The NOAA Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center, operated by the Office of Response and Restoration, is a multi-purpose facility located in Mobile, Alabama, which serves NOAA and our partners to enhance preparedness for and support response to all hazards. Established in 2012, the center is strategically equipped with office space, a large space for emergency operations or training events, conference rooms, break out rooms, a lactation room, showers, a loading dock/receiving area, and boat barn. These spaces are built to withstand up to Category 5 hurricane winds and are wired to maintain internet access and power during and after a disaster.
In 2020, the facility was put to good use when hurricanes Sally and Zeta impacted the Alabama coast. While the center didn’t sustain any damage, there were still needed improvements to ensure the facility continues to provide comfort, safety and functionality to occupants while also being environmentally and energy friendly.
Preventing Bird Mortality
The first major change visitors will notice when they visit the Disaster Response Center is the appearance of the windows, which have a subtle gray trellis pattern. This is the new bird strike prevention film, which was added to prevent accidental bird strikes with the federally required mirrored windows surrounding the facility. The birds see vegetation, sky, or themselves reflected in the glass and occasionally fly into the windows/doors. Many of the birds that have hit the windows recover and survive, but some do not. This film is intended to break up the reflections and thereby reduce the incidence of birds flying into the glass. We are hoping for a mortality free migration this spring!
Visitors often use our Emergency Operations Center for meetings and training events. It is the largest space in the facility. To save energy, this space is only heated/cooled when the room is in use. As you can imagine, it takes a long while to adequately cool a room that size in the middle of summer when we are getting temperatures in the upper 90s. To help cool the room, we have installed large ceiling fans which are capable of circulating air with enough strength to blow papers off every desk in the room. Moving air will help distribute the chilled air conditioning and make the large space feel cooler. It may also reduce the need for additional cooling to achieve comfortable conditions. And in the event that our HVAC isn’t working properly, we can use the fans as a backup system.
The Video Wall
The central feature in the Emergency Operations Center is the large video wall. This wall is composed of several LED monitors that can be configured in different ways to display a variety of content, including live cable feeds, powerpoint presentations, and webinars. The original video wall was definitely showing its age in 2020, with one of the center monitors noticeably darker than all the others. And since the monitors were purchased in 2010, they were no longer available for a simple replacement. In addition, the software that controlled the video wall was proprietary, which limited our ability to make changes or repairs. A new contract was secured to replace the existing video wall with all new components and software. The new video wall still consists of several LED monitors, but it is larger and is now controlled by open source software (which we can change) and three iPads (rather than a single touch screen). All of the new monitors are bright and clear, and are ready for use in an emergency and as soon as trainings and meetings can safely resume.
Another improvement which may add to user comfort is the addition of privacy doors in the public facing bathroom. This bathroom has an unusual design since it also doubles as the tornado shelter for the facility. The walls are constructed of steel reinforced concrete and the room is like a vault. There is a common entry area into the restroom, which has an opening at each end to enter the men’s or women’s toilet area. This design left little privacy. We have added some new privacy doors at the entry points for the toilet areas to increase privacy.
This brings me to some work that can’t be seen, but should have a major impact on the facility. First, we had a performance assessment of our HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system done by an independent air conditioning contractor. This assessment generated a report that will allow us to plan for repairs and improvements to our HVAC system since it provides a lifespan, identification of problems, and estimated costs for each major component. But perhaps the most important improvement to the facility will be invisible to everyone since it will be located inside our air ducts. We are installing a UV purification system in February 2021. This will help sanitize the air inside the facility. While it isn’t a solution to all of the risk posed during the pandemic, it is an additional safety measure that we are taking to help further reduce the risk for people in the facility.
Improved Access to the Facility
The last improvement that has been made this year was the construction of a gravel driveway connection from the Disaster Response Center to our neighbor, the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency. The entrance to the center looks quite different lately due to a city road expansion project in front of the facility. Between this ongoing construction work and the occasional wreck on the road in front of the office, our driveway has sometimes been blocked. To provide an alternate emergency ingress/egress route, this gravel driveway connection will allow visitors access to two driveways. The center will be operational during and after disasters, and now we can provide access to the facility even if our driveway is blocked/unavailable. To reduce the environmental impact of this project, we decided to construct with gravel to mitigate impacts to hydrology/stormwater flow. The permeable surface will prevent runoff, and had a lower environmental impact during construction.
The Disaster Response Center is a NOAA owned and managed facility, so this has allowed us to ensure that the facility will meet our mission needs as we grow and evolve. The improvements may be a lot of work, but the effort is all worthwhile if the facility is used and appreciated by its occupants and visitors. We look forward to a return to normal operations, but will continue to support NOAA and our partners for whatever comes our way.