Emergency Management - Part II

Imagine the following scenario: you are the Incident Commander at a warehouse fire that is known to have a large quantity of hazardous materials stored. Dispatch notifies you that "Evacuation of the area has begun and OEM has activated the EOC." What goes through your mind? Some incident commanders would be prepared for a message like this and would not be alarmed. But others, who are hearing this message for the first time, may not respond as well.

As discussed in last month's article, Emergency Management has taken on many roles in recent years. One of the most important roles is the command and control of the local Emergency Operation Centers (EOC). This month's article is designed to provide information to members of the fire service about the roles and function of the Emergency Operation Center.

Whether natural, technological, or an act of terrorism, a massive occurrence will place an extraordinary strain on the local government where the incident occurred. The more an incident escalates, the more demands placed on both public and private services. This incident may require extra personnel, equipment and special skills such as USAR Teams and Haz-Mat Specialists. Emergency professionals will have to coordinate temporary housing, sheltering and alternative work sites. Local government must direct and control all operations of the incident, while ensuring that the community is still functional. A central facility, in which all disciplines can be coordinated, is crucial for any incident and enables the local government to maintain control and coordinate all emergency operations. This locale is commonly known as an "Emergency Operations Center."

The Emergency Operations Center

Who is in charge? What is their role? Who staffs it? What happens there? An understanding of the operations of the EOC is essential, and these are the primary questions that must be answered in order to provide that understanding.

Who is in charge and what is their role?

In most EOCs, the local Emergency Management Coordinator is in command, while in some areas, the senior local executive (Mayor or Town Administrator) will act as the lead or director. The main function of the EOC Coordinator is to coordinate the activities and the players of the incident. The most crucial thing the Coordinator needs to understand is that he cannot interfere with the Incident Commander and the ICS activities for the incident. For example, when the fire department is operating at the scene, the EOC Coordinator should be gathering the organizations that are needed to support the incident.

The key purpose of the activation of the EOC is so the INCIDENT COMMANDER CAN FOCUS ON THE MAIN EVENT, NOT THE SECONDARY ISSUES. Perhaps this is a forceful statement, but to highlight the importance of the focus of the incident commander, return to the scenario of the fire in the warehouse full of hazardous materials. The Incident Commander decides to evacuate the area. His concern now has to be on the fire; if he is distracted by the evacuation procedures and sheltering concerns, tragedy can result. It is critical for the Emergency Management Coordinator at the EOC to handle the coordination of these secondary consequences of the evacuation. However, as important as it is to relieve the Incident Commander of these functions, it must be noted that the process of evacuation and sheltering is to be done at the command of, and in conjunction with, the Incident Commander.

What happens at the EOC?

Once the EOC is activated, what function does the EOC serve? Each Emergency Operation Center must have an Emergency Operation Plan (EOP). This plan dictates who and what organizations will respond to which type of incident. The EOP is the Emergency Operation Center's preplan, similar to the preplans prepared in the fire service.

Information gathering is one function that takes place at the EOC. Again, return to the fire at the warehouse. The fire representative at the EOC can obtain additional information about the building construction, building materials (especially the hazardous materials), and meet with the health officials about the incident. These activities provide important information, but do not interfere with the incident command. Additional information gathering, which is necessary for any disaster recovery funding application that the municipality will submit, is also performed at the EOC and will be recorded and stored there.

Another activity that can be performed at the EOC is public information disbursement. This is the most important function that is accomplished at the EOC. If officials need to inform the public to "shelter in place," to evacuate, or any other information that may be needed, it can be performed from the EOC. Another advantage of EOC activation is that media coverage can be controlled: the Public Information Officer can respond to the EOC and disperse the appropriate information to the media. Additionally, activation of the EOC can keep the politicians away from the incident (I can say this because my wife is one). Departmental SOPs should be written to include a provision that the Mayor or his designee responds to the EOC to take on the role of spokesperson for the other governmental officials.

As mentioned above, coordination of the various organizations responding to the EOC is an essential element. As a Fire Officer, I would rather have the outside agencies respond to the EOC than to my Command Post. This centrally located EOC can host all the towns' disciplines (including, for example, representatives from the Red Cross, utility companies, and other local government agencies, such as police, road department, engineering, sanitation) and report to me, via the fire department representative. Keeping all these agencies together and involved, yet, not at the incident, is important to preventing the interruption of command and control.

In the next article, I will describe additional duties of the EOC and the fire department's role in the Emergency Operation Center. For additional information about EOC activation, you may contact me at Paul.Malool@fema.gov