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Thursday, 04 December 2014 06:00

Changing the Course for EOCs: Translating Knowledge into Action

Written by  James Bailey & Chris Bausch

EOC-picture1Albert Einstein said, “Information is not knowledge.” It should come as no great shock that Einstein’s wisdom has multiple applications. But nowhere is it more relevant than in emergency operations centers (EOCs) and the people who staff them.

“Our EOC is truly a coordination point. We don’t direct any tactical operations from our EOC. We activate to support field operations,” explains City of Los Angeles Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Rob Freeman. “We have a system of department operations centers. So information flow is typically from field level up to department operations centers and then to the EOC. But ultimately, this is all about information flow and determining the essential elements within that information. It’s about prioritizing information and issues at the incident level.”

Disasters happen. And EOCs help jurisdictions better manage disasters and planned events as well. To a large extent, EOCs have proved their value time and again as central coordination and decision-making points all based on accurate, complete, and comprehensive information. But there are issues, and not every EOC performs optimally. Information management is the crux of most EOC problems. EOCs suffer from a lack of or too much information, as well as a systematic inability to glean the most pertinent information from the overabundant dross of data that can overwhelm EOC staff during an event. Here’s a real-world example.

EOC-picture6Rain from winter storms caused two landslides in a western state. The county EOC activated to a Level 2. Naturally, all of the stakeholders at the EOC report information as they receive it. But the EOC staff tell the OEM director about only one of the landslides, a minor landslide that the public works department would resolve in three or four hours. The OEM director reports to the district supervisor that Public Works will clear up the landslide in four hours. Later, the OEM director receives a photo by text from the district supervisor of a massive landslide along with the words, “What about this one?” This landslide is much bigger and cannot be resolved for several days. And he knew nothing about it. The OEM director races to the public works desk in the EOC to see if they know about the second landslide. “Oh yeah, it’s much bigger,” he is told. “We’re all over it. It’ll take us a few days to resolve it.” When he asks why he was never told about the second landslide, the reply is simple: “We didn’t know you wanted to know about it.” But the problem is not just about incomplete information.

EOC-picture3Another EOC listed an instruction that read, “Call Mr. Price once something happens.” But that was the complete instruction. In truth, an instruction like that begs a series of questions.

  • Why are you calling him?

  • What are you going to ask him?

  • What do you need from him?

  • How often should you request this information?

  • In what form do you need the information?

  • Should it be updated temporally or by incident?

More importantly, this should have been planned out way in advance of an incident. The worst time to answer those questions is in the middle of a crisis. All of the specifics of what someone needs and how to obtain that information should be planned out in advance and trained on. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Self-analysis is the most difficult form of assessment. EOCs are no exception. Every EOC could benefit from a careful examination of how it collects and processes information. But examination alone is not enough. Once collected and analyzed properly, that information needs to be codified into simple, easy-to-follow steps that everyone in an EOC can follow and refer to at a moment’s notice. We call the result the EOC situational awareness and common operating picture (SA/COP). SA/COP is priority one for optimizing the function and operation of an EOC. But another obstacle exacerbates the problem of a lack of clear, fact-based, documented procedures. EOC staff predominantly work part time in an EOC; they do not work there 24/7. And one can only become so good at something working and training part time.

Virtually every person working in an EOC has a day job. That day job competes directly with EOC training opportunities. So when they receive training, if they are able to attend the training, it can seldom translate to practical expertise. For example, when responders pick up their EOC position checklist, it will instruct them to, "Log in into WebEOC and obtain situational awareness,” as if that’s something you could pluck out of thin air or obtain by virtue of logging into the EOC. Situational awareness is more complex than that. Yet it is almost always glossed over as something simple that just must be “obtained.” This is not an obscure example. In fact, is it the norm in practically every EOC. And that is because situational awareness is addressed in a very specific way with EOCs.EOC-picture2

Many of the same tools used in the military are contained in guidance from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA); they are part of FEMA doctrine. But what that doctrine lacks is how to build the tools to obtain situational awareness. Nowhere does it say how to “establish and maintain situational awareness and disseminate a common operating picture,” as every EOC manual demands. And knowing how to obtain situational awareness could not be more important. Here’s how.

