May you live in interestiing times,” says an axiom that’s seen more use than ever lately. However, many of us might want to add, “Not too interesting.”
According to a report issued by the New England Journal of Medicine three years ago, since 1990 natural disasters, including earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, drought and wildfires, have affected about 217 million people every year. There were three times as many natural disasters from 2000 to 2009 compared to between 1980 and 1989, with vast majority — 80 percent — of this growth due to climate-related events.
Then there’s the uptick in mass shootings — the Seattle Times estimates that Americans experience more than one a day on average. All of these events are trip wires for the use of Emergency Operations Centers, or EOCs: facilities that can bring massive amounts of information, in the form of audio, video and data, into a central location; provide the ability for operators to process and vet that information; and allow analysts and commanders on the scene to confer with colleagues in the field and in other EOCs and generate tactics and strategies in response.
PHOTOS: AV Technology in Mission Critical Rooms
The EOC has been around for decades, in use in some form or another by federal, state, county and municipal governments; corporations; and educational and healthcare facilities. What’s changed in recent years is the frequency and intensity of the emergencies the EOCs need to respond to — this article was written in the days after 50 died in a massacre in an Orlando, Fla., nightclub in June and barely six months after a pair of shooters killed 22 people in San Bernardino, Calif., in December 2015.
In between, tornados ravaged part of the Midwest, while Houston was engulfed by floodwaters for over an entire month. There’s not a lot of good news there, but at least the EOCs have been getting some extra muscle lately.
Tech Advancements Become Critical
“Newer AV technology is helping emergency operations centers address urgent situations faster, by handling incoming information and letting operators process it faster and respond better,” says Mike Hancock, vice president of solutions for AV integrator Mechdyne Corp. He points to higher-resolution video imagery, coming in on faster, bigger data pipes and being displayed on bigger, brighter and more flexible video displays.
In addition, constantly improving software and motion-detection sensors help operators sift through oceans of data pouring in, necessary to help monitor the thousands of surveillance cameras that dot virtually every city in the country now.
“The software parameters are programmed to let operators know when and where to focus their attention,” Hancock says. “For example, if you have an area of monitoring that normally has human activity but has been flagged for no human activity — for example access has been restricted — and human activity is in the video, the software can flag and alert that the operator needs to pay attention to that camera feed.”
Continued development in image recognition and interpretation is needed to effectively use the available imagery. To some degree, EOC video monitoring is struggling to keep up with the torrent of information that is roaring into them: the pipes are fatter — 10GB over fiber is common at the upper echelons of EOCs today — but the array of sources, from government and commercial security cameras to iPhones in every other pocket, can be overwhelming, especially in the initial stages of an emergency.
In Hancock’s experience, video formats are a function of budgets more than anything else. Video walls composed of LCD panels are the least expensive, and while many dislike them because of the need for bezels, those edges continue to get thinner, creating a less-distracted visual image.
Another LCD drawback is that they may not be able to stand up to extended 24/7 operations before failure. (Although replacing a single display is relatively inexpensive, quick and simple.) Projection cubes cost more and also have seams but without bezels the images are close to seamless; RGB laser elements have made them brighter and more reliable.
The gold standard, however, visually and cost-wise, is the LED video wall, particularly those with extremely tight diode pitch below 2 millimeters. Video is increasingly being distributed over IP networks, using H.264 or JPEG 2000 (aka JP2 or J2K) compression codecs. This has allowed the use of IP-based software switching, using devices such as Cisco network switches, instead of dedicated video switchers to create source matrixes. Scalers are used to allocate multiple images across displays.
“Video is staying in the IP domain longer, over fiber and category cable, and only becoming an image once it hits the display,” Hancock explains. “The advantages of networked video are that it’s far more efficient and lets lots of sources be used. The infrastructure, over Cat or fiber cable, is easier and you use lots less cabling. And once you’re on the network, you get the benefit of being able to route one source to many [displays] or many to one.”