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Rochester airport gets thrifty with new emergency center


Don't get us wrong - the Rochester airport's new emergency operations center has all the high-tech trimmings one would expect based on a careful viewing of 24

But there's something else about the new facility - something familiar.

Faced with a problem

The Rochester airport already has an emergency operations center. But officials say it's "outdated." And there's one major issue with it: it's located in the terminal building.

That's a problem for two reasons. One, because federal regulations require that the emergency operations center be separate from the main airport building. But two (perhaps intuitively), if you have to evacuate the main terminal because of an emergency, you can no longer access your emergency operations center.

So when the time came for a new command center, the airport chose an existing building just off the tarmac. And airport director Susan Walsh issued a challenge to her staff:

"Build this state-of-the-art facility at the lowest possible cost using any resources that we had available to us."

By "any resources" she wasn't kidding.

New life for leftovers

Besides the high-tech stuff - video projectors, communications equipment, a secure online network - most everything else is secondhand.

Starting with the building.

"The entire room used to be a freezer," says Bill Johnston, the airport's construction manager.

The current home of the emergency operations center used to be where airlines prepared their food. But with the days of domestic in-flight means long gone, officials say it had been empty for about a decade.

Once the interior was reconfigured, "decorating" was done on a shoestring.

Dividing walls between workspaces are made out of the glass panels you see at airport security checkpoints. They were left over from a recent checkpoint redesign.

The carpet is a defective batch from a project in the terminal, that the airport got to keep when the manufacturer had to resend the right materials.

And the official-looking, V-shaped command table in the center of the room: that was cobbled together by airport staff - out of old wooden doors they refinished by hand with Formica tops.

"Everyone from the fire chief, to our operations manager, to our engineer sat down and put those together," Walsh says of the tables. "They built those."

Why bother?

The end product is a standalone command center with security video projected onto walls and plenty of room for coordinating emergency response teams.

The airport says it's something they don't want to have to use. But building it puts them in compliance with those federal regulations - and showing it off scores them a few points.

The makeover comes less than a year after the previous airport director resigned amid a flurry of negative attention for waste, abuse and strip clubs.

Current director Walsh says the thrifty approach to the state-of-the-art command center is an extension of her management ethos more than anything.

"In my former life I was the budget director for the county," says Walsh. "So one of the things we do as a budget director is we do things as cost effectively as possible."

By that measure, Walsh says the project was a success.

She says it would've cost the airport between $1.5 and $2 million to build the command center new. By using airport odds and ends, Walsh says it cost just $550,000.

WXXI/Finger Lakes reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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