Concepts in Next-Generation PSAP Furniture
by Michael Wright, Watson Furniture
Originally published in our Jan/Feb 2004 issue.
Although many dispatchers prefer working in dimly lit atmospheres, when it comes to the overall quality and features of their workstations, the future is exceedingly bright. New levels of solidity, flexibility, and user control are now being introduced by leading console furniture suppliers – all to the benefit of emergency communications professionals patrolling the stressful front lines of public interface.
Following is a survey of the major elements of emergency communications furniture design, with a listing of some of the most pressing issues and solutions making their way into dispatch centers across the US.
The bar for ergonomic safety is constantly rising as agencies continue to seek ways to reduce injuries and increase employee comfort. ADA, OSHA, and ANSI regulations provide minimum requirements but were developed for general office environments and don’t begin to address the challenges of high-stress, high-technology emergency communications environments. Continuing introduction of new equipment and technology, from radio to CAD to mapping and more, creates new safety challenges, as does the proliferation of interface devices, from keyboards to mice, to recorders and environmental controls.
Electrically powered height adjustment, for both primary surfaces and input platforms, has become a standard in the industry. True sit-to-stand stations allow dispatchers to easily shift postures throughout their shifts to avoid repetitive stress – a critical consideration, according to experts. “The only correct ergonomic posture is your next posture,” says Dr. Henry Romero, Certified Professional Ergonomist and industry consultant. “What that means is that you want to avoid staying in any one position for more than an hour. That puts a real premium on adjustable sit-to-stand workstations with input platforms that accommodate the needed tilt depending on user positioning.”
Advanced lighting approaches, easily adjustable monitor arms (for flat panel technology), and new concepts in seating are opening additional new avenues for avoiding injuries in this challenging environment.
Technologies that increase the efficiency and capabilities of public safety communications are constantly growing in complexity. The rapid pace of change is likely to result in a need for today’s console furniture to support two or more generations of technology during its expected lifespan. This challenge is amplified by increasing space constraints within centers and individual consoles.
Manufacturers’ solutions begin with flexible designs and space planning expertise augmented by new capabilities for accessing technologies, from the back, front, or sides of consoles, according to architectural or procedural requirements. The adaptability of new furniture designs allows for the reconfiguration of monitors, rack-mounted equipment, CPUs, and other equipment by building in multiple access points, storage space, and wiring routes.
Highly efficient and well-conceived wire management capabilities are acutely lacking in most of today’s console furniture for public safety. Building in adequate capacity and accessibility is a significant challenge due to the large and growing spider web of cables used on any console, further complicated by the need to accommodate constantly moving primary and input device platforms.
New solutions being introduced with the latest designs include centralized utility points, surface and input device management, vertical interconnect channels, and cavity distribution and routing.
One element that is too often underestimated by manufacturers and procuring agencies is the strength and durability of furniture that will be subjected to the rigorous 24-7 communication center environment. Communication console lifecycles average eight years encompassing 8,760 hours of use per year, or the equivalent of 24 years in a normal office environment. Existing durability standards like BIFMA are based on far lower levels of use and have little bearing on how dispatch consoles will hold up – particularly considering the frequency of height adjustment, density and uneven distribution of loads, and occasional abuse these consoles are expected to withstand.
The primary solution to these challenges is rigorous environmental testing by manufacturers on all products being introduced to the market. The latest advance in structural integrity is the introduction of unified frame construction, which creates unprecedented rigidity and results in the additional benefit of dramatically increased storage capacity and leg clearance beneath the work surface. Additional durability elements include solid-core wall construction and castered support of technology access platforms.
Console Management (Personal Comfort)
While individual user control of the console environment has long been a primary driver in dispatch console design, few significant changes have been introduced in this arena in recent years. In 2004 however, a new generation of console management technology is finally emerging.
Major aspects of console management include lighting, ventilation, and heating control, height adjustment, and energy management. In the past, regardless of the furniture supplier they chose, procuring agencies had extremely limited options in these areas, and even less flexibility after the original purchase.
Fixed-position air vents offered limited airflow and no ability to be re-positioned or expanded as surface equipment and technologies changed. Lighting and heating controls also were fixed and limited, and adjustment/control devices were spread in inconvenient, fixed locations across the console.
The new generation of integrated console management technology provides positionable (relocatable) air delivery units that can be scaled in quantity as needs change, increased lighting and heating control options, and a user-positioned single point of control for all comfort adjustment devices. Other advances include a one-touch up/down capability for wheelchair access and IT convenience, and improved user-sensing technology for more efficient energy management.
Console Organization (Storage)
Another new frontier on the horizon for dispatch furniture consists of components designed to clear the distracting clutter that finds its way into critical sightlines and manual reach zones. Recent analysis reveals personal, shared, and technology zones that need to be addressed to improve the efficiency and comfort of communications professionals.
One leading solution to this issue involves full-height off-station storage cabinets dimensioned for positioning adjacent to primary consoles. These units are designed to accommodate CPUs and other below-surface technologies, shared material such as binders, SOPs, files, and maps, and personal items such as beverages, food, and clothing.
Another trend in furnishing emergency communication facilities is the ability of more versatile manufacturers to supply additional types of components for other segments of the building. These segments include such areas as conference rooms, administrative offices, private offices, and emergency operation centers.
Advantages to this approach include an extended relationship with trusted vendors who understand the needs of such facilities, the ability to coordinate design and finish elements, and possible economic benefits associated with reducing the number of suppliers, consolidating shipments, and simplifying installation and service issues.
The emergency communications furniture industry continues to evolve in response to changing needs and new technologies. New concepts on the drawing board include specialized designs for flat-panel monitors (creating new ergonomic and footprint benefits), depth adjustment capabilities for touch-screen monitors, modified work surface depths, and modular extensions for additional work surface and storage capacity.
Regardless of the coming changes in furniture designs, the baseline objectives remain the same: improving user comfort and control, reducing injuries and employee turnover, and improving dispatcher and communication center efficiency.
A growing number of procurements involve requirements or preferences concerning environmentally sound materials and business practices. While the impact of these requirements varies widely from project to project, the general trend is toward manufacturers with superior commitments to environmental stewardship.
Key elements of concern include the ability to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) criteria set forth by the US Green Building Council, the use of recycled and recyclable materials (steel, aluminum, woods, fabrics, etc.), reduced or eliminated use of hazardous materials in the manufacturing process, recycling and energy management practices, and reduced emissions from fielded components.
Funding Realities and Opportunities
Well-designed and solidly built furniture for public safety environments requires a significantly greater investment than general office furnishings because consoles and other components are required to perform under exceedingly demanding circumstances and must support uniquely specialized technology and application requirements.
In the final analysis, however, the furniture portion of most dispatch facility upgrade projects represents less than five percent of the overall investment. For a new center, with construction costs included, the furniture allocation shrinks to far below one percent.
Yet the performance of the furniture has a major impact on the success of a facility. The consoles are required to efficiently support a broad array of communications technology – over an average lifespan of nearly a decade. More importantly, the furniture must ensure the comfort and safety of valuable, highly trained emergency communications personnel who are difficult and costly to replace.
Fortunately, facility planners and funding agencies understand the crucial nature of this investment. And in the current era of Homeland Security and Protection, an unprecedented array of funding opportunities is available. Peter Hambuch, a strategic business manager at Motorola who works with public safety customers on federal grants and funding, provides information on literally billions of dollars in near-term federal grants and appropriations. “A high percentage of these first responder and critical infrastructure grants goes to local agencies. It’s imperative that agencies understand where the programs are, and how to apply for the funds.”
Furnishings for emergency communications centers are evolving along with the industry, providing new levels of safety, quality, technology integration, and user control. The best suppliers are providing new solutions that improve the efficiency of communications and the comfort of communicators. With increased national focus on first response issues and a broad range of new funding opportunities on the horizon, a new era for public safety facilities has begun.
Michael Wright is Vice President of Watson Dispatch, which has been involved in designing, developing, and marketing innovative specialized furniture for the emergency response market since 1986. Watson has provided consoles for more than 1000 communications centers across the nation.
Note: The information in this article is the result of preparation for and discussion during the 2004 Indian Summer Symposium, hosted by Watson Dispatch. The symposium was forum for major suppliers, consultants and other experts aimed at identifying and guiding significant trends in the public safety industry.