In October I reported the City of Portland was preparing to reveal its new Emergency Coordination Center (ECC). This building will be the command center for city managers in the event of a major disaster like a terrorist attack or a massive earthquake. And I got a look inside.

Last month—despite some of the less-than-flattering things I’ve written about them—the good folks at the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM) gave me a sneak peek tour of the ECC’s inner workings—and well before the official press conference this month, I might add.

Why this honor? I really don’t know. Regardless, here it is: Your look behind the zombie-proof walls and secure doors of Portland’s all-things-disaster command center.

Over the past few years, it’s safe to say I’ve become a little obsessed with researching the Cascadia subduction zone—the Northwest’s massive offshore fault, capable of spawning killer quakes of magnitude 9.0 or greater. My fascination is partly for the science, partly for the social dynamics of large disasters, and partly about infrastructure.

I can’t cross the Hawthorne Bridge without staring at the massive weights that lift its drawbridge, thinking to myself how they’ll take the whole bridge down with them once a large quake sets them swaying. Downtown has become a kind of minefield in my mind—potential piles of bricks, concrete, glass, and twisted steel. And I think about houses in my neighborhood shimmying off their foundations. (I can be a real downer at parties).

But the ECC is supposed to be different.

In the case of a major earthquake—like the Cascadia subduction zone “megathrust” quake scientists warn we could get any day now—the ECC could be the eye at the center of a storm of rubble. That’s because Portland’s buildings—from older brick and masonry to newer concrete and even some steel-framed skyscrapers—aren’t expected to fair well in a big quake. In other words: Portland will look more like Dresden after an Allied bombing. But, like I said, the ECC will (hopefully) be the exception to the rule.

The ECC has been designed according to the same high standards as hospitals and fire stations. The standard is called “Operational.” As the drawing I snagged from the Historic Preservation League of Oregon illustrates, think of this as a building with all its lights on and ready to be used. (Footnote One)

Image from the Historic Preservation League of Oregon
  • Image from the Historic Preservation League of Oregon

My ECC tour begins something like this: On a cold December day, I drive up to the ECC. The 29,000-square-foot command center is itself a nondescript modern building that—beyond the fact it looks as squat and immovable as a sumo wrestler at a smorgasbord—doesn’t directly hint at its true purpose. Its fence, however, does.

The fence looks like a series of medieval pikes that have been rigged together into the sort of formation that peasant soldiers might have used to skewer armor-clad nobility and turn the tide of a bloody war. The protruding ends of the “pikes” are also barbed in a twisty flourish reminiscent of a Corinthian pillar design, but more pointy and ouchy.

In other words: The fence appears very hard to climb and completely capable of keeping out anything from marauding bands of zombies to your tired, your poor, your huddled masses of Portlanders displaced by a massive disaster. Okay, I’m being a little facetious, but not entirely.

The ECC is where—assuming they don’t all die—Portland's mayor, city commissioners, and bureau heads will meet to hash things out when the disaster shit goes down. And while it’s supposed to provide a shelter to folks helping the city weather the catastrophe, it also appears equally intent on keeping others out. Case in point is the next obstacle to my entry: the parking lot.

After I park my car in the ECC’s lot, I head toward the building’s entrance. I notice the lot is not one, but two parking lots. There’s a boundary between an inner and outer lot. The boundary is demarcated by more ouchy-pointy, medieval-looking fencing. There’s also a sign asking visitors to check in at a digital kiosk—which, when I visited, wasn't turned on yet. The gate is open, so I walk in.

At the entrance to the ECC, I stop at a short metal column sticking out of the ground. This is obstacle three.

The column has a built-in camera and microphone that’s rigged to a security booth inside. The camera is circular and its dimensions are a near spot-on replica of the HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, or maybe not quite.

The camera’s glassy, all-seeing “eye” looks a little off. Unlike Kubrick’s HAL, this HAL looks a little drunk, an illusion caused by a lip over the top of the camera that to my anthropomorphizing brain looks like a droopy eye lid. “It’s probably to reduce glare,” I think to myself. (Footnote Two)

I press the buzzer under HAL’s eyeball, say “Hello," and state my business. HAL is positioned low enough for short people or people in wheelchairs to easily press his buttons. When I lean my lanky 6' 1" frame down to talk into what I think is a microphone, I’m pretty sure the security guards watching through HAL’s all-seeing peeper get an unflatteringly close up of my unkempt nostrils. They buzz me in nonetheless.

