March 15, 2024

RMF's Stephen Devon Published in Commercial Construction & Renovation

A previous version of the article below appeared in Issue 2, 2024 (page 123) of Commercial Construction & Renovation. To learn more about Commercial Construction & Renovation, please visit the website

Into the Triangle

Creating a modern and sustainable emergency operation system

By: Stephen Devon PE, LEED AP, CxA

Chatham County, North Carolina has quickly become one of the fastest growing regions in the state, tracking steady population increases every year for the last 12. Seated at the heart of the Research Triangle, Chatham County long served as a quiet suburb, but its proximity to outdoor recreation and urban amenities has created a consistent draw for transplants particularly in the last few years. From 2019 to 2020, alone, the population grew by 3% and county officials estimate those numbers to double from 76,285 to 152,570 residents by the year 2035.

This rapid and substantial jump in population has prompted immediate and strategic responses from local authorities, who have been quick to recognize the urgent need to fortify essential infrastructure such as roads, schools, and hospitals to accommodate and prepare for the influx of new residents. This proactive approach aims to ensure that the county's development aligns seamlessly with its new population. As part of these essential improvements, RMF Engineering, in collaboration with SCHRADERGROUP, was responsible for Chatham County's new Emergency Operations Center (EOC), a state-of-the-art, new construction facility designed to centralize emergency services and enhance the county's response reach in a crisis.

RMF provided comprehensive mechanical, electrical, and plumbing solutions for the new center, bringing expertise in energy management, HVAC, lighting, security, fire protection, and access control engineering. Leveraging its experience in complex utility generation, storage, and distribution projects, RMF also designed an extensive duct bank system to support the new EOC's IT demands, working with local utility provider, Duke Energy, for electrical power provision and communications cabling to the site.

The Design

Located on a purpose-bought site intended to consolidate Chatham County's municipal buildings, the cutting-edge, new facility integrates the operations of the county’s Emergency Management and Emergency Communications Agencies, providing dedicated spaces for briefings, call center operations, training, and essential amenities.

SCHRADERGROUP's modern and sleek architectural design focused equally on the important job of the center to serve Chatham County in times of crisis and on the wellbeing of its staff. Recognizing the considerable amount of time EOC personnel spend indoors, often seated at computer screens for the majority of their workdays, SCHRADERGROUP's design incorporated expansive aluminum windows positioned around the building to capture as much natural light as possible. The layout prioritized well-lit hallways, inviting break rooms, and quiet spaces, enhancing the aesthetic appeal of the facility while underscoring the critical importance of its staff being as well cared for as the community.

RMF collaborated closely with SCHRADERGROUP to ensure the resilience of the center––which must withstand the rigors of extreme weather conditions and natural disasters, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, lightning strikes, and snow and ice storms. The team worked together through multiple layers of redundancies for its utilities, as well as its technology and data infrastructure, to appropriately plan and size the architecture for the equipment that would be required to support both its primary and backup mechanical, electrical, and distribution systems. The resulting site included both a main building and an ancillary structure, designed to house emergency supplies, vehicles, and equipment.

The program was organized such that the ancillary building and a portion of the office spaces are rated for winds up to 200 miles per hour, while the heart of the EOC––the IT room and Operations Center––is hardened to withstand even greater wind speeds to protect its most critical infrastructure. Consequently, the design ensures that no matter the emergency, Chatham County's new EOC will remain online and fully functional in service to its residents.

Flexible Redundancy

RMF's design for the building's MEP systems not only accounted for day-to-day maintenance and emergency operations, but also for Chatham County's future growth needs. To ensure the facility remains operational in the face of the most severe weather events, RMF worked with Duke Energy to bring multiple feeders to the site, allowing the building to be served from a back-up if one experiences an outage. Backup power is supported by a standby diesel generator and docking station, guaranteeing uninterrupted functionality. From there, the distribution system was divided and tied to a manual bypass transfer switch to allow the operations and IT areas to run independently from support spaces.

RMF's design for the uninterruptible power supply, or UPS, system for the IT room and Operations Center required close coordination with IT consultants to “right-size” the battery back-up based on the power and raceway demands. RMF also incorporated battery powered lighting, which activate instantaneously during an outage. Generators and other large backup systems can take up to 10 seconds to restore lighting, which can feel like a long time to occupants if a space goes completely dark. These battery fail-safes give the building a critical edge in responding to an emergency situation.

Each system is tied back to a grounding system that is also connected to a lightning protection system to shield the building from the effect of a strike and diminish any damage should one occur.

Providing further flexibility for the future, RMF and SCHRADERGROUP collaborated closely during the initial planning phases to allow for just enough space within the architecture to house the necessary mechanical equipment and accommodate projected growth expectations. This strategy ensures that the center is able to evolve alongside changing demographics, code updates, the introduction of new technologies, and the like.

Through these collaborative efforts, RMF Engineering and SCHRADERGROUP delivered a groundbreaking new Emergency Operations Center for Chatham County. The innovative design––which equally considers resilience, agility, wellbeing, and future expansion––stands as a testament to their collective dedication and forward-thinking approach to serving the community's needs into the future, setting a new standard in the realm of emergency response initiatives.