Once filled to capacity with representatives from various state agencies, the State Emergency Operations Center has provided more physical distance between workers by allowing some representatives to work remotely.

Jan 29 2021

How to Build an Emergency Operations Center for State or Local Government

EOCs are hubs of connectivity public safety agencies can set up to respond to disasters.

States, counties and cities are always on guard for large-scale emergencies. When those arrive or seem imminent, they often activate emergency operations centers. This can be done to coordinate responses for everything from civil unrest to snowstorms or flash flooding.

Similar in many respects to real-time crime centers or fusion centers, emergency operations centers gather data from numerous sources in a central location to help state and local public safety agencies coordinate responses. For EOCs, the response is usually related to a natural disaster or large-scale emergency.

Emergency operations centers’ role is to serve as “a physical or virtual location from which coordination and support of incident management activities is directed,” notes Ready.gov, a federal website.

What Is the Role of an Emergency Operations Center?

An emergency operations center can be a building or a room, or a virtual EOC set up via telephonic and collaboration tools “designed to support emergency response, business continuity and crisis communications activities,” Ready.gov notes. EOC staffers, which are often drawn from local, state and federal public safety or emergency response agencies, manage preparations for an upcoming incident or the response to an ongoing one.

“By gathering the decision makers together and supplying them with the most current information, better decisions can be made,” Ready.gov notes.

Jim Spell, who spent 33 years as a firefighter with Vail Fire & Emergency Services in Colorado and the past 20 years as a captain, writes in FireRescue1 that an EOC has six main objectives.

The first is to “provide continuity and communications throughout an event or incident, by identifying challenges, providing solutions and taking recommendations.” A second element of an emergency operations center’s purpose is to “coordinate responding local, state and federal agencies, organizations and companies, command and control, including legal requirements and political ramifications.”

The third, Spell writes, is to “provide resources and personnel throughout the divisions, sections, branches and units associated with ICS/National Incident Management System.”

EOCs also need to “manage data, general and public information utilizing recognized and scheduled forms and communication channels,” and “deal with overall financial pressure and immediate expenditures.” Finally, Spell writes, EOCs must “plan for the unexpected.”

training document from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on EOCs notes that they “provide a means of centralizing and managing communications and information within an EOC, between an EOC and the Incident Commander in the field, and between the EOC and the public.”

FEMA also notes that “there is no one type of EOC; they vary in size and configuration, and most facilities will serve dual purposes.”

How to Set Up an Emergency Operations Center

According to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security document on the National Incident Management System, EOCs “may be organized by major discipline (e.g., fire, law enforcement, or emergency medical services); by emergency support function (e.g., transportation, communications, public works and engineering, or resource support); by jurisdiction (e.g., city, county, or region); or, more likely, by some combination thereof.”

Public safety agencies should establish a primary EOC at their main facilities, and a secondary one should be set up at either another agency facility, a temporary facility (such as a hotel) or through a teleconference bridge, according to Ready.gov.

“An EOC is not an on-scene incident command post (ICP) — where the focus is on tactics to deal with the immediate situation,” Ready.gov notes. “An EOC is used to support on-scene activities through the prioritization of activities and the allocation of available resources.”

EOCs “may be staffed by personnel representing multiple jurisdictions and functional disciplines and a wide variety of resources,” according to the DHS document.

For example, the DHS notes, an EOC set up to respond to a bioterrorism incident would likely have some combination of law enforcement, emergency management, public health and medical personnel.

CDC Emergency Operations Center

A view inside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s EOC. Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The most important function of an EOC, once it has been activated, is to serve as a communication hub so that emergency responses can be more efficient and informed. Once activated, DHS notes, EOCs must establish communications between incident commands on the scene and the EOC, as well as “with other EOCs, including those maintained by private organizations.” DHS also says that “communications between EOCs must be reliable and contain built-in redundancies.”

EOCs focus on real-time analysis to enhance situational awareness for first responders and are very focused on analyzing video surveillance feeds and other on-the-ground information inputs.

As a CDW white paper notes, EOCs “balance agility and thoroughness to ensure their decisions are the right ones,” and they “integrate data from meteorological models, connected sensors, road closure and power outage reports, geolocation data from smartphones, and social media, among many other sources.”

There are numerous technologies that enable this kind of analysis. As technical engineering firm NV5 notes, these include video walls, which aid in data visualization and monitoring of video feeds.

“The most basic configuration is a 46” or 55” monitor used in a 2 high by 2 wide matrix,” Don Fisher, a systems designer at NV5, writes in a blog post. “Monitors can also be arranged in different combinations such as 3 x 5, 2 x 6, and so on. While these different combinations offer intriguing non-standard aspect ratios, it’s important to ensure you have a video wall processor or computer that will match that resolution.”

CineMassive, a leading video wall provider, advises EOCs to set up a video wall solution that “includes easy to understand controls,” “runs on common tablets, PCs and smart devices,” “provides a browser-based interface,” “enables centralized device management,” and “requires no prior programming knowledge.”

Other important elements are high-definition 4K displays and software-based videoconferencing tools to enable collaboration.

As the CDW white paper notes, New York’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services “partnered with the State University of New York’s Albany Visualization and Informatics Lab to elevate the state’s 2019 Hazard Mitigation Plan. Data, connectivity and visualization emerged as key features.”

How to Build an Emergency Operations Center Plan

There are numerous steps agencies should take to develop an EOC plan. According to a FEMA document on emergency operations plans, they include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Describe the purpose and functions of an EOC during an emergency or declared disaster.
  • Describe or identify under what conditions the jurisdiction will activate a primary and/or alternate EOC and who makes this determination.
  • Identify the primary and alternate sites that will likely be used as an EOC for the jurisdiction.
  • Describe the process used to activate the primary or alternate EOC.
  • Identify who is in charge of the EOC.
  • Describe or identify the EOC staff and equipment requirements necessary for an EOC (e.g., first response liaisons, elected or appointed officials, support agencies, communications, administrative support).
  • Identify and describe the actions that will be taken to gather and share pertinent information between the scene, outside agencies and the EOC (e.g., damage observations, response priorities, resource needs), including sharing information between neighboring and state EOCs.
  • Describe the EOC’s ability to manage an emergency response that lasts longer than 24 hours (e.g., staffing needs, shift changes, resource needs, feeding, alternate power).
  • Identify and describe the actions that will be taken to routinely brief senior officials who are not present in the EOC on the emergency situation (e.g., governor, commissioner, administrative judge, mayor, city council, trustees) and to authorize emergency actions (e.g., declare an emergency, request state and federal assistance, purchase resources).

READ MORE: What steps need to be taken when your agency is deploying a next-generation work center?

Emergency Operations Center Design Standards

According to FEMA, the design criteria for an EOC vary widely based on “the types of disasters that could occur in any given community.”

A hazard vulnerability analysis, which identifies the risks that are most likely to happen to a given community, “provides a good basis for determining the ‘worst-case scenario’ in locating and designing the EOC,” according to FEMA.

“The most critical consideration is the ability of the EOC to survive any emergency or disaster with continuous operations,” FEMA states. “Protection should be an integral part of planning, building or modifying, and equipping the EOC. Securing the building and its staff against a wide variety of conditions will require close examination of its basic location (outside immediate hazard areas); structural integrity (ability to withstand storms, terrorist assault, etc.); and security procedures.”

All EOCs must comply with both the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Emergency operations centers are integral elements of a public safety response and should be designed with the needs of the local community in mind.

Wisconsin National Guard/Flickr, Creative Commons