I walk into a spacious lobby with a two-story ceiling. At the far end is a glass wall and doors over-top of which is a second floor balcony that looks down on the lobby from ECC’s secretive interior. I sign in at the front desk and wait.

The ECC’s lobby has a friendly quality. I notice there’s a massive piece of art made up of a bunch of large backlit squares that change colors. The colors change just slow enough to be mesmerizing.

I write: “Mondrian took an electronics course” in my reporter’s notebook.

The glass doors open. It’s Carmen Merlo, PBEM’s head honcho, and Dan Douthit, who does public relations for the bureau and is, presumably, here to chaperone me. We shake hands and Merlo starts my tour in the lobby.

She says the lobby will house press conferences, and that it’s also large enough for emergency responders to “queue up” as they wait to get access to the building’s inner workings. She says the lobby’s designed to be soothing, hence the softly pulsating neoplasticism-looking thing.

I notice, too, the lobby’s floor is made of slate-colored tiles that, as a they stretch to the walls, give way to small gray polished stones like you might find in a river bed or garden. I write “touch of Zen” in my notebook, and, after a moment’s thought, “Security aside, placing rocks in a building with glass walls not good for keeping out hoards of outsiders.”

Merlo opens the glass doors and we exit the lobby and walk into the inner ECC. Now, the real tour begins.

“The heart of the building is the main coordination center,” Merlo says as she leads me and Douthit down a wide corridor to the building’s center.

Note: “Western wall has another all-seeing-half-drunk-eye of HAL.” (Footnote Three)

Just before my tour, I was transcribing an interview with a man who described his experience during a gunfight in Iraq as “like something from a movie.” I thought to myself—having a kind of Umberto Eco-a-la-Travels-in-Hyperreality-with-a-little-Jean-Baudrillard-mixed-in-for-good-measure reverie—how odd it is that strange experiences so often are described in terms of life’s representatives instead of life itself? We are the society which “prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original” as Feuerbach put it.

I’m not above any of this. When I see the ECC’s command center I’m like all, “Dude! It’s like something out of a movie.”

Or, more precisely, it’s a little like the command center in the 1997 disaster classic Volcano starring Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche. (If you have never seen this, rush to your video store now!)

The room is massive, about the size of a high school gym. A typically anemic Portland sky “shines” down on the space from four skylights. I think to myself, “You could hold several games of pick-up basketball in here were it not for all the desks that fill the space.” The room has been flooded with cubicles.

There’s maybe 40 or 50 of them, and they’re not cubicles in the classic, boxy sense. Instead they’ve got this almost non-linear, organic flow, positioned in a pattern designed to make the room easily navigable in even the tensest situation. (Footnote Four)

Merlo explains not all the cubicles have computers, but there is Wi-Fi and the space is designed for people to quickly set up. The computer towers that are here—I nod to myself approvingly—are on wheeled stands. This is the first earthquake feature I notice.

The command center is also screen city. There are monitors everywhere. Nearly every desk has two monitors positioned with articulate and very sturdy mounts.

Both the south and north walls have two massive screens placed side-by-side. But the mother of all monitors, the daddy of all displays, is a screen that’s made up of 12 screens. In total it’s maybe 12 feet long. Here’s another touch of Kubrick.

“So there is a big board,” I say making a reference to Dr. Strangelove and the “big board” showing where all the bombers are flying, which George C. Scott really doesn’t want the Russian guy to see.

Merlo laughs.

The Big Board!
  • The Big Board!

“The heart of the building is the main coordination floor,” she says. “This is where we would, obviously, coordinate the city’s response to a citywide emergency.”

Merlo tells me the command center’s workstations are called “pods” and that they’re run according to a process called incident command system (ICS), an organizational method for emergency response. (Footnote Five)

Merlo says one computer per planning pod has the ability to send an image to the big board.

“So if I’m in the planning pod and want to show a map of our evacuation routes, I could send it up there for anybody to look at,” she says.

The idea is that different city bureaus will occupy the space depending on the emergency, Merlo says. “And who they send will depend on the event, so if we had a flood, PBOT, for instance, would send very different people than if we had a snow and ice event.”

Adjacent to the command center are conference rooms. This includes the “Executive” conference room, where the mayor and city commissioners will, presumably, get a handle on things. The room is, well, commanding. It has still more monitors. There’s also a digital projector and a big table—not Mark-McKinney-do-I-have-to-cut-that-fucking-tree-down-myself big, but big nonetheless. Sadly, it’s not circular like the one in Dr. Strangelove. And unlike Strangelove, there are no hanging lights in this room, or anywhere.

