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October 25, 2007

The 21st Century Emergency Operations Center

Written by  Deborah Serina & Paul Coleman
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We prepare for disasters every year. Our techniques, plans, exercises and skills have improved from the previous year's experiences. We support the idea of 'preparing for the unexpected'. As the 21st century approaches, we anticipate and prepare for the worst case scenario disasters. The emergency operations center is the key to strategic response when a company needs to expedite its recovery from an emergency situation or disaster.

Planning, executing and controlling an emergency situation or the aftermath of a disaster can be accomplished in an emergency operations center (EOC). The key to an effective EOC is knowing who to involve, what resources to have available, what technology should be stored and used, and how accessible the EOC should be privately and publicly.

The Mobile EOC and the Stationary EOC are two familiar types of emergency operations centers. Typically a Mobile EOC is used when a disaster or emergency situation is off site and needs immediate attention at that particular location. For example, the company may experience a chemical spill at one of its facilities. The strategic response required can be accomplished by having a Mobile EOC near the affected facility location. The Stationary EOC is located in a building utilizing sufficient mechanical and electrical systems as well as technical support systems. Ideally, the Mobile EOC and Stationary EOC should be able to communicate with each other.

A proven and successful 21st Century Stationary Emergency Operations Center (EOC) will have the following key components:

  • Location The most important decision in choosing an EOC location is avoiding high risk areas. High risk areas can include liquefaction and selsmically unsafe land, fire and wind prone canyons, lowlands with high risk flood plains, and remote, unpopulated areas. The location should be readily accessible, close to transportation, if possible, and away from other potential risks such as chemical plants, dams and reservoirs, sewage treatment plants, etc.
  • Structure The structure of the building for the EOC should be appropriate for the area's risk potential. For example, in an earthquake prone area you would not want your EOC stationed in a tilt-up building or bricklayed facility for fear that the building would collapse during an earthquake. A reliable EOC structure would be a base isolation building that can be functional immediately after the disaster happens.
    If the EOC is located in a hurricane area, the structure should be made of concrete. The EOC of the 21st century should be built to withstand the maximum credible disaster that might occur. If the EOC for your company is already located in a high risk area, you should take whatever steps are prudent to lessen the risk, and have an alternate EOC location.
  • Infrastructure The EOC of the 21st century should be self sufficient in case the infrastructure for the area is closed down. In a 7.0 or greater magnitude earthquake, it is relatively predictable that all utilities will be lost such as power, water, gas and communications. Therefore, the EOC should have backups for all utilities. This necessitates uninterruptible power supply (UPS), emergency power generators, bulk water supplies for generators and HVAC systems, potable water for personnel, backup for natural gas supplies such as propane, and backup communications when the public switched network is overloaded.
  • Nonstructural Mitigation To reduce the risk of exposure to injury and business loss before a disaster happens, the 21st century EOC should be nonstructurally mitigated. This means that the equipment and building elements in and near the EOC should be restrained or tied down. These areas included bookcases, file cabinets, light fixtures, office and computer equipment, furniture and accessories, workstation locations, supplies and reference manuals, access maps and materials,
  • Emergency Management System The normal management structure of most organizations will not be very functional after a disaster and therefore will require an emergency management system that really works. In a typically hierarchical organization the CEO makes all the crucial decisions. What if the CEO is not available after an emergency situation or disaster. Since decisions typically are not made very quickly in a consensus driven organization, it will be difficult to respond to the situation with expediency.

Therefore, an emergency management system such as the Incident Command System is ideal for disaster response. The basic framework of the Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS) incorporates the use of the Incident Command System developed under the Fire Fighting Resources of California Organized for Potential Emergencies (FIRESCOPE) Program. The Incident Command System (ICS) is a nationally used standardized on-scene emergency management system.

ICS is based on the following operational principles and components.

  • Common terminology
  • Modular organization
  • Integrated communications
  • Unified command structure
  • Consolidated action plans
  • Manageable span of control
  • Designated incident facilities
  • Comprehensive resources management

An ICS organization is developed around the following five major functions that are required on any incident whether it is large or small.

  • Incident Command
  • Operations
  • Planning/Intelligence
  • Logistics
  • Finance/Administration

If there is a need to expand the ICS organization, additional positions exist within the ICS framework to meet virtually any need. ICS is a major step in increasing the effectiveness of California'�s response to emergencies at the field level.

ICS, or Standardized Emergency Management System (SEMS) in California, is an emergency management system that does not rely on certain individuals, but rather is function and checklist driven. It has a manageable span of control for the Incident Commander and Section Chiefs, and is flexible enough to be utilized in any type of disaster.

Communications is the lifeblood of any organization's disaster response and recovery. The key to disaster communications planning is redundancy. No type of communications is 100% reliable and all systems have limitations. Therefore, the EOC should have many levels of redundancy. In a major disaster the public switched network (regular phone system) becomes overloaded and dial tone is unavailable. Therefore, alternatives need to be available that bypass the public phone system.

One way to do this is to utilize cellular phones, which operate on a repeater technology rather that going through the central offices of the phone companies. If your company has its own phone switch in your building, you should make sure to have phone lines that connect directly to the central offices, such as fax lines. Another redundant form of communications may be data lines such as E-mail, which must be on dedicated circuits as opposed to over the public phone system.

Radio systems may be utilized within certain geographical areas such as campuses or larger areas depending on the radio system capabilities. If your organization has an internal phone system such as a tie line, this will probably stay up even in a disaster, although you can only call another company location with this method.
History has shown that in major disasters when linking vital government services fall, it is the licensed amateur radio operator that still has communication with the outside world. This was proven in the Mexico City Earthquake of 1985.

