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Shanghai Yuexing Global Harbor.

Building emergency operations and big data

Big data is a concept of using data to facilitate the process of smarter decisions and improved performance through the use of analysis and metrics. It had its start in the business community and can now be applied for intelligent emergency operations and management in the built environment. Fire safety devices that collect data are becoming smarter with the ability to provide more real-time information for use in making the critical decisions in an emergency.

The procedure for monitoring, linking and interfacing information is as follows:

  • Collects data from multiple sources
  • Analyzes and processes the data using multiple criteria in addition to fire
  • Separates the data for individual usage
  • Communicates and visualizes the results in real-time

This process will help improve response times, facilitate evacuation of occupants and provide timely communication with first responders with more accurate information. Obtaining and using more data with smarter devices will have the ability to result in quicker responses and improved occupant safety particularly for large and complex buildings.

Trends in intelligent operations

Intelligent building operations started with the building automation system that controlled the environment within the facility. It collected large amounts of data from basic sensors then stored, processed and acted upon the information for occupant comfort and cost savings. Other systems could be interfaced with it through hard-wired device connections.

Technology is changing the process of how building data is used. Devices are becoming smarter and having the ability to sense more events and then transmit them to a central location for processing. Software is being developed to analyze and display information in various formats from these devices. Building Information Modeling (BIM) three-dimensional models used for construction conflicts can now also be used as part of the visualization of events in the building for the emergency management personnel.

With these technology advances, the changes in the transmission media from wired to wireless devices is a key factor in using big data for building operations. They operate over a cloud-based control as part of the Internet of Things (IoT) such that the real-time management of data. The operation over the IoT allows for connection of object to object, object with human and object with the internet for management and control in real-time and is becoming the platform of the future.

JinMao Tower, Shanghai World Financial Center, and Shanghai Tower (from left to right).

JinMao Tower, Shanghai World Financial Center, and Shanghai Tower (from left to right).


Stakeholders in the safe design and operation of a building can include architects, engineers, occupants, owners, insurers, operating management and government authorities having jurisdiction. An important new stakeholder is now the IT network manager. With the operation via the network to the IoT, the network staff are very much concerned about the security of their system.

The IT manager has concerns about interference with the operation of the network, unauthorized access, protection of personal and company information. Hacking into the network has become a global business issue. The fire safety systems designers have concerns about interference or hacking preventing proper operation or activation at the wrong time. The decision may be to have either a single or multiple building networks. This will require a clear understanding of what each party can bring to the table when this decision is made.

The user groups including the building staff, security and the authorities having jurisdiction will need to identify what information from the network is needed in order for it to be easily and quickly understood and acted upon with the data being presented.

Building operations

Pre-planning protocols for specific emergencies need to be part of the overall strategy that are designed for that that building and operations. The choice of the various options for emergency response will need agreement of both the building staff and the first responders. Defined responsibilities of all involved will need to be clear. The protocols also need to be flexible in order to allow for the fluidity of response decisions based on rapidly changing events.

Some of the evacuation scenarios that can be part of the various protocols include:

  • Total evacuation of all occupants with and/or without life boating (elevator assisted egress)
  • Partial evacuation by floor (typically fire origin, two floors above and below)
  • Partial evacuation by occupancy in within a mixed-use facility (retail, office, residential, etc.)
  • Defend-in-Place with not evacuation except for fire incident area
  • Use of refuge floors

The protocols for emergency should include non-fire emergencies. These can include weather, earthquake, power outage hazardous materials or terrorist threat.

Building data value is the ability to collect large amounts of data and then process, organize and communicate it to the viewers in a form where they can visualize it to make informed decisions. It will identify the nature of the event, where it is occurring, pre-planned protocols and other information of value in the response.

Technology impact

Technology is having a significant impact on the ability to better use big data. Some examples are:

  • Mobile apps and web-based response platforms can allow the information being received in the command centers to be distributed in real time to coordinate communications and notifications for direction to the responders, occupants and visitors to the building. This can be done via mobile phones, digital displays and voice communications
  • Streaming video generates large amounts of data. Real-time monitoring of the event at the central control center and transmitted to first responders.
  • Dynamic Wayfinding for egress movement. This may require code changes in order to allow for directing occupants away for normal exits as well to elevators for egress as the situation allows.
  • GPS monitoring of occupant locations via mobile phones and/or security badges so that responders will know where they are located.
  • Continuous Monitoring of devices. Record and analyze performance changes to determine patterns of potential failure. Preventive maintenance would be initiated to assure performance during emergency event.
  • BIM models that provide 3-D view of facility. This can also be the vehicle to identify and record results of test and maintenance of fire safety devices and systems to assure that it is occurring per code.
  • Software development for fire and beyond event prediction with focus on priority actions.
Shanghai World Financial Center and JinMao Tower (from left to right).

Shanghai World Financial Center and JinMao Tower (from left to right).


A pivotal aspect in all buildings is the training and drills required to address education of the staff and to test building response. This allows the responders to their roles, the type of information being provided and how to use it during and after the event. With typical turnover of building staff, various response and evacuations scenarios should be included.


There are many challenges in taking the next step in advancing the science of safety by using big data for emergency building operations. They include:

  • Having the infrastructure to provide the data we require to provide the information to use big data to facilitate emergency operations
  • Providing data for that specific facility
  • Current updates on BIM models
  • Code changes to handle new technology such as Dynamic Wayfinding
  • Trained building staff and first responders on use of big data
  • Ownership of data and authorization for sharing


Big data can provide building management and first responders with the ability to have a clearer picture on what is happening in a building on a real-time basis. Additional data from smart devices process over the IoT will be the future of building emergency management.

Big data can have the ability to communicate the important information for safety in a format that is easy to understand and provides direction on what the individual recipients need to do in the emergency event.

With devices that clearly identify, coordinate and integrate into the response protocol and with communications and visualizations of the actions required in a format that is real-time and clear to the recipients, we will be able to embrace the concept of big data and the IoT in the future of complex building design and operations.

For more information, email fli@jensenhughes.com

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Ms. Fang Li is the Vice President of Jensen Hughes Shanghai. Fang is a Fellow Member of SFPE and the member of CTBUH, WOBO, NFPA, SFPE, CFPA, Salamander Society, and the committee of experts of nationwide.

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