Emergency Operations Centers: The Heartbeat of Disaster Management

Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) are complex facilities to design and build. Many emergency managers and other participants in response operations may be involved in only one new facility or only one remodeling during their careers. To begin with, it is a major challenge to obtain funding for an EOC that is designed not only to meet the needs of all partners and participants but also to take into account all of the critical factors and forces involved. Options for laying out functions in an operations room, and the relationships among designated spaces, are only two of many key factors to consider. In addition, the technology that is both available and accessible plays a huge role – e.g., audio-visual displays that make facilities media-friendly, the wireless capacity that makes a virtual operation possible, and the geographic information system that makes damage assessments readily available. Trends in the construction of new facilities and staffing issues for new facilities are increasingly offering numerous innovative options for configuration.

However, it is the incident action plans (IAPs) put into place in advance (in collaboration with all of the stakeholders involved), the professional leadership of the partners – honed and developed in joint planning, training, and exercises – and the resourcefulness of the participants that make or break an EOC’s effectiveness. Other keys to success are management ability in a command-and-control environment, overall resource-management capabilities, and the mutual-aid arrangements reached through pre-arranged understandings such as Emergency Management Assistance Compacts (EMACs),

It also is essential that the facility possess both survivability and redundancy, or there could be a repeat of the situation that occurred when New York City’s EOC, which was located in the World Trade Center at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was itself destroyed. A well-equipped EOC features excellent and redundant communications, so that decision makers will have ready access at all times to real-time situational awareness. Flexibility also is required of all participants, so an open architecture is a plus (provided, though, that security can be maintained at the highest levels).

Changes in Guidelines, Funding Rules

A change in federal guidelines and in funding during the current fiscal year has opened opportunities for additional communities to consider how they might upgrade an existing EOC or build a new one. Under the Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPG) program, federal funds can be used for the construction and/or renovation of emergency operations centers. However, construction and renovation costs are capped at the same level as in the fiscal year 2008 EOC guidance: $1 million for construction; and $250,000 for renovation. Nonetheless, EMPG will still be the fiscal backbone of emergency management across the country at the state and local levels; the fiscal 2009 rules require that 25 percent of this year’s allocations be spent on planning, training, and exercises.

The physical structure of the center is less important, however, than the competency of the professionals who staff it. They must have the ability to respond effectively and authoritatively to any possible disaster, and should also be able to think outside the proverbial box when confronting the robust uncertainties of the emergencies and disasters that have occurred so frequently in recent years.

The DHS/FEMA guidance provided for the Incident Command System/National Incident Management System (ICS/NIMS) and the National Response Framework (NRF) set the stage for successful EOC operations. The National Fire Protection Association’s “1600” guidelines – available from the NFPA website (www.nfpa.org) and similar guidance from the Emergency Management Accreditation Program (www.emap.org) both provide a good foundation for an effective response.

A Multi-Faceted Mandate for Excellence

Following are some of the more important incident-management guidelines mandated by those policy documents:

  • The entity shall develop an incident management system to direct, control, and coordinate response-and-recovery operations.
  • The incident-management system shall describe specific organizational roles, titles, and responsibilities for each incident-management function.
  • The entity shall establish applicable procedures and policies for coordinating response, continuity, and recovery activities with stakeholders directly involved in response, continuity, and recovery operations.
  • The entity shall establish applicable procedures and policies for coordinating response, continuity, and recovery activities with appropriate authorities and resources, including the activation and deactivation of plans, while ensuring compliance with applicable statutes or regulations.
  • Emergency operations/response shall be guided by an incident-action plan or by a management-by-objectives approach.

The number and titles of personnel working in the EOC may vary from community to community and from disaster to disaster, but usually will include some combination of the following: an emergency manager; a fire chief or battalion chief; a police chief; a public works director; the city manager; a recreation and parks director; a school superintendent/principal; a health director; an environmental director; a water, sewer, and sanitation director; a number of chamber of commerce/business leaders; some media representatives; one or more FEMA officials; a county manager; the city mayor (or his/her representative); a county manager (or his/her representative); a sheriff; and members of the National Guard.

Also likely to be working in the EOC will be representatives of various non-governmental charities that usually play an active role in coping with disasters – e.g., the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Way, the Interfaith Alliance, the National Council of Churches, Catholic Charities, and the United Jewish Federation.

Regardless of the specific individuals involved or their formal positions, it is helpful in an EOC setting to keep in mind the basic principles of emergency management – with every participant/stakeholder being collaborative, comprehensive, progressive, risk-driven, integrated, coordinated, flexible, and professional. When all participants possessing these valuable qualities join forces to respond to and help a community recover from a disaster, the result will almost always be not only a magnificent display of community spirit but also a willingness to focus on the common good to bring about a brighter and more positive future for all concerned.

Kay Goss
Kay C. Goss

Kay Goss has been the president of World Disaster Management since 2012. She is the former senior assistant to two state governors, coordinating fire service, emergency management, emergency medical services, public safety, and law enforcement for 12 years. She then served as the Associate Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director for National Preparedness, Training, Higher Education, Exercises, and International Partnerships (presidential appointee, U.S. Senate confirmed unanimously). She was a private sector government contractor for 12 years at the Texas firm Electronic Data Systems as a senior emergency manager and homeland security advisor and SRA International’s director of emergency management services. She is a senior fellow at the National Academy for Public Administration and serves as a nonprofit leader on the Board of Advisors for DRONERESPONDERS International and for the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. She has also been a graduate professor of Emergency Management at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for 16 years, İstanbul Technical University for 12 years, the MPA Programs Metropolitan College of New York for five years, and George Mason University. She has been a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) for 25 years and a Featured International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) CEM Mentor for five years, and chair of the Training and Education Committee for six years, 2004-2010.



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