Hollywood may have introduced an overhyped concept of a U.S. national command and control center to the American imagination, but the real thing can seem pretty spectacular. A glimpse of the National Military Command System, a brain-and-nerve center buried deep below the Pentagon, evokes feelings of awe in even the most powerful national leaders.
But command and control centers are much more than Cold War style images of early nuclear defense technology. Their power lies in their ability to bring multiple disciplines, sectors, or actors together in a crisis situation whether that’s a natural disaster in a single state, an active shooter at a live concert, or a global defense catastrophe.
Government agencies, multinational corporations, utility companies, the military, and other complex organizations use command and control centers to coordinate efforts and dispatch resources.
What is command and control? A good command and control definition comes from the military, which states, “Command and control is the exercise of authority and direction by a properly designated commander over assigned and attached forces in the accomplishment of a mission.”
What is a command and control center?
A command and control center is a secure room in a facility that provides centralized monitoring, control and command of a situation. This command and control center definition works for small municipalities that need to put three people in a mobile unit at a local fair just as a well as it does for the Pentagon.
One of the benefits of a command and control center is that it brings together multiple disciplines, sectors, or actors in a crisis situation.
Types of Organizations needing command & control centers
Many kinds of organizations need command and control centers, including:
1. The U.S. military.
All branches of the U.S. military use a command and control communication strategy in their operations, especially planning and coordinating attack and defense strategies. Military installations need top-quality technology and error-free installation since their command and control center teams handle some of the world’s most valuable and precise command center operations in the world. Like the military, the Department of Homeland Security also needs facilities that meet regulatory standards for quality and security. For many U.S. government command and control centers, installers and operators need to hold a security clearance.
2. Emergency operations centers.
State and local government agencies use command and control centers to coordinate their responses to events such as hurricanes, floods, forest fires, terrorist attacks, or mass shootings. The kind of command and control center these organizations need can vary depending on the size and population of covered areas. City or county governments covering densely populated areas or vital resources may need a large, state-of-the-art facility while a small city or county may need a scaled-down, simple room from which to coordinate public works, the city manager, police, and firefighters.
3. Federal agencies.
The National Institutes of Health, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Centers for Disease Control are examples of agencies that each require a strategic command center to manage their responses to outbreaks that fall within their respective areas.
Large private enterprises rely on an operations command center for all IT or network resources in order to keep an eye on the entire scope of their IT infrastructure. A command center can also be constructed to equip corporate staff at newsworthy companies to monitor relevant news feeds, social media accounts, and other information resources in real time. Command and control centers can serve as the place for security and surveillance monitoring for companies operating from a large campus. In fact, corporations often build three different command centers, one for IT, one for marketing, and one for security. Rarely, do all these teams operate from a single location.
5. Energy and utilities organizations.
Oil, gas, and power companies need command and control centers from which to watch their resources, maintain safe operating conditions and respond to emergencies. Multistate energy companies also use them to keep transportation, community, and regulatory commissions aware of their work. A command and control center can create a varied communications network that improves efficiency and creates a seamless emergency response.
Trams, airlines, buses, trains, and other mass public transportation organizations use command and control centers to increase operational efficiencies and minimize the risk of hazards by enhancing fast communication between hubs. These centers can enhance safety and save transportation companies money by centralizing communication operations that may be spread across thousands of miles of infrastructure.
Factories, both offshore and onshore, need command and control centers to monitor industrial processes.
What Kind of Command and Control Center Do You Need?
To determine the right command and control center for your operation, start by identifying what resources you need to coordinate. For example, a city could do a simple headcount of how many agencies would need to be in the room at the same time. Then, they figure out the number of people each of the participating agencies needs at the command center, and do the math. Using this process will give you a rough estimate of the size your command and control center needs to be.
Once you’ve established capacity and people flow, consider what pieces of information you need to monitor such as cameras, data, tv feeds, radio communications, phone calls, or maps of a town or power grid. This second step lets you determine what technology and furnishings your command and control center needs to be fully equipped. To do this, you’ll have to sort through what you need to monitor and coordinate.
From there, consider the space available. For instance, are you building a command and control center from the ground up, or are you modifying an existing space? You’ll also need to think about your budget for the project. Using a discovery exercise, you can determine how to design what you need within the space and budget available.
Do I need more than one command and control center?
Typically, a small city, county, or regional energy company could get away with maintaining a lean command and control center. If most of your work is monitoring the news and social media, then the application would not need to be big. Large government entities, utility companies, and the military, by contrast, typically require large complexes to cope with monitoring and coordinating complex events.
When deciding the size center you need, consider the number of people in it and the number of things you are controlling or monitoring. A center can be as small as a single 98-inch monitor hung on the wall with a video processor to receive 4-6 feeds and a few workstations, with phones and PC’s.That kind of setup may start around $20,000.
