The Emergency Operations Center: A Vital Preparedness Tool

BY WILLIAM SHOULDIS

The emergency operations center (EOC) is a generic tool for coordinating on-scene operations during low-frequency and high-risk incidents. Every community, large and small, faces the likelihood of an overwhelming emergency event. Often, these incidents will lack a common operating picture and can transcend political jurisdictional boundaries. The ability of a community to acquire and allocate necessary resources hinges on being prepared. The roots of a community’s “all-hazard” preparedness program involve intergovernmental relations and a detailed planning process that includes mutual-aid assistance agreements. Emphasis must be on technical information based on an accurate assessment of risk, vulnerability, and capabilities. Resources will be scarce during a large-scale incident, and the EOC can identify and obtain additional assets that are not always available to the on-scene incident commander (IC).

The EOC mobilizes people and equipment to handle incidents that are outside the ability of any single agency to resolve. The purpose of the EOC is to ensure that departmental response capabilities are maintained and authoritative information is disseminated to the general public. Capturing important incident-related information at an EOC will provide senior officials with data to set strategic directions; establish priorities; allocate resources; and, under extreme circumstances, declare a disaster. These actions allow field commanders to focus on the incident objectives while the EOC handles supportive endeavors.

The EOC is an integral component of the larger Multiagency Coordination System (MACS). The entire MACS consists of initial dispatch, on-scene command, coordination resource centers, coordination entities, and the EOC. Often, major incidents require the activation of all components of the MACS during the response and recovery phases. The establishment of an EOC is a “time-tested” link in a stronger public safety system when the use of critical resources requires decisive actions. The EOC serves as a message center among the IC, elected officials, and nearby jurisdictions. Under ideal conditions, the EOC is centrally located where representatives from various agencies can gather during an emergency. The EOC becomes the pipeline of information for organizations that work behind the scenes to protect the population at risk during a potential disaster.

An important criterion for selecting an EOC is easy access for agency representatives and elected officials. Large displays assist in the transfer of critical information and create a common operating picture for organizations staffing the EOC.

 

TYPES OF EOCs

 

 

Fixed Facility

 

The primary EOC is a central location usually found in an existing multipurpose government building that will reduce delays in the arrival of senior officials and staff personnel. Usually the EOC is a permanent location with permanent equipment. In addition to the main location, it is important for financial and logistical reasons to identify potential alternate sites for reliability and suitability as part of an overall community risk management plan. It would be chaotic if, during an emergency event, the center were damaged or had to be evacuated. Local government should follow the federal government guidelines that suggest a need for Continuity of Government and Continuity of Operations (COOP). It should take no longer than 12 hours to “ramp up,” or convert, a backup facility into a fully operable (hot) facility. All communities should have a checklist for doing this.

 

Mobile EOC

 

The mobile EOC is used when a disaster is widespread and there is an urgent need for a face-to-face briefing with the incident management team (IMT) to reduce confusion. The flexibility of a mobile EOC allows for optimal interaction between the IMT and the Policy Group when jointly reviewing critical information. A tractor-trailer-style vehicle offers a degree of comfort and a full communications center with software that can tie together radio frequencies. Vehicles should have linkage to the Internet, and most have a security camera system that monitors all six sides. The mobile EOC allows for planning from various locations and can provide valuable insight for executive decision makers in a stable situation with short-term recovery challenges.

 

Virtual EOC

 

This innovative concept has combined with “next-technology” to replace the traditional “brick-and-mortar” EOC facility. A virtual EOC is a state-of-the-art emergency management solution that exists solely or partially in cyberspace with private networks and satellite communication. Remote locations will reduce the reflex time and limit vulnerability that exists when all senior officials are assembled at a central location. With a virtual EOC, authorized individuals have anytime, anywhere access with a user name, password, and multiple secure server with software application to a high-tech terminal that can provide a higher-level knowledge of emergency management principles. A technical specialist can be provided for a global perspective on specific hazards and mitigation steps needed in a local community. Smartphones, three-dimensional digital blueprints to improve visualization features, make the visions of yesterday today’s reality.

In any type of EOC, whenever a complex incident or widespread disaster strikes a community, the efforts of traditional and nontraditional first responders [for example, a community emergency response team (CERT) must be closely coordinated and fully supported]. This is essential to managing the numerous resources from different disciplines. The reporting relationship between the EOC and the IC is important to avoid conflicts, confusion, and duplication of efforts on the front line. The staff at an EOC will need different competencies based on the kind of damage or destruction caused by a manmade or natural disaster. After-action reports from major incidents clearly reveal that local resources will be overwhelmed and will require external assistance. History has shown that there can be a serious disconnect between the IC and the EOC when a joint planning process is not practiced. The EOC will fail in its unique mission without adequate and accurate information. The EOC staff and the IC need sufficient time to create a meaningful plan of action based on factual data. The EOC is responsible for organizations’ working together and being aware of one another’s mission.

