Emergency Operations Centers: The Ultimate Command Posts

As emergency response agencies realize the efficiencies of the Incident Management System (IMS), more emphasis is being placed on the tools required to effectively manage. Emergency operations centers (EOCs) are nothing new; in fact, they date back to the...


As emergency response agencies realize the efficiencies of the Incident Management System (IMS), more emphasis is being placed on the tools required to effectively manage. Emergency operations centers (EOCs) are nothing new; in fact, they date back to the days of the Cold War and Civil Defense...


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As emergency response agencies realize the efficiencies of the Incident Management System (IMS), more emphasis is being placed on the tools required to effectively manage. Emergency operations centers (EOCs) are nothing new; in fact, they date back to the days of the Cold War and Civil Defense. And while earlier versions were fairly sparse and called into play for natural disasters or threat of war, today's generation of facilities is as diverse as the variety of emergencies faced by the fire service. Just as command posts can range from a hastily requisitioned storefront to a 40-foot air-conditioned specialized vehicle, EOCs run the gamut from a convertible class or conference room to an entire stand-alone structure specially designed to offset local hazards.

The size and composition of most EOCs is dictated by both the local emergency management structure and local conditions. Communities in hurricane-prone regions often have large facilities designed to weather the storms. Those in areas hosting nuclear power plants may subscribe to a completely different set of guidelines, while smaller rural communities will likely have facilities more reflective of their challenges. Regardless of their size, there are universal concerns that must be addressed when establishing and planning an emergency operations center.

Perhaps the most basic questions are "Why do we need one?" and "When will it be activated?" The short answer to the first query is that every community, regardless of size, location and makeup can face an incident that requires a significant amount of off-site coordination. Here, a much broader assessment of local needs will be done that includes all predictable generic events, the potential extent of these events and the identification of the resources that will be mobilized to manage them. In this context, the term "resources" includes personnel as well as fixed or mobile assets that must be on site to assist with this management. The hazards and potential scenarios identified during this process provide the answers to the second half of the question.

Intelligence gathering and sharing is the prime function of any emergency operations center. Any design must provide all required agencies with a place at the table and a mechanism for information management. Obviously, public safety radios are a prime means of both receiving and disseminating information. Where the EOC is co-located with the 911 public safety answering point (PSAP), this may involve nothing more than the addition of a few consoles or control sets to the existing electronics. For stand-alone facilities, a more robust approach will be required. The nature of emergency management also dictates that communications involve more than just fire, police and emergency medical services, but local government and, in some cases, private industry as well. This is especially true where utilities are not managed by the municipality.

Mutual aid channels that provide contact with neighboring communities can supplant local frequencies and space for amateur radio operators are common additions. Depending on regional hazards, special hotlines or ring-down circuits can also be installed to provide direct connection to critical facilities. Access to data is essential, and this can take many forms. Material Data Safety Sheets (MSDS) and Title Three records may be stored in hard copy or obtained online, and there is a wide variety of software that can assist in plotting plume releases, and even sharing information within the EOC. Cable TV monitors are also a prime source of up-to-the-minute reporting and represent a portion of an exploding video trend.

According to Jeffrey Winbourne of the Washington, DC-based consulting firm Winbourne & Costas Inc., "The use of video is growing and the number of cameras available to feed the EOC is increasing. This leads to several considerations related to video, which we didn't have just a few years ago. To take advantage of the growth in video usage, three operational components are to be considered: camera field deployment that provides the ability to get video where you need it — either from a mobile unit or fixed cameras; an analytical capability to determine what video to display to the decision makers in the EOC; and the EOC displays themselves."

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