The SA/COP process can best be divided into five unique layers:

  1. Define information requirements.

  2. Identify where to gather the information.

  3. Analyze and process the gathered information.

  4. Define the information sharing environment to facilitate information dissemination.

  5. Integrate the technology enabler (WebEOC, etc...). 

But those five layers alone are not enough. In addition to the above segmentation, four key tools are necessary for an effective SA/COP system build out:

  1. A synchronization matrix that identifies response actions, decision points, information requirements, resource requirements, and key communication nodes

  2. An information collection plan to extract information requirements from the sync matrix and to further define needed information, its sources, and who will process, analyze, and disseminate information and how often.

  3. A knowledge map that draws key information from the synch matrix and provides visual reference for what, how, and with whom information is shared.

  4. The playbook that provides graphic representation of all EOC processes, how they’re performed, and how to leverage technology in the effort.

EOC-picture5No matter what process you use, those are the areas an EOC must cover to create SA/COP. But for many, this process is difficult to grasp in the abstract. So to understand better how the SA/COP process works, think about it in terms of baking a cake:

Step 1: Look at a recipe. Identify ingredients. Make a shopping list. (Identify information requirements)

Step 2: Go to the grocery store with the list. Search for the ingredients. (Gather the information needed)

Step 3: Process the ingredients. Mix the batter. Put it in the oven. Bake. (Analyze the information)

Step 4: Pull it out of the oven. Serve it (Share with others).

Step 5: Ask if people liked it (Obtain feedback).

That sounds simple, and everyone understands that familiar process. Now, imagine the very same process, except that there is no recipe and no ingredients list. So, though someone may never have baked a cake before in his or her life, he or she must walk into a grocery store — where there are a million possible ingredients and combinations of ingredients — and magically grab only the right ingredients to make a cake. Oh, and that person has minutes to do all of this because lives are at stake. That is exactly what we ask EOC responders to do when they do not receive complete SA/COP training. But again, it is not their fault.

EOC-picture4EOC responders work hard. They believe in what they’re doing. But this is about a key piece of training that’s missing. Think of it this way. Imagine taking 53 NFL players randomly from the 32 teams in the league. They’ve never practiced together before. And the first time they’re playing together is in the Super Bowl! Stress, urgency, and uncertainty — they can all negatively affect decision making during a crisis. Much like the military, it all comes down to training and procedures. Proper SA/COP training combines theory with practical application. It provides a detailed process to create highly specific actions to take once the sirens start wailing. SA/COP training provides EOC responders with specific instruction and confidence for what they must do.

“At the end of the day, it’s about returning the city to normal and closing out these incidents. Good situational awareness keeps us on top of that,” adds Freeman. “But the goals of the people in the field are not always the same for the people in the EOC. So it’s important that everyone know his or her role. The playbooks help us practice and train so that everyone knows what the EOC needs. But the playbooks are valuable in many ways. You never know when a disaster will strike. You never know who is going to be on call. You may get someone who is brilliant in the field but doesn’t know how the EOC works. It may be someone’s first day in the EOC. If there is a playbook, they just follow that. It brings everyone up to speed and onto the same page. So it also helps with continuity of operations and succession.”

Information is not knowledge. Knowing how to process and apply that information transforms data into knowledge. And that determines success for EOCs. Proper SA/COP training is a unique tool for codifying and systematizing the processing, analysis, and dissemination of information and transforming it into the single greatest commodity during an emergency — knowledge.

About the Authors

James Bailey is Willdan Homeland Solutions president and CEO. He is also a retired Marine Corps intelligence officer with 20 years of military experience. Bailey created an SA/COP training course with Red Team Intelligence president and CEO Chris Bausch. Bausch is also a retired Marine Corps intelligence officer with 20 years of military experience.