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In fictional media that revolves around police, SWAT, or agents from some three-letter-agency, it's common that before they go somewhere, they have their tech-genius go though some database and instantly pull up plans of the building that they're going to so they can make a breaching plan or whatever.

Assume a modern country and an urban setting.

Questions:

  • Do these building blueprint databases exist?
  • If yes, how good is their coverage and accuracy? If no, do people need to go rifling through paper filing cabinets or something?
  • Do groups like SWAT always look at blueprints before they go somewhere or do they frequently 'go in blind'?
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    $\begingroup$ Secondary note (might make an answer later): Most modern police agencies no longer follow the "blockade and wait for SWAT" tactics when shots are fired, known armed perpetrators are involved, or in any other active shooter situation. So the time to get and use blueprints would be extremely tiny $\endgroup$ – LinkBerest Jul 31 at 23:41
  • $\begingroup$ I think depending on location, although many countries are pushing for building information modelling for new projects and for some heritages to be upgraded or restored the result isn't promising due to cash flow issue and stubborn owers. Maybe the hacker can stitch existing Google map images and overlay familiar layouts using AI to generate believable high definition 3d blueprint for the ground teams on the go! $\endgroup$ – user6760 Aug 1 at 5:41
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    $\begingroup$ Also SWAT teams try to avoid going in blind as much as possible. Certainly this isn't always possible but when they have time and blueprints are not available they'll try their best to make them on the spot with the help of three letter agency architects. They'll use binoculars to look through windows, assess the shape and size of the buildings and fire exits, look for similar buildings nearby they can enter and examine, and try to draw out some blueprints as best they can. $\endgroup$ – niemiro Aug 1 at 8:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Fattie Yes, there is, at least in many countries in Europe. Here is the Italian database (Catasto), for instance. $\endgroup$ – Federico Poloni 2 days ago
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    $\begingroup$ @HotLicks 'Blueprint' comes from the old ammonium-ferric process of reproducing a drawing, which was in use for almost a century. The reason why it is called 'Blueprint' is because the process produced 'blue' drawings (in negative to the original) so it looked blue. However, since the 1980's this is outdated and photocopiers were commonly used to reproduce drawings, however the 'Blueprint' name stuck and now refers to any copy of a plan. $\endgroup$ – flox yesterday
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Yes. Building Plans are generally available for buildings back to the early 1900's.

I am an architect and we regularly work on extensions and renovations to commercial, institutional and residential projects throughout the world. We regularly request and receive these building plans every day as a part of our work.

All buildings when built since the early 1900's up until today require government approval before proceeding. In the early days, this is just a hand drawn plan and elevation sent to a central authority which is stamped and filed. Today, it is detailed construction and service plans submitted electronically.

All local governments would have records for all buildings in their jurisdiction. Many I know of actually have active programs to convert old paper plans into new file formats suitable for downloading.

There are only 2 instances where building plans are not available:

  • If records were lost. A council I know of burnt down, and all their records were lost so any renovations required surveys of the existing building as a requirement.
  • If the building was illegally built, or altered after the plan was lodged. This happens, but not substantially as many governments have major fines for unapproved building.

The format it is in depends on the buildings age. Here are the formats you can expect:

  • 1910 - 1950's: Pencil-drawn floor plans and elevations with sporadic notes but no detail.
  • 1950's - 1970's: Pen-drafted floor plans, elevations and sections with only marginally more detail.
  • 1970's - 1990's: Pen-drafted floor plans, elevations and sections with construction details and specifications
  • 1990's - 2010's: Computer drafted fully detailed construction drawings, service drawings, structural and any reports required for approval
  • 2010's - 2020's: Computer 3D models (on major projects), BIM Modelling (Service drawings integrated with Architectural in 3D), detailed specifications and schedules, and any reports.

Feel free to contact your local government - they are normally very helpful.

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    $\begingroup$ Maintenance of these records can be spotty. I pulled a permit for some work on the house and city hall had a record of a prior permit from the 50s but could not find it. I would up having to pull a permit for new work instead of retrofit and had to do everything to current code, plus pay a tax because I was modifying over 600 square feet. $\endgroup$ – Ross Millikan 2 days ago
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    $\begingroup$ A sweeping general statement like that (and in bold no less) just can't be true. $\endgroup$ – Nobody 2 days ago
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    $\begingroup$ @Nobody Point taken - yes will insert the word Generally. $\endgroup$ – flox 2 days ago
  • $\begingroup$ Are the computer drafted blueprints available in an online database? Or would you have to call your local government office and drive down to some building to get the plans handed to you on paper and/or a usb drive? $\endgroup$ – cowlinator 14 hours ago
  • $\begingroup$ @cowlinator Some councils/local governments do have request forms online. Simply enter details and pay the fee, and it would be sent back via email. Others are more 'old-school', requiring you to make an appointment and then come in to the local council office. $\endgroup$ – flox 9 hours ago
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1: yes these databases do exist, but when I went to check on one all they had available were hardcopies, digital might be available but not on any PC with internet you have to physically go there. When you check one you need to pay a fee (about 50 euro's at the time) to look at it and weren't allowed to take copies (if I recall correctly you could get copies with express permission of the owners but leaking the information was a crime). It was in Europe though and it could vary from country to country. I wouldn't be surprised if 3-letter agencies have copies of buildings of interests digitally in their databases but not from every building.

2: accuracy will vary greatly. The building I checked upon was a monumental building that had to be exactly like the blueprints. After a large fire had ravaged most of the building's inner structure it had to be rebuild, and a few exceptions had been allowed during the rebuild to improve the building. These adaptations (and a few off-the-books adaptations) were not visible as no new blueprint was given. Most buildings wont submit a new blueprint for every change they make, and for non-monumental buildings its even less strict as far as I could tell.

Its likely that SWAT teams, who get relatively little time to nip down to whatever repository that country has to get blueprints, will use digital versions made by whoever tried to show it off during a sale or finding a new tenant. But these blueprints would be a guideline, as the occupants could have done their own work that hasn't been added to the blueprints or like with my apartment the given blueprint was from a neighbouring apartment that had everything mirrored. Its quite a shock to find that out once you walk into the apartment.

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    $\begingroup$ Where I live (Italy), it is illegal to make 'works' (i.e., major changes like taking down or building internal walls) without updating the deposited blueprints at the registry (catasto). $\endgroup$ – Federico Poloni 2 days ago
  • $\begingroup$ @FedericoPoloni It's also illegal on Brazil. $\endgroup$ – T. Sar yesterday
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    $\begingroup$ @FedericoPoloni not all jobs are done legally. The amount of checks and fines will be different from country to country ofcourse. $\endgroup$ – Demigan yesterday
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    $\begingroup$ @FedericoPoloni, it is illegal in most places. But SWAT(or any agencies) usually don't pay surprise visits to the people doing everything legally. $\endgroup$ – user28434 21 hours ago
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I work for a Fire Service in the United Kingdom, we are required by law to inspect all local structures that could pose a risk if an incident were to occur there. This is usually any industrial complex, school, office, shopping centre, dormitory etc. Individual homes are not included.

As part of the inspection we collect floor plans, details regarding hazardous machinery, dangerous chemicals, gas and water shut-off valves, location of spare keys, contact details for important personnel or anything that would be useful to know.

The quality of these floor plans is typically very good, they are large PDF or CAD files that you can zoom in and out of to get more or less detail. This isn't always the case though, there are some buildings that no floor plans exist.

All of this information is available to the Firefighters in a digital format on a computer placed on the passenger side of the fire appliance, there is also a printer in there if they want to make paper copies.

I don't know if the police do the same but it's entirely possible, it's also not unlikely they would make use of our information if Firefighters and Police are present on the same incident.

Fun fact, because this is a requirement of Section 7, Subsection 2, Part d of the Fire and Rescue Act, we call these files "7(2)d Risk Files"

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Generally the owners of buildings have blueprints. Large commercial premises (office blocks/malls/factories etc ) retain detailed plans for maintenance and insurance purposes. Depending on the type of building (e.g. chemical plant) there may be a legal requirement that emergency services also have copies.

There may or may not be a central registry available in the particular state or city concerned with current detailed internal plans but they will have the plans submitted when building approval was granted plus copies of any major changes made since then that required approval.

As a rule BTW (at least in my jurisdiction) it's common for the purchasers of private homes to receive a copy of the original architects plans along with the deeds etc. Again any historic extension, alterations etc that required official approval may also be included. The body corporate of apartments and/or the property manager will also have plans for maintenance and insurance purposes. Again the approving local authority may also have a copy of the file/digitized.

Note: depending on the circumstances it is possible (but highly unlikely) that the occupiers of a premises have made illegal internal alterations without the approval of the landlord or (if they own it) the responsible local authority.

Whether or not these records are digitized will vary, increasingly central record offices are but older building records may not be. Residential plans held by private citizens? Probably not.

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This is absolutely feasible if your world has Eastern Bloc-style mass-produced buildings. These blueprints may even be publicly available.

A good example may be many republics of the USSR. Due to the devastation laid by the WW2, a lot of post-War buildings were built in series. The idea was not unlike British "tower blocks" but featured some key differences. Republican (state-owned) architectural bureaus designed series of blueprints (updating them or making new ones when better materials or new ideas become available), and the number of houses built from each blueprint could reach hundreds or even thousands. This allowed to rapidly provide housing and infrastructure for people left homeless after the war, and afterwards, industrially-built housing kind of stuck as a tradition, especially after the advent of rapid-assembly panel housing (e.g. Panelák in former Czechoslovakia, Khruschyovka and Brezhnevka in Russia). Further generations of builders were taught how to work with such housing in universities of architecture and civil engineering, with the approximate plans becoming sort of common knowledge.

Such copy-paste projects were used for apartment buildings and many kinds of civilian infrastructure such as schools, supermarkets, theaters, clinics, and others. Today, the schematics for most of these building series are not only available on the Internet, but also have been assembled into public online databases.

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    $\begingroup$ This also means that some floor and flat layouts are pretty common and new police recruits will get familiar with them quite quickly. $\endgroup$ – Jan 2 days ago
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    $\begingroup$ Mass-produced buildings aren't purely an Eastern Bloc thing :) $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay 2 days ago
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Blueprints exist but generally not en route to an emergency

The computer systems shown in these shows is called Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD). CAD is a big deal in emergency services. A well-funded city can have computers in every police car, ambulance, and fire department vehicle. CAD provides up-to-date information to every unit responding to an emergency. Despite all the information available via CAD, I've never seen a computer showing a blueprint. Your question made me curious so I dug into it. Here's the only reference I found to blueprints from a CAD vendor (emphasis mine):

The InterAct system also allows pre-populated choices for location, code, etc. This can be programmed as an auto-fill or a drop-down box. An agency can add any kind of information into the system, including warnings, prior incidents, and resident information such as medical needs or the location of a fire key. A building blueprint could also be added.

So vendors are thinking about the ability to add blueprints to dispatch systems for buildings of special interest.

Thinking more broadly, there are databases of building designs in some cities. Builders have to submit designs for approval, and some cities have started to gather those designs into one centralized place for public review. The vast majority of SWAT missions are planned well in advance, so there's plenty of time to review building plans if they are relevant.

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The availability of public records is already answered well by others so I will focus just on:

... If no, do people need to go rifling through paper filing cabinets or something?

Strictly speaking this is not necessary anymore since the technology exists to map the entire inside of a building from the outside using WiFi emitters. While it has not been widely adopted yet, A special operations urban combat unit could use WiFi mounted drones to build a blueprint of any building before going inside.

It's not exactly as covert as rifling through paper filing cabinets, but if you had an emergency situation such as a hostage standoff, it would give you some "blue prints" to go off of pretty quickly.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THu3ZvAHI9A

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  • $\begingroup$ As the resident of Washington DC, I would be really uncomfortable with law enforcement having this kind of technology. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Brēza yesterday
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    $\begingroup$ As a resident of... anywhere in the world, I would agree, but law enforcement using it is inevitable. At least in the US, the 4th amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures; so, it's use would theoretically be limited to locations where probable cause warrants the scan. In other words, they can't gain the right to scan your house until they are already at the point they have the right to force their way into your home to search it. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki yesterday
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With todays technology- you could in theory- generate blueprints from sratch.

First there are drones, that can lidar-scan through windows.

Then there are WiFi-Nodes, which can work as 3D Scanners through walls.

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