

These areas are usually manned continuously, but, like the situation room, they also experience a spike in intensity during emergency activation. These areas also need special attention to ergonomic issues, due to the high stress and long hours workers spend confined to the space.

Dedicated technology areas (like data centers) can be a significant part of a mission critical facility. In fact, they are sometimes the primary reason for the facility’s existence. Specialized HVAC, fire protection, and security systems in these spaces often require the facility professional to be able to work in such environments to configure specifications distinct to these facilities.

Command and control areas are designed to allow personnel to monitor operations and perform the routine work of managing a complex system. These areas are often found in telephone and data network operations centers (NOCs), power plants and distribution systems, and manufacturing plants. These areas are focused on a more routine work flow than situation rooms.

Once relegated to the world of technologically advanced financial service providers, the concept of mission critical has moved to the forefront in many market sectors. These days, there are few facilities that can afford to go off line. Critical facilities vary from industry to industry, and a critical system for one industry sector has its own redundancy levels, security needs, and operational requirements.

Clearly, facility professionals must be well aware of the distinct, critical needs of their systems and buildings. By preparing for the worst scenario, managers may protect their organizations from business disruptions that could be anything from inconsequential to insurmountable.

Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is a contributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Managementtextbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago,IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, andreliability of client business through technology.