Just as the IC needs a stationary incident command post (ICP) for effectiveness at the emergency scene, a single EOC facility that is well-designed and sufficiently staffed will improve coordination and support endeavors. Any major emergency situation can cause large losses. A partnership between the EOC and the IC will protect lives and property and will minimize the impact of response and recovery problems.

 

ESSENTIAL FUNCTIONS OF THE EOC

 

The EOC depends on maintaining situational awareness. Planning enables agencies’ representatives to focus on vital services to maintain the safety and well-being of the public at risk. The proper time to develop and practice an emergency operation plan (EOP) is before a community suffers a high-risk/low-frequency incident. Document the following essential functions during EOC activation to ensure a fair distribution of resources:

  • Damage assessment reports.
  • Resources, acquired and used.
  • Media and public requests for assistance.
  • Accounting of public safety expenses.
  • Response plan for providing evacuation and sheltering.
  • Support services for food, water, ice, and utilities.
  • Incident log (ICS #214) form.

 

 

ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE OF THE EOC

 

EOCs exist in many forms, and there is no single organizational structure that is correct for all jurisdictions. The key is to maximize the staff’s efforts and allow decision making at the lowest practical level. Presidential Directive #5, which outlines “Command and Management” procedures, does not mandate that any community adopt any particular model as its organizational structure. However, in the future, federal grant money may be linked to the specific way an EOC is organized. An EOC should be organized with the intent of facilitating a smooth operation with data collection, documentation, and executive decision making to maintain public confidence under ever-changing conditions while acting on routine, priority, and classified information.

The local government is entirely responsible for the management of emergency activities within its jurisdictional boundaries. Response priorities will focus on getting the right resources to the right place at the right time. This promotes total uniqueness in the concept of operations at local and state EOCs.

Typically, there are four ways to organize an EOC facility. Each has some recognized coordination and support challenges. Over time, many jurisdictions have used these structures very successfully.

 

1. Major Management Activities Structure

 

Policy Group—comprised of “high-level” elected officials and department heads who focus on the overall objectives and priorities of the community. Decisions made by the Policy Group set the direction for implementation by the Coordination, Resource, and Operations Groups.

Coordination Group—personnel responsible for collecting and analyzing data, including advanced predictions based on the essential functions of damage, resource allocation, public information, and expenditures that an EOC must gather.

Resource Group—comprised of representatives from agencies or organizations that provide or could be asked to supply resources to the scene. These organizations may include transportation agencies, utility companies, business and industry representatives, and mutual-aid partners.

Emergency Management Operations Group—representatives from any agency with responsibility for any portion of the response or recovery. Units within this group are dictated by the specific incident for a tactical assignment, including law enforcement, fire, public works, emergency medical services, and numerous other agencies.

The advantage of this model is that the organizational structure is relatively simple, with straight lines of communication and chain of command. With this model, all key problem solvers and representatives from participating agencies can contribute to decision making and resource allocation.

The disadvantage of this model is the linkages with on-scene commanders. There is not a one-to-one match between the organization of the on-scene incident command structure and the EOC organization.

 

2. Incident Command System (ICS) Structure

 

The EOC’s emergency program manager or designee fills the top position. The EOC commander serves a similar role as the Policy Group and makes executive decisions that establish the overall objectives “concept of operation” at the EOC. Often under this format, the emergency program manager is viewed as the EOC commander. This military-style command structure can increase the interaction and provides a heightened level of situational awareness.

Emergency Management Operations is responsible for coordinating with and supporting on-scene responders. Position titles of branches, divisions, and groups are organized as necessary to support the incident.

Emergency Management Planning is responsible for gathering and analyzing information and informing decision makers of changes in the use of resources. A technical specialist may be used to provide special insight and expertise.

Emergency Management Logistics serves as the single ordering point from the ICP. Coordinating the network of primary and backup communications equipment will assist in any large-scale incident, but it is especially meaningful during an evacuation or reentry with special transportation and housing needs.

Emergency Management Finance/Administration is responsible for designing financial projections.

The advantage of this model is the clarity of roles and functional integrity, which leads to a clear contact point between the IC and the EOC. The coordination and support of logistical and financial duties will relieve the workload at the incident scene and dispatch center.

The disadvantage of this model is the potential for confusion about authority at the incident scene vs. in the EOC facility.

 

3. Emergency Service Functions (ESF) Structure

 

An operation manager is in charge of the EOC. The Operation area can include branches such as firefighting, public works/emergency engineering, public health and medical service, urban search and rescue, mass care, and law enforcement. Currently, there are 15 branches under the National Response Framework (NRF).

The Planning area includes situation analysis, documentation, advanced planning, technical services, damage assessment, resources status, and geographic information system technology. The Logistics area includes a service and support branch.

The Finance/Administration area includes compensation claims; purchasing/procurement; cost concerns; timesheets for personnel; and disaster financial assistance based on legal records such as contracts, accounting records, and property management photos.

The advantage of this model is that it appeals to local and state EOCs because there is a clear one-to-one relationship with the NRF as well as with on-scene ICS organizations.

