During an emergency, it’s imperative that 911 dispatchers swiftly answer calls. So when New York City’s emergency command center in one of the World Trade Center buildings collapsed as a result of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, lawmakers assessed how they could make the system more resilient in the face of disaster. Enter the Public Safety Answering Center II, the city’s newest emergency call center and what’s perhaps the strongest and safest building in all five New York City boroughs.
Completed in summer 2016 and designed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill, the call center was engineered to be virtually impenetrable. Located in the Bronx, it’s in a far-flung part of the city far away from terrorism targets. The structure is meant to be bulletproof, blast-proof, toxic gas-proof (aka air-tight), tamper-proof, and flood-proof. It has enough water, generator power, and food on hand for the 400 or so people who work there to be self-sufficient for at least three days. But on the outside, you could never tell that it’s essentially a fortress. If the apocalypse comes, this is where you’d want to hole up.
Through a series of slick design moves, the architects managed to disguise the defensive details that make the PSAC II one of the most resilient buildings in the city. A grass-covered berm surrounding the building is actually an anti-ram device. Security to enter the building is located in a glass pavilion separated from the main structure by blast doors–heavy duty doors that resist explosions. In a similar vein, the loading dock is also separate from the building. The concrete walls are 14 inches thick and the few windows that the building has are six inches thick, which makes it harder for explosives or bullets to penetrate the facade. All of the electrical and ventilation machinery is located on higher floors so that flooding won’t knock the systems out. But the outside is rendered in a pleated aluminum skin–almost like a shimmering sculpture.
“It evolved out of an idea of camouflage,” says architect Gary Haney, who borrowed security techniques he used in designing embassies, courthouses, and data centers. “All of this came together in an effective design technique that also disguises the size and blankness of the building.”
Because the building’s employees work 12-hour shifts and can’t leave during their breaks, the architects tried to make the interior as comfortable as possible. There’s warm wood, natural light, lounge space, and even a living wall–designed by SOM’s Center for Architecture Science & Ecology and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute–that purifies air. The call center itself is one large open space that looks a lot like a Wall Street trading floor, Haney tells me. (The building is so secure that SOM wasn’t able to release photographs of the call center or share precise details about how the interior is organized.) The other floors include a cafeteria, gym, offices, a training center, and conference rooms.
While no detail was overlooked in making sure the PSAC II could operate through every type of large-scale emergency, it’s not emblematic of most 911 call centers. The state of emergency call centers across the country is precarious, as they are largely underfunded, understaffed, and their location tracking technology isn’t up to date.
In the 2000s, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to improve New York’s outdated emergency call system with a $1.3 billion improvement plan. It ballooned to $2.2 billion and was 10 years late as a result of mismanagement according to a report from the city’s Department of Investigation. The price tag for the building? A whopping $880 million–about the same price as the Mets’ baseball stadium.
“I don’t know if it’s cost-effective for everybody, but certainly given the level of attention paid from the city’s government, the city feels this was worth it to them relative to their vulnerability,” Haney says.