Who should be involved in the 21st century EOC? Personnel who are very well trained in their roles and responsibilities. Ideally, they should be cross trained to be able to fill in several different positions in the emergency management system. Training is the single most important element in having an effective EOC. It has been shown again and again that in a disaster people remember what they practiced rather than what they've read. This is especially true in earthquake areas where panic sets in and even the simplest tasks become difficult to remember and perform,

Training should be conducted regularly, in the form of orientation, drill, table top, functional, and full-scale exercises. We have become used to personnel changes, reorganizations and downsizing which can have a dramatic affect on the performance of duties, tasks, or operations of the 21st century EOC.

The first alternate that needs to be in place is an alternate EOC. No matter how hardened and mitigated your primary EOC site is, uncontrollable factors can enter the picture and render your EOC unusable. The alternate EOC should ideally be located no more than 25 miles away from the primary EOC. We have found from previous experiences that personnel will not drive farther than 25 miles from the primary EOC.

There should be ample alternate personnel trained to serve in the EOC. You cannot count on the primary personnel being available should an earthquake or hurricane damage their homes and communities. It is better to err on the side of training too many personnel rather than too few. This might make for a crowded exercise in the EOC (and you will have to endure complaints from the participants), but that way alternates will be trained and available.

All employees that you expect to serve in the EOC should be encouraged to prepare their homes and families for whatever disasters are prevalent in the area. This should include family communications and evacuation plans, dependent and pet arrangements, and emergency supplies. The more secure an employee is at home the less likely he/she will want to leave the EOC to tend to personal matters.

Effective public relations during and after a disaster can make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful recovery. The public relations personnel should be incorporated into the EOC emergency management structure and should have a separate area to operate.

Thus, the public relations and EOC functions will work in concert, and the company will speak with a single voice. The public relations area should be located in a separate room within the EOC complex but away from the main EOC area. Consider having both a public relations command center room as well as a public relations hot line area. In addition, an area should be provided for media representatives near the EOC but not in the EOC. This area should have strict access control by the company's security department so as to keep the press away from the EOC operations.

The main EOC area should be for the Incident Commander and the Section Chiefs and personnel. Consider having a separate situation status/planning section area to permit these personnel to figure out the area status and future needs without being part of the tumult of the main EOC. Also, smaller meetings may need to be conducted, such as the Incident Commander and Section Chiefs, or the Incident Commander and Public Relations. Therefore, it can be helpful to have smaller meeting rooms available in the EOC complex. A separate room should be provided within the EOC complex for the Policy Group (senior management) to make decisions. In addition, other areas may be provided for communications equipment, emergency supplies, coffee breaks, sleeping, and a fully equipped kitchen.

The EOC of the 21st century needs to plan to take care of the personnel involved in the response and recovery. This should include having enough quality food and water, comfortable sleeping quarters, break areas, bathrooms and shower facilities, and other creature comforts. The Safety Officer in the EOC needs to be cognizant of personnel working too many hours consecutively, and also be aware of diminishing productivity on the part of personnel.

The EOC of the 21st century should be dedicated space that has been improved strictly for the purpose of serving as an EOC during and after a disaster. Today many organizations have EOCs located in conference rooms that are used for many purposes. This can often make setup difficult and too time consuming. Large organizations such as utility companies have dedicated spaces with sophisticated communications systems always active and ready to go. Dedicated space for the EOC makes activation quick, access easy, and improvements and exercises more efficient.

How much will it cost to get started excluding the building structure? For a medium size company with dedicated space between $40,000 and $ 110,000, and for a large company with dedicated space between $125,000 and $200,000. How sophisticated the EOC needs to be to respond and recover the organization's business will depend on Senior Management's decision of how many days business downtime is acceptable.

Only you can prepare for the unexpected and reduce your company's risk of exposure to injury and business loss before a disaster happens. How much time, persistence and money you spend on your EOC will determine your success in resuming your business following a disaster. Take action and begin by having an effective 21st Century Stationary EOC. You may not get a second chance for survival.

Supplies and equipment recommended for the 21st Century Stationary EOC Include:

  • disaster plans, emergency manuals and checklists
  • digital vs.analog telephones with indicator lights to reduce the noise level in the EOC (headsets optional)
  • Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) telephone line for voice, video and data communications
  • standard AM/FM band radios, cellular phones, ham radios, short wave transmitter/receiver, pagers, hand-held radios
  • antennas and feedlines
  • WAN, laptop and desktop PC computers, UPS units, fax machines, laser printers, video cameras, modems, digital vs. analog copiers, photo copiers, paper shredder
  • Lotus Notes Response Information Management System (RIMS) solution software
  • Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software
  • SEMS (five functions of ICS) manuals and diskettes
  • Internet access
  • resource information such as personnel, suppliers, clients, vendor/repair
  • resource telephone directory numbers
  • access maps and reference materials
  • message and log forms, ICS forms and specialized forms for business
  • TVs and VCRs
  • furniture and accessories
  • office supplies, status boards, and ICS signage
  • communications instruments and equipment
  • miscellaneous such as refrigerator, microwave, fire proof safe, generators
  • emergency supplies such as first aid, food, water, diesel fuel for generators 

Deborah Serina is President of RDR Services Company, a Malibu based company specializing in total disaster recovery relationships and emergency survival supplies. Paul Coleman is President of Paul Coleman Consulting, a frequent public speaker and project manager on telecommunications and business recovery.

Read 2791 times Last modified on October 11, 2012