BY BILL SAGER
When a disaster strikes a community and the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is activated, nonemergency personnel fill some key positions. Librarians, finance officers, park maintenance personnel, and custodians, just to name a few, are included in the list. I refer to these participants as “generalists” in this article. Much like the militia of American history when farmers and silversmiths dropped the tools of their trade to take up arms, this modern militia stands ready to drop regular assignments to work alongside the regular army of firefighters, paramedics, and police officers. Like firefighters, the generalists also want to perform well.
This modern militia needs proper training to successfully perform vital tasks. The training covers many areas that are second nature to firefighters, such as what to do with their families during a disaster, how to behave in the EOC, and what is expected of them in the emergency environment. There are also individual training needs that pertain to specific assignments and working relationships with other components of the emergency organization. Most often, these people are assigned to supporting roles such as logistics and finance, although public works personnel often have operational assignments. These personnel bring to the EOC lots of talent from their regular assignments. Their general enthusiasm and natural intelligence make them top performers in the EOC.
Firefighters generally have prepared their families for the inevitable times when they will not be available to them during an emergency because of being held over on duty and performing assignments during a disaster. Generalists usually come to work with the expectation that they will go home at the end of the day unless they have an evening meeting or other preplanned activity.
To be activated during the day when the children are in school or at night when all are asleep is a big disruption in any family’s routine, especially if no plan has been developed for that eventuality. Because an emergency is rare for generalists, they need to have a more formalized plan in place to ensure that their families are secure. Among their concerns are childcare and the care of an elderly parent or other relative; pet care, and the security of their homes. They also need a plan for evacuating the family without their assistance, should that become necessary. For single-parent families or households where both spouses work outside the home, picking up the children after school is somewhat more complex. These family units need a central information point from which they can contact their families and obtain information about their family’s status. Unless planned for in advance, such conditions can add stress to an already stressful situation. For firefighters this may be prearranged, but for this “militia” it is not.
By using an Emergency Response Family Plan such as that in Table 1, emergency responders’ families, firefighters, as well as generalists will be well prepared to deal with that eventuality. The plan should be reviewed and updated at least twice a year, when people set their clocks back/ahead an hour and service their smoke detectors. In addition, the plans should be revised immediately if the family moves, a child changes schools, or a parent changes jobs.
RESPONDING TO THE CALL
It is second nature for firefighters to note the time, location, radio frequency, and other important information when dispatched to an emergency. When generalists are called to respond to an emergency in the middle of the night, it is likely that they will not know which questions to ask before they respond. Two methods for helping them obtain the information they need are the Initial Activation Checklist (Table 2) and response drills.
Completing the checklist helps the responder to capture essential response information, most of which comes from the Incident Command System Field Operations Guide, which is second nature to firefighters.
The response drills would consist of simulated scenarios based on the alert system used in the jurisdiction. As an example, generalists would be contacted by cell phone and be given a simulated dispatch to the secondary EOC for a major earthquake. They would be given only part of the information they need and some information about the disaster unrelated to their assignment. They would then be told to use the crib sheet to obtain all the information necessary for their response. At the end of the drill, review the essential information with all participants, and allow them to evaluate their own performance. This simple drill doesn’t take a lot of time and can be quite effective.
PLANNING FOR THE EVENT
Generalists also need to develop a survival kit to take with them to the EOC so that their stay there will be easier. The survival kit is just that, something to see the person through the first few hours or days of the disaster. It should be kept simple and small. Everyone assigned to a section should have a kit, not just the leader. This builds in redundancy, which is essential for a disaster situation.
The contents of the survival kit are fairly basic things most firefighters have readily available (Table 3).
The EOC probably has a kit of basic materials for each section. That works well until the EOC is unreachable or is relocated because of disaster conditions. Often, a disaster also affects the responders; they will need a small stock of materials until the EOC is fully activated.
As employees develop their kits, they should talk with people experienced in EOC operations to find out what works and what does not. They should take their kits with them when they attend EOC exercises to ensure that they really work. The EOC survival kit should also be checked when the clocks are changed. This is a good time to replace summer clothing in the kit with winter clothing and vice versa.
FOLLOW THE RULES
Many people, even first responders, may be a little uncomfortable in the EOC. It is rarely activated, and participants may not be sure of what is expected of them, which includes competency in their assignment areas, even though they may seldom use those skills, and appropriate behavior. EOC behavior conventions include the following:
Be on time all the time; in fact, it is helpful to arrive a little ahead of time. Arriving just five minutes late for a critical briefing at an incident involving 500 emergency workers can result in more than 40 hours of lost worktime. Lateness is the first sign that discipline is suffering, and no incident can tolerate a lack of discipline.
Attend meetings as required. Emergency operations stretching over a long period involve many meetings and briefings. These meetings call for the intelligent contributions of all expected to attend. Attendees should be prepared so that the meeting goes quickly and efficiently. Know the times of the meetings and briefings. For example, the planning meeting involves all the command and general staff. This is the most critical meeting in the operational period. Attendees need to be able to articulate those issues within their responsibility that affect the planning cycle. They also must be able to respond quickly and correctly to issues others raise at the meeting.
Briefings are just that, brief. Bring up issues not contained in the plan only if they have a serious impact on operations. Discuss the issue with the Planning Section chief prior to the briefing.
Staff the assignment. There is an old saying, “If everyone does his own job, no one has to work too hard.” Sometimes, it is impossible to get every essential position filled for proper functioning. That’s when the second maxim comes into play, “If it were easy, anyone could do it.” Section chiefs should do everything in their power to staff their functions effectively.
As stated in the Emergency Response Checklist, “If it isn’t written, it didn’t happen.” Use the Unit Log (ICS 214) to record significant actions. Carry a notebook at all times to record events and to jot down ideas and inspirations. Be sure to always note the date and time. Remember that anything written in the notebook is discoverable in a legal proceeding.
The EOC is a business office of the highest order and the place where important business of the people is occurring. Often, this business involves real life-and-death decisions. There can be a lot of dead time separated by moments of panic. The dead time may seem like an opportune time to visit, use it productively to maintain the unit log, ensure that the workspace is neat, and take care of the little things that often get neglected. Eat and take breaks outside the EOC. A well-organized EOC will have an outside area close by set up for meals and breaks. This is where casual conversation should take place.
Speak in a low voice. A loud voice can raise the level of tension and excitement. The EOC should be the island of calm in the sea of confusion. Decisions in the EOC are very critical; they need to be made in a calm, deliberate manner. Also, people are trying to hear telephone conversations and radio traffic reports; loud noise makes that impossible.
A disaster is no joke. It is not the time or place for jokes. Often, people visiting or working in the EOC have lost loved ones or property; EOC workers must be sensitive to these situations.
Have an activation plan. Know your common responsibilities. The Field Operations Guide lists the common responsibilities for personnel assigned to emergency incidents as well as the responsibilities of unit leaders (and those in higher positions). EOC participants need to be familiar with these responsibilities and to take them seriously. All participants expect everyone to do his part.
Table 4 provides a handy checklist of the components that form the core of the Acti-vation Plan. Some of the items have already been discussed; some are self-explanatory. A few of the items require additional discussion and clarification.
The Unit Log (ICS 214), at the initial activation, is the source document for disaster specialists, historians, lawyers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and anyone else with an interest in the disaster. There is a tendency to shortchange the unit log as the pace of the incident increases and staff becomes busy. At that point it is doubly important to keep the log current. It doesn’t have to be a work of literature or calligraphy, just simple statements of fact and the time. A complete log with short accurate statements is infinitely more valuable than long excuses for not having a log after the disaster is stabilized.
Establish contact with the EOC as soon after the activation as possible. This lets the EOC know that the activation message was properly received. It also is an opportunity for the responder to receive up-to-date information and any change in orders. The section staff should assess and report on problems, resources, shortfalls, needs, and options. It is critical that everyone up and down the chain of command be armed with as much information as possible, good news as well as bad news. In emergency situations, decisions will always be made without complete information concerning the incident; however, the more informed the command structure, the better the decisions that will be made.
Review the position checklist. People should review their position checklists and those of their subordinates at least twice during the operational period. This ensures that critical functions will not be overlooked and will help to identify any trouble areas. Ensure that the Resources Unit knows the current status of the staff. This unit is responsible for tracking all personnel assigned to the EOC. Plans are developed around the information the Resources Unit prepares. Accuracy will prevent missteps and help unit leaders and section chiefs to maintain accountability, safety, and security measures for staff and resources.
Last, but certainly not least, on the activation list is the safety and security of assigned personnel. During disasters, even EOCs can be dangerous places. Often, they are within the disaster perimeter and may be in the path of a flood or fire, compromised by earthquake damage or operating without commercial power or direct transportation access. The only foolproof way to ensure safety is through an accountability system. The fire service has learned that lesson, and the other participants in the EOC could benefit from that experience.
After the emergency is abated and the EOC is deactivated, participants are demobilized and sent home. In all likelihood, their homes will be intact and life will go on as before, but with an exciting experience to add to the family’s history. However, for those EOC participants whose homes were affected by the disaster, FEMA has developed a few guidelines (2):
Return home only after authorities advise that it is safe to do so.
Avoid loose or dangling power lines, and immediately report them to the power company or fire department.
Enter the building with caution. Open windows and doors to ventilate. Check refrigerated foods for spoilage.
Take pictures of the damage to the house and its contents for insurance claims.
Drive only if absolutely necessary; avoid damaged roads and bridges.
Use the telephone only for emergency calls.
Check for gas leaks. If an odor of gas is detected or a blowing or hissing noise can be heard, open a window and quickly leave the building. Turn off the gas at the outside main valve, and call the gas company from a neighbor’s home. If the gas is turned off for any reason, a professional must turn it back on.
Look for electrical system damage. Sparks, broken or frayed wires, and a smell of hot insulation are all indications that the electricity should be turned off at the main fuse box or circuit breaker. Do not step in water to get to the fuse box or circuit breaker. Call an electrician first.
Generalists play a useful and an important role in the EOC’s functioning. Properly prepared and trained, they perform alongside firefighters and other first responders. Proper prior planning prevents poor performance. ■
FIRESCOPE Fire Service Field Operations Guide-ICS 420-1, Incident Command System Publication, Sacramento, CA, Jan. 2001.
Gordon Graham, lecture presentation on risk management, Santa Rosa, 1998.
BILL SAGER is retired from a 32-year career with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF). He was a CDF team incident commander, the Butte unit chief, and the Butte County fire chief. He is a designated CFO, state certified fire chief, and graduate of the National Fire Academy (NFA) Executive Fire Officer Program. He has taught for the NFA, the National Interagency Fire Center, the U.S. Coast Guard, the CDF Academy, and community colleges in California.