Clark Reynolds & Co.
As an elected official have you ever wondered, “Why have an Emergency Operations Center?” This is a good question.
A jurisdiction’s Emergency Operations Center, or EOC, is a critical emergency resource, as important as a fire truck. But, EOC’s are not fully appreciated, probably because their purpose is not clearly understood. Having a clear purpose can have a direct impact on the design of an effective EOC.
There are varying opinions about the purpose of the Emergency Operations Center. Is it a control center? Is it a dispatch center? What is it?
