Last week, we checked out New York City’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM).  The agency plans for emergencies, collects and disseminates critical information, coordinates emergency response and recovery, and educates the public on emergency situations. OEM was created in 1996 and became an official department in 2001. In 1998, OEM was moved to the 23rd floor of 7 World Trade Center and was promptly destroyed in the attacks on 9/11. Mayor Rudy Guiliani was criticized for authorizing this move and from leaked memos, it appears he overruled a recommendation to locate the center in Brooklyn. And so, many years later, OEM is now in Brooklyn.

I’m not sure what I imagined, but I didn’t really expect it to look like NASA. Tampa-based firm AVI-SPL designed the space, stating that “one of the greatest challenges facing implementation of the AV technology at the new OEM headquarters was to install and integrate systems in which information from hundreds of sources could be easily accessed and displayed.” It looks like they have achieved the goal: the main room has nearly 20 immense tv screens and the “Watch Command” room is simply of a  wall of televisions and computer screens, where they monitor radio, news and other communication chatter 24/7.

For the techies: the main room (the Emergency Operations Center) features four  160″ diagonal rear-projection screens, each consisting of four individual  Christie Digital 8000 Lumens projectors. There are also two  RGB Spectrum Media Wall multi-image processors to array video, broadcast and computer images simultaneously, four  84″ plasma displays and eight  61″ NEC plasma displays. The Watch Command room has  five Mitsubishi 61″ DPL rear projection units installed side-by-side as one unified display, two plasma screens and three rows of computers with  full video, microphone and AV system touch panel connectivity.

These rooms are windowless and secure, reinforced by cinderblock. The Emergency Operations Center is used as a control center, with each computer and phone dedicated to a specific agency. The agencies are clustered together by category, such as utilities, infrastructure, private sector or regional agencies.  This main room has never been fully activated (thankfully) but has been partially activated several times for the recent tornados in Brooklyn and transit strikes. There is also a “Situation Room,” (no Wolf Blitzer here) with teleconferencing capability for press announcements:

The agency has a staff of about 200 and is funded mostly by grants from the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA, and through corporate partnerships with companies like Verizon, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley and Vornado. Many of OEM’s employees are paid via grants or work “on loan” from other agencies.

Besides emergency preparation and response, OEM works actively on public education and outreach, particularly to vulnerable populations.  The presentations given on my visit emphasized New York City’s vulnerability to storm surges, with its 578 miles of coastline. A category four hurricane evacuation would impact between 2.3 million and 3 million New Yorkers. I think that alone is enough to justify having an agency dedicated to emergency management, but the number of projects they work on is extensive.

I think my favorite part of the building though is the black & white photo of a derailed train that greets you as you stop off the elevator.