“I noticed there aren’t any hanging lights,” I say. “I assume that’s intentional.”

“It’s very intentional,” says Merlo. “The reason this building is so sound is not only the structural components, but because the nonstructural components are secure, too. If you have hanging lights, that’s one more thing to fall on you.”

From the executive suite we walk to another adjacent room where the city’s public information officers will gather and send info to the panicked public. This room is, to put it mildly, less resplendent than the command center. It’s where work gets done, and that’s about it.

Non-emergency calls can all be routed through this room, Merlo tells me. Which, she says, could take some burden off 911. In a major disaster like a megathrust quake, these could be bounced off a satellite via a massive communications tower at a private telecom next door to the ECC. The center has the equivalent of 25 telephone lines of satellite bandwidth.

The room is also full of radios. It’s UHF and VHF capable. There are also five amateur HAM radios. That’s because, as Merlo puts it, “Amateur radio being, of course, one type of communication that will not fail after an emergency.”

“Maybe five is not enough,” I think to myself.

Next on the tour is the server room. Now, if you’ve seen one server room you’ve seen them all. They’re really just a bunch of shelving covered in small server computers with cords running this way and that. The ECC has all that, but it’s slightly different.

“This is our sever room, which would normally not be very exciting” says Merlo. “But ours [servers] are on what are called base isolators.”

Merlo demonstrates how the servers’ base isolators work. She pushes on a server rack. The image is almost comical. It’s worth noting here that Merlo is a short woman, and the base-isolated server racks are at least seven feet tall. Yet, when she pushes on it, the whole rack moves easily back and forth almost like liquid in motion.

Note: “Andre the Giant gives way to Cary Elwes.”

In a major earthquake, the base isolator should allow the servers to sway back and forth and not crash to the ground. (Footnote Six)

The base isolation is important, Merlo tells me, because pretty much every little bit of communication in the ECC minus the radios goes through these servers. This room is exceptional because not everything in the city is this secure, not even remotely.

As I reported last March, Oregon’s big telecoms have been slow to prepare for the coming Big One. (Okay, so has pretty much everybody else.) This ill-preparedness includes what’s been a very slow integration of new technologies, things like the sort of equipment I see in ECC. (Footnote Seven)

I ask Merlo if ECC’s servers will pick up any slack from other city servers like the ones in the Portland Building or what gets routed through the Pittock Block Building, CenturyLink, or AT&T for that matter. She tells me these servers are just for this building, but the goal long-term is to move the data “to the cloud.” (Footnote Eight)

From the server room we head upstairs and I’m shown a patio that looks out on a green roof. It’s Portland. Green roofs are just something we do. Merlo tells me water harvested from the roof is used to flush the building’s toilets. Flushing our toilets could be difficult after a big quake. (See also my post on crapping in a bucket.) The ECC has about seven to 10 days of flushing power depending on usage. I ask for more specifics like: how many flushes are we talking about here? (Footnote Nine) Merlo isn’t sure.

From the patio we head into a break room with a full kitchen and then exit into PBEM’s open office space, which fills a big chunk of the upstairs.

Still more conference rooms surround PBEM’s office space. There are individual offices for Merlo and others along one wall. (Footnote Ten). The curvalicious contours of knock-off Eames furniture are everywhere, which, along with half-drunk HAL units that I continue to spot here and there, lends the ECC even more of a 1960s space odyssey feel. And then I see it: the prettiest damn beam I have ever seen in my life. (Footnote Eleven)

“This diagonal beam over here is an example of the kind of supports that are all throughout the building,” Merlo says, responding to the gap-jawed-yokel look on my face.

The braces are called buckling restrained braces, or BRBs. Merlo says the beam’s steel core is filled with concrete. I am far from being an engineer, but Wikipedia tells me the magic in the sauce here is that the core and the casing of the brace are “decoupled” so they can’t interact and buckle, which sounds reasonable. BRBs run throughout the building, but are exposed only here and there. Like in this office space and some stairwells.

As I reported earlier, the building was built by Emerick Construction, which does just these sorts of things. Along with the ECC, the company has completed several seismic projects, including retrofitting existing structures, among them the Oregon State Capitol's dome, which had previously been damaged in a small earthquake.

The ECC also bucks the city's seismic trend in another way. It’s been built on, what for Portland is, very solid ground. While much of downtown and things like, oh, I don’t know, most of Oregon’s liquid fuel supply, rest on what’s called liquefiable soil—or soil that behaves like a liquid when jostled hard enough—the ECC takes advantage of a very old series of events: the Missoula floods. (Footnote Twelve) Lucky for us, the floods deposited some pretty good stuff in what we now call Southeast Portland, upon which the ECC and its foundation now rests.