For a larger system, you could with a 64-monitor video wall with 55-inch screens in a 16-across-and-4-down-arrangement. Or even bigger.
Check out Planar’s interactive Video Wall Calculator to help plan and design your command center’s video wall
What should I know about construction?
Command and control centers are flexible. They only need enough space for your team, command center furnishings and workstations, IT/communications equipment, and the display technology to do the work required.
That means maintaining adequate space for all participants to view a giant monitor or video wall along with the ability to break down into smaller working groups. If physical space is a serious limitation, you can try using large format displays, projection or a small video wall.
If you are building your command and control center from the ground up, you need to consider both the size of the display area and the number of workstations and operators using the facility. Often, you’ll require a a main command center area plus back rooms for meeting and support spaces.
How do I equip my command and control center?
Information flow and distribution through voice, video, and data into and throughout the center is vital to the success of any command and control environment. That’s the starting point for determining what equipment you need (and in which configuration you need it) to accomplish your mission.
Let’s start with visual information. Often, a video wall serves as the primary means for all operators to view the video and data coming into the command center. Therefore, choosing the right video wall depends on many variables, including the room’s layout, wall space, total number and types of input sources, number of input sources to be viewed simultaneously, viewing distance, and viewing configurations. This information helps a qualified audio visual integrator determine technical things like viewing shape, aspect ratio, pixel density, and a myriad of other details needed to spec out the proper display wall configuration and video wall processing and control equipment.
Next, you’ll need to determine what type of communications will flow into and out of the command and control center such as police/fire band radio, military or other governmental agency radio, VOIP/POTS phone, satellite communications, or interactive video conferencing. You also want to know whether or not you need to cross connect or provide interoperability between any of these means of communications. Determining which operators can hear what and who can speak to whom further complicates the scenario. Does an operator need to toggle between being heard by all, by some, or by one? Knowing this data equips a qualified integrator to determine the proper equipment and configurations needed to provide the functionality your command and control center requires.
Consider what you are monitoring, how many people are monitoring those things, and the size of the room.
Look at all the different processes and streams happening in your center to determine the software you need. You may require software for a phone system to help with call queueing and routing, or you might need to find a program that will manage phone and radio simultaneously so police and firefighters on radios can communicate with public works employees using phones. Then, there’s incident management software that may help your team work more effectively and efficiently. You can also explore backbone software providers for incident management software.
As you’re outfitting your command and control center, don’t forget to take into account practical issues like ergonomics and proximity. Certain people in the room will need to see certain things so the screens have to be affixed and positioned to honor that need. Groups that collaborate need to sit in an order that lets them all see the same things and communicate with each other efficiently and comfortably. Team members might also want to put their hands over their headsets and say something offline, meaning your center needs to be comfortable and convenient for each operator to work at maximum capacity. Factors like preventing obstructed views, proper viewing angles, seat height, screen height, room lighting, and temperature control are all important ergonomic and architectural design considerations.
When Applied Global Technologies (AGT) led a comprehensive design study for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), stakeholders from four different teams worked together to define the project requirements. Over a year and a half, AGT’s integration team used the developed project requirements to effectively design, equip and integrate the technology for the command center. The DoD upgraded and completely modernized the command center, enabling enhanced and reliable operation of the command center.
Who should project manage my command and control center’s design?
Often a full committee with representation from various stakeholders needs input into designing, constructing, and furnishing a command and control center. These stakeholders often include internal resources such as the command center operators, supervisors, and emergency managers. External resources such as a general contractor, architect, interior designer, and IT/AV integrator. Depending on the center’s purpose, the internal project manager could be the city manager or a designee, the fire chief, or the military commander responsible for the center on base. Whoever leads the team needs to develop a process that determines the command and control center’s ideal output and how staff can coordinate activities within the facility.
How do I handle maintenance and repair issues?
Due to their sensitive and critical nature, command and control centers must maintain 100% uptime especially during planned exercises and real-world operations. Developing and implementing a program for maintenance, support, and repair helps ensure the center maintains the required uptime and optimal performance.
Maintenance, support, and repair involves developing and carrying out standard operating procedures, specific maintenance requirements, and regular preventative maintenance. Sometimes a command and control center has to take a planned outage to move, upgrade, or make other changes. If you have a backup command center, you can typically take your primary command center completely offline during the maintenance period. This planned failover to the backup command center provides an opportunity to fully test the operation of the backup command center. If you don’t have a backup or alternate command center, you have to be prepared to bring your primary command center back on line quickly in case of an actual emergency.
It’s important to choose an integrator with the situational understanding and operational experience to work in a command and control environment.
Choosing the right command and control center
AGT relies on these strategic partners to plan and implement successful command and control centers for our clients: