The Care and Feeding of the Emergency Operations Center


Scenario: At 7:15 p.m., an F3 tornado strikes your community and travels for approximately 15 miles on the ground. It destroys homes across several towns, cuts the power, and forces a train off the tracks. Response resources have set up several command posts in the affected communities and are calling the county dispatch center to request resources. The county emergency manager advises that the emergency operations center (EOC) is now activated and that incident commanders (ICs) should relay requests to the EOC instead of to the communications center. Furthermore, ICs should begin coordinating their incident action plans (IAPs) for later that evening with the EOC to ensure sufficient resources are available for overnight and morning operations.

Because of federal mandates, anyone who expects to fill a role during an emergency must have completed basic training in the National Incident Management System (NIMS). Although many have a rudimentary understanding of the National Response Framework, few responders routinely have the opportunity to work within a fully staffed incident command structure, and even fewer have had the opportunity to integrate the incident command structure with an EOC. Below is an overview of EOCs and how ICs can use the EOC to best support emergency operations.


The EOC is a designated facility capable of supporting one or more incident operations within a fixed geographic area. Although many businesses, towns, and cities may have EOCs, counties, states, and the federal government will have functioning EOCs during emergency incidents and many planned events. The EOC is designed to provide logistical, planning, and financial support to incident operations. This includes allocating scarce resources and coordinating activities between incident locations. During an incident that requires activating command and general staff positions, the EOC will likely be activated, and the center can assume or assist with many of the incident command support functions, such as information and planning (Figure 1).

To best use the EOC, ICs should understand how the EOC is organized. EOCs are usually organized under three models: the incident command model, the emergency support function model, or a hybrid model that combines the two. Smaller organizations and communities tend to use the incident command model, which readily integrates with the incident command team at the incident site. An EOC manager replaces the IC, but otherwise the command and general staff remain the same. Many EOCs alter the titles of command and general staff slightly to avoid confusion with their counterparts in the field (Figure 2).

The emergency operations manager is responsible for overall activities within the EOC, including liaison with the policy group and with the EOCs in neighboring jurisdictions and at the state and federal levels. He activates the components needed and initiates planning to support the incident and recovery.

The public information officer is responsible for communication off site, including working with the media, relaying information to community partners (e.g., hospitals, utilities), and coordinating messaging with other agencies and organizations.

The liaison officer is responsible for the coordinating partner agencies within the EOC. Frequently, multiple organizations, including the National Guard, public utilities, school districts, and transportation agencies, will send representatives to the EOC. The liaison assists with coordinating their activities within the EOC and ensuring that support is provided to the emergency responders in the field.

The safety officer oversees safety within the EOC, including assessing food and sanitation, facility safety, work-rest cycles of personnel assigned to the EOC, and related activities.

The operations leader focuses on supporting current and future operations and can provide technical expertise and planning assistance within the EOC and to field personnel. Operations will not only focus on the emergency incident but may also include activities that continue well after the emergency phase, including long-term housing, recovery, and restoration of lifeline services.

Similarly, the planning leader is split among short-, mid-, and long-term planning. As with all EOC positions, this position supports the current emergency operation. However, the planning leader and his component are also developing plans on restoring the community, including potential changes in legislation and zoning; the timing of restoration of services, businesses, and utilities; and potential mitigation measures that may be incorporated in the restoration process to reduce or eliminate the impact of future incidents.

The logistics leader supports emergency incident operations as well as operations that will take place following the emergency. As with the incident command post, the logistics component will likely be the second largest functioning group within the structure.

The finance and administration component not only documents costs for cost recovery but is also instrumental in developing cost alternatives for the incident through the recovery process. The finance and administration component will be critical in developing cost-benefit analysis for mitigation projects and for fully realizing cost recovery for emergency operations.

Emergency Support Functions

The National Response Framework uses emergency support functions (ESF) to delineate lead and support agencies for federal response to disasters. National and many state and county EOCs have incorporated the ESF model. There are 15 ESFs under the federal system, which lists lead and assisting agencies. However, state and local EOCs may have more or fewer ESFs based on their needs and capabilities (Table 1).

Generally, during a large-scale EOC activation, the lead and assisting agencies assigned to each ESF will be in the EOC. This allows each function to coordinate and carry out assignments as they are assigned. The EOC manager can also integrate ESF personnel to support operations that require information and coordination from more than one function.

Hybrid Model

Finally, the hybrid model uses the incident command system format for organization and placing ESFs, which allows easier integration of ESFs when supporting an incident command team, minimizes the confusion regarding roles and responsibilities, and allows close coordination when communicating with states and the federal government. As with the ICS used in the field, only the ESFs needed to support the operation are activated and may be placed where they can best support the incident. For example, during a flooding incident in which many homes are damaged or destroyed, you may place ESF 6 (mass care) under the operations, planning, or logistics component, depending on the current or projected needs of the incident (Figure 3).

Regardless of the EOC configuration, ICs should become familiar with the local emergency operations plan and the design of their community’s EOC. The IC will be able to shift many support functions from the emergency scene, including planning, logistics, and finance support; improve emergency operations by coordinating and effectively deploying resources; and ensure the safety of personnel and the community.

DAVE DONOHUE has more than 35 years of emergency services and hazardous materials experience and is affiliated with the Cumberland County (PA) Special Hazards and Operations Team, the South Central Task Force (PA) Incident Management Team, and the Halfway (MD) Fire Company. He is an instructor for the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, a retired United States Coast Guard chief marine sciences technician, and owner of Mid-Atlantic Emergency and Safety Consultants.

Table 1. The National Response Framework Emergency Support Functions

ESF Number and Role


ESF 1 Transportation

Control aviation and airspace
Transportation safety
Assess transportation infrastructure damage
Return, restore transportation infrastructure

ESF 2 Communications

Coordinate with technology, telecommunications industries
Restore telecommunications and cyber infrastructure
Oversee federal communication within the federal system

ESF 3 Public Works and Engineering

Repair and protect infrastructure
Engineering services
Construction management
Emergency contracting to restore life-sustaining services

ESF 4 Firefighting

Support and coordinate firefighting operations

ESF 5 Emergency Management

Coordinate incident management
Assign mission tasks
Incident action planning
Financial management
Resource management

ESF 6 Mass Care, Emergency Assistance, Housing, and Human Services

Mass care
Emergency assistance
Temporary and long-term housing
Restore human services capabilities

ESF 7 Logistics Management and Resource Support

Logistics planning
Sustain incident operations
Resource support
Facility support

ESF 8 Public Health and Medical Services

Public health services
Emergency medical services
Restore health services
Mental health services
Mass-fatality services

ESF 9 Search and Rescue

Search and rescue operations

ESF 10 Oil and Hazardous Materials Response

Emergency response
Mitigate hazardous materials and restore resources affected

ESF 11 Agriculture and Natural Resources

Nutrition assistance
Animal and plant disease response
Food safety
Food security
Preservation and restoration of cultural and historic properties
Safety and well-being of pets

ESF 12 Energy

Repair and restoration of energy infrastructure
Coordination of energy restoration
Forecast of energy needs

ESF 13 Public Safety and Security

Facility and resource security
Security planning
Technical assistance
Public safety and security
Perimeter and access control
Traffic control

ESF 14 Long-Term Community Recovery

Commercial and economic damage and impact assessment
Long-term recovery planning
Mitigation plan review
Mitigation plan implementation

ESF 15 External Affairs

Public information
Media relations
Community relations
Elected officials relations
International relations
Tribal and insular affairs

The Emergency Operations Center: A Vital Preparedness Tool

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