March 2010

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The How and Why of Operations Centers in Smart Buildings
The objective of an operations center is to enable and enhance the capabilities of the staff and overall operations.

Jim Sinopoli PE, RCDD, LEED AP
Managing Principal,
Smart Buildings LLC

Contributing Editor

Have you ever been in an operations center that essentially was a couple of desks and a few LCD displays hanging on the wall? We’ve all seen this design and while it may work to some extent it usually isn’t all of what an operations center should be. But providing new displays for technicians without addressing the underlying processes, tasks, use and presentation of data or information and so forth, is analogous to getting a new paint job on an old car – it’s not going to change how the car operates. The objective of an operations center is to enable and enhance the capabilities of the staff and overall operations; also deploying an operations center requires a deeper analysis of organizational goals, tasks, processes, ergonomics, environment and supporting technology. What follows is a guide to some of the aspects of an operation center that need to be considered.

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At the top of the list of benefits of an operations center is the capability of operators and technicians having a comprehensive and common image of events or a situation. The common operating picture among operators breeds communications, collaboration and often some degree of cross-training and workforce flexibility among the operators. If you have building technology systems that are integrated and interacting, this collaborative and holistic understanding of how the total building is performing is critical to managing the building.

The operations centerThe operations center is where technicians, engineers and management monitor, manage and troubleshoot issues. The operations center monitors building performance, systems configurations, policy implementation, scheduling, report generation and documentation.

At the heart of an operations center are the “human factors”. “Human factors” sounds like some mushy soft science, but it is a well-recognized scientific discipline called human factor engineering. It is utilized to address the environmental design of an operations center, ergonomics, reengineering of operational processes, and the human interface to the technology. There is a tendency to focus on the technology in the operations center rather than the human factors (who isn’t wowed by a video wall of high-def plasma displays?), however, the focus on the bells and whistles misses the underlying premise that technology is simply an enabler, and should be used to change the behavior and operations of the people using it.

Why an Operations Center?
We always start with the premise that improved management of buildings requires improved monitoring of the building and building systems. One gathers data on the building through sensors, meters, surveys and other means. This exponentially increases the volume of data available to building and facility managers. However, additional data does not necessarily provide “actionable information” that will result in improved operational performance. The continuing question is how to convert data into meaningful information that is contextual and actionable. The operations center is that environment where meaningful information can be extracted and presented to produce a high level of situational awareness, align related work processes, minimize workload and errors, enhance task performance and provide information and reporting tools required to manage the buildings operations.

Reliable Controls Considerations for an Operations Center
Here are some of the factors to be addressed in considering and designing an operations center:

Determine The Purpose Of The Operations Center - The deployment of an operations center is a business decision based on the organization's strategic and tactical goals. Answer the questions “What’s the mission?”; “What needs to be monitored and managed?”; and “What’s important and critical to the organization?” Identify which departments or technicians need to be involved to monitor data and manage situations, and whether that involvement is normal working hours, 24 by 7 or just during critical situations. Set standards for how data will be transmitted into the operation center and standards for “situational awareness” for each type of event or alarm.

Assess Operator Needs – An operations center is the brain of the organization and therefore, many departments or groups must collaborate to bring about a cohesive picture. It is important to perform a requirements assessment of each group or individual involved in or responsible for the success of the operations center. This may include executive stakeholders, department leaders and the operators whether managing 24/7 or during crisis events. The expectations and requirements of each will be different on how the operation center will function and be managed. The need for technology, space and access to information will also differ. This programming process is similar to the typical architectural or engineering design process. Assessing these needs will contribute significantly to the overall physical design of the center as well as its technology and system needs.

Estimate The Space Requirements - Determine the general required functions in the operations centers. This may include spaces for monitoring stations, observers, meeting rooms for planning and management, restrooms, kitchen, equipment rooms, etc.

Pick A Location And Space - The criticality of an operations center requires a secure location with an infrastructure similar to a data center – access control, generator, UPS, alternate back-up site, etc. Identify the estimated size required for operations center and allow for some means of expansion in the future.

Analyze And Design Tasks And User Profiles – Determine the functional interactions of different operators in the center and their relationship for communications and collaboration. Analyze operator tasks, workload and user needs. Identify which tasks could be automated or improved through a re-engineering. Develop an organizational chart for the operations center. Create metrics to measure the effectiveness and efficiency of operator tasks and periodically review the plan to measure performance and determine if adjustments are warranted. Part of the exercise is to determine how information needs to be presented to the operator and how it should be processed and changed by the operator.

Environmental Design – This involves the lighting, the acoustics or noise levels and the thermal comfort or HVAC systems. All of these components greatly affect an operator’s performance. An example is lighting where a poor lighting design can have adverse impact on performance and health. Lighting in the operations center has to have the right intensity and even the right color spectrum associated for the operational tasks performed. Indoor temperature and relative humidity can also affect performance. Acoustic issues can cause distraction, stress, and interference with telephone conversations and normal work routines. Solutions may include acoustic ceilings or sound absorbing surfaces. Operations centers will typically needs spaces for private conversations, such as discussions on classified or personnel matters. HVAC and mechanical equipment rooms adjacent to the operations center may also create noise.

Equipment Design – Ergonomics is about fitting the operator’s workplace to the operator. While it considers the tasks, activity and work processes and requirements of the operator, it also focuses on the physical environment: the desk, chair, viewing angle of displays, keyboards and other physical devices used by an operator. The size, shape and suitability of the equipment are evaluated for the tasks and requirements of the operator.

IT and AV Infrastructure - The criticality of the operations center demands reliability and robustness in the communications and information systems. These are secured collaborative systems for voice, data and video and are required to be standards-based and interoperable. Because of rapid changes in technology they also must be upgradeable, primarily addressed through the physical network infrastructure such as the size of equipment rooms and the quality and layout of the cable systems.

The density of the IT and AV equipment in an operations center also means there needs to be consideration given to reducing the footprint of the equipment. It sounds counter-intuitive – the operations center has a lot of equipment but the equipment should take up as little space as possible. This could be accomplished through the use of approaches such as server virtualization and thin clients.

Interface

It is the human-machine interface (HMI), in this case the operator’s interface to the IT and AV systems, that will have the largest impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of the operations center. How information will be presented to operators (and the presentation may be different for operators with different functions) will determine how it is analyzed, processed and acted on. It will affect how issues are prioritized, the confidence an operator may have in the information and the time needed to act on the information.

For those of us primarily involved with the technical aspects of building automation, security systems and IT the human factors that require consideration in not only the conception of an operations center but the design of the operation process may seem a bit foreign. Smart Buildings has complemented its core engineering and consulting services by teaming with Human Centered Solutions (HCS) (www.applyhcs.com) to provide expertise and experience in human factor engineering. HCS applies human factors principles and human-centered design methodologies to optimize the interactions between people, systems, work processes and technology. They are the “brainiacs” that deal with aspects of human performance such as perceptual and cognitive abilities and physiological constraints.

Buildings should be designed based on how we want the building to operate. Operation expenses represent the majority of costs over the lifecycle of a building. The operations center is the embodiment of how we gather building data, convert the data to information and use the information to effectively and efficiently manage the building and its operational costs and challenges. If you don’t have an operations center you need to be thinking of one.

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