The disadvantage is that local and state EOCs may not correspond directly at the Operations level with the federal ESFs. This potential misunderstanding with the ICS positions in the on-scene Operation Section is a serious drawback and necessitates an enormous amount of additional training to ensure that the agencies responsible for ESFs are able to competently perform their assigned duties.

 

4. Multiagency Coordination (MAC) Group Structure

 

A MAC Group is made up of organization, agency, or jurisdiction representatives who are authorized to commit resources and funds. The success of the MAC Group depends on its current membership. Sometimes membership is obvious by the organizations that are directly impacted and have a resources commitment to an incident. Often, organizations that should be members of a MAC Group are less obvious. These organizations may include the local Chamber of Commerce, volunteer groups, the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, faith-based charities, and other organizations with special expertise or knowledge. These groups may not have “hard” resources or funds to contribute in the response and recovery phase, yet their contacts, political influence, and technical expertise are the foundation for a collaborative effort.

The MAC Group coordinator is an optional position that provides supervision to the various components. Members of the MAC Group directly distribute the result of their deliberation to their own organizations as well as through the chain of command (MAC entities, dispatch centers).

The MAC Group Situation Assessment Unit collects and assembles information needed for the MAC Group to fulfill its role. At times, a MAC Group Resource Status Information Unit will gather information on the status of resources.

The Joint Information Center (JIC) is a public information unit that has access to local information sources and governmental entities and is responsible for coordinating a summary report. Public information must be organized around a Joint Information System that is overseen by public information officers. Intelligence information is routed from the EOC to the JIC for collection, validation, and public dissemination.

The advantage of this model is that it works well to ensure coordination among other MAC entities. It is useful as a mechanism where no system exists to provide short-term multiagency coordination and decision making. Typically, a MAC Group fits into a policymaking part of an existing EOC.

Some of the more common MAC Group applications include the following:

  • A single jurisdiction may establish a MAC group as part of its EOC function. In this application, it is important that the jurisdiction broadly define its role because of the impact on other agencies and organizations.
  • MAC Groups are frequently defined geographically, especially when an emergency crosses jurisdictional boundaries.
  • A MAC Group may be organized functionally. For example, law enforcement agencies at local, state, and federal levels may establish a MAC Group to assist in coordinating a response to a major terrorist activity.
  • A MAC Group may be organized nationally. For example, during wildfire season, a National MAC Group convenes at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. This MAC Group includes representatives from the federal wildland fire agencies, the states, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the military.

 

The disadvantage of this model is a lack of clearly defined, standardized relationships to other MAC entities. There is no associated implementation of staffs, and it rarely is used as a stand-alone structure in an EOC. A “generic” MAC component can be used at any level of government.

 

CHARACTERISTICS OF AN EFFECTIVE ORGANIZATION

 

How information is used will affect how the information is managed. Being prepared means there is no substitute for planning, training, and exercising. Individuals are not very good at tasks they do not do often. Job aids, checklists, and cross-training will ensure that the essential functions of an EOC will be documented even with the smallest staff.

Training is a key element once the standard operating guideline and EOP are written. It has been repeatedly shown that during an incident, most workers remember what they practiced instead of what they were told or have read. This is especially true where decision making and practical problem solving can get intense. Without an understanding of the situation and regular practice, panic can set in, and even the simplest task can become difficult to remember. Maintaining sustainable skills in the data collection, documentation, and parameters for decision making during an EOC activation is critical for safety and effectiveness. Personnel changes, reorganizations, and downsizing can have a dramatic effect on job performance. A yearly orientation with periodic tabletop and full-scale exercises all have value in reinforcing essential functions and duties at an EOC.

Communication is the “lifeblood” at any incident. A communications network of “talk paths” and shared radio channels will enhance responders’ ability to transfer information among various private and public agencies. Determining the scope of the disaster is possible only when first responders in the field accurately report conditions to the appropriate EOC representatives so that positive actions can be taken.

The EOC is the hub for communication. Incident information, with a clear message flow and recording system, must be shared within the EOC, between the EOC and the ICP, between the EOC and the general public, and between community-elected officials and other jurisdictions.

The EOC is the key to minimizing any conflict, confusion, and duplication during the response or recovery phases of a large-scale incident. By having high-level decision makers located together, there is a greater chance that all resources will be safely used to a maximum level of efficiency. The EOC’s coordination and support will assist the on-scene commanders in accomplishing strategic and tactical activities.

Communication among the various response partners from the local to the national level is described as one of the most challenging aspects during any emergency. To save lives and protect priorities, there must be a seamless flow of two-way communication between the ICP and the EOC. Today is the day to start improving standard operating policies, updating emergency concepts of operation plans, and formulating a positive working relationship with your numerous partners in command, management, and preparedness.

WILLIAM SHOULDIS retired as deputy chief from the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department, where he served in line and staff positions for more than 34 years. His assignments included working directly for the fire chief on labor relations and accountability issues and serving as field commander for one-half of the city, department safety officer, director of training, and hazardous materials task force leader. He is an instructor at the Graduate School at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, the National Fire Academy, and the Emergency Management Institute. He has a master’s degree in public safety.

 

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