After my gushing over the beam, we head back to the lobby and I say goodbye to Merlo and Douthit.

And now a conclusion: At the risk of blatantly editorializing, the ECC is an incredibly well thought out building. And I, for one, am glad to know it’s out there. (Footnote Thirteen)

The ECC is also a huge accomplishment for Merlo, who has pushed for the building for years. Kudos to her for helping make it happen. In short, Merlo and her bureau have taken a very proactive step forward for a region and city that have been mostly ass backwards about the seismic threats we face. But this is only a first step. Now let’s see if the private sector, from utilities to builders, step up and follow PBEM’s good example.


Footnote One: As the picture shows, “Operational” is above a standard called “Immediate Occupancy”, which means just that: you can occupy it, but don’t expect power or anything else. Which in turn is above a standard called “Life Safety”, i.e. anything built after the mid 1990s when the building standards changed. Life Safety buildings won’t kill you, but it might not be safe—or legally inhabitable—after a big earthquake. Then there’s “Collapse Prevention.” Don’t over think this one, it’s like it sounds. And, finally, there’s nothing, which is pretty much where the vast majority of buildings in Portland and the Northwest generally are right now. Think of it this way: Next to the four illustrated buildings, imagine a fifth—this one as thoroughly deconstructed as a Charlotte Bronte novel in the hands of a post-colonialist writer.

Footnote Two: What songs did this HAL learn to sing on January 12, 1997 in Urbana, Illinois? I wonder. Surely not “Daisy.” Maybe something disaster oriented like “Ring Around the Rosies (the Black Death)” or “Balloon Burning” by The Pretty Things (Hindenberg disaster) or everything Michael Jackson did after Thriller (the inevitable heat death of all universes, micro, macro, and Michael)?

Footnote Three: It strikes me that the ECC is a little like a mystery cult with its own inner sanctum of the initiated. As we stepped through the glass doors, we entered the building’s grand lodge. And here I am without my unicursal Hexagram pendant. How embarrassing.

Footnote Four: Note: “Desks like Lorenz attractor, reveals itself only when one-steps back and gains the proper perspective, or are properly freaked out.”

Note: “Magic Eye + adrenaline = understanding cubicles.”

Footnote Five: ICS is the Department of Homeland Security’s way to regulate communities’ responses to disasters. And, while none of this will be even remotely interesting to your average Blogtown reader, the organizational structure is a bifurcating, tree-branching kinda thingy that looks like this.

Footnote Six: Base isolators provide what’s called a “decoupling effect” of a building from its substructure. In other words, it allows the structure to role with the seismic punches (I’ve used this phrasing before, but so be it). Los Angeles City Hall uses base isolators, as does sections of Portland’s double-decker Marquam Bridge.

Footnote Seven: Take the Pittock Block Building on SW Washington—a century-old office building that not only holds many important servers for big-name companies and several home alarm services, but also houses the city of Portland’s Internet service provider, and, more importantly some federal servers.

The Pittock is also the spot where the Internet’s backbone enters the city—in other words, the physical Internet: the tangible ugly mass of wires that traverses the globe and makes cat videos on demand possible.

I got a peek in the Pittock once, and the servers I saw were not base-isolated. (Which, admittedly, in the grand scheme of things, is probably fine given that the Pittock isn’t exactly the Transamerica Pyramid and probably won’t do well in a big earthquake anyway.)

Footnote Eight: To an extent, PBEM already does this. The bureau currently hosts its Public Alerts website through Maryland and Seattle. (Seattle might not be the best choice given it sits on a its own fault and a resonant basin and is susceptible to Cascadia quakes like us. But, hey, it’s a good first step.)

Footnote Nine: Come to think of it, I should have asked if there’s an if-it’s-yellow-let-it-mellow rule in case of a big disaster?

Footnote Ten: Not to mention a clerk with the brightest Seasonal Affective Disorder lamp I have ever seen positioned about as far away from the office’s now sunny southern and western windows.

Footnote Eleven: I am not kidding. And I'm kicking myself for not taking a photo.

Footnote Twelve: The Missoula Floods happened between 15,000 and 12,000 years ago and were catastrophic on a biblical scale. In fact, they would have made Yahweh blush and rethink his line of work.

Footnote Thirteen: For the penny-pinchers out there, it’s worth noting the nearly $20 million building came in under budget at just over $18 million.