November 2008
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Buildings, Emergency Response, Energy, and Situation Awareness

The NG911 system, or Next Generation 911 supports better interaction.
Even buildings, and building systems, might act as 911 operators.

Toby Considine
Toby Considine
Systems Specialist,
Facility Services, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
The New Daedalus

Contributing Editor

Last month, twenty of us met at NIST to discuss situation awareness during emergencies. The centerpiece of the conversation was the NG911 system, or Next Generation 911. NG911 supports better interaction between call centers, and uses policy-based security to let other local call centers, or even centers in other regions take calls as circumstances and policy require. Private call centers, run by alarm services, can be full peers if local policy allows. Even buildings, and building systems, might act as 911 operators. The conveners asked me to lead an effort to develop a security model for these systems.

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Interoperability at this level requires standardization of security, of policy management, and even of building semantics. 911 centers will accept even the most basic calls, the narrative that includes the confused description of flames from a building from the confused homeless person without a proper address. Such calls require further guess work and human attention before they can be dispatched. Without standards, other calls are no better once they hit the system.

During a major disaster, the local 911 center may be swamped, or even destroyed. The communication lines to the 911 center may be cut off. When NG911 is deployed, calls to 911 can be automatically re-routed to nearby call centers, which will be able to dispatch calls to first responders just as does the local center. If the operator captures all information accurately, and the local policy permits, the NG911 can dispatch the call irrespective of the originating operator’s location. Key elements include the type of emergency, the full address of the emergency, and the geo-location of the emergency.

Private alarm monitoring companies originate many 911 calls. Alarms go off, monitoring systems are checked, owners and tenants are contacted, and, if appropriate, 911 is called. If local policy allows it, this call can go directly from the private alarm monitoring company’s dispatch system into the NG911 network, perhaps even into automatic dispatch; no critical time would be lost in re-entering data. With proper standards, this extra information can be shared through the NG911 system.

Intelligent buildings, in concept, can initiate their own 911 calls. They have the advantage over the indigent of knowing their own address and geo-location. They may know what type of emergency is underway, and where in the building the problem occurred. With standards, they can supply the supporting detail very well; they may have to strain to provide the basic narrative.

NG-911 envisions the operator able to call back the initiator, to get more detail. Buildings do not always answer the phone. Call operators could access the building systems directly, but understanding building control systems is not in the normal skill set for hiring dispatchers. There must be standard ways for the information to be made more useful and accessible. There must be standards for visualizing the information. Tag standards are not enough to pull this information into focus.

Whichever site the responder comes to, he wants the same sort of information, presented in the same way. Whoever comes to the site wants access in the same way. This access may be as simple as floor plans or intimate as access to video surveillance. The responder may want to understand what the building systems are telling him and use them to clear smoke from the 4th floor or to shut off additional air. The responder may want to find where hazardous material is stored, or even the last known location of building occupants. Making this information and control simple and easy to access, no matter what brand of system in the building, will require abstraction, standards, and service oriented architectures in the building.

Reliable Controls Building owners need to have a way to control what is presented. In a full blaze, all building information may be available. During a police call, the building may share only the video feeds on the 3rd floor; access to the 4th floor, however access to the images from the day before, require a warrant. These interactions require careful service definitions, security interactions, and policy. In normal times, the building owner cannot accept passers-by able to see and interact within the building. If security is situation awareness, the call originator must understand the situation and get permission to share.

If the call originator is the building, the owner must be able apply rules and policies to how information is shared. For a security framework to accept policy, there must be standards for what systems do, and for where they are. Access to the video surveillance network for the third floor during an incident does not warrant access on other floors or to archives from the day before.

Awareness of the person accessing these systems will include federated identity management, as it might include the 911 operator, the local police, and even the fire department from the next town over.

The requirements for creating those semantic standards are similar to those needed for transactive energy management. Owners need to understand the effects responding to energy price signals will have on the quality of business service they provide to tenants. Is it worthwhile to accept $500 if you must respond to six tenant complaints? Which tenants and which business processes will be affected?

These standards will rely on descriptive information found in building information models (BIMs) such as NBIMS and buildingSmart. There must be standards-based methods to map building structures and building systems to business rules. There will be a lightweight BIM, small enough and light enough that a handheld device, say an iPhone in the incident commanders hand, and receiving information over the wireless from the Starbucks across the street, can process and display.

We expect a framework for this, a framework for policy and security, by January. We have a good group working on this, but this type of work needs many different perspectives. Drop me a line, and let me know what you think are the challenges.  Toby.Considine@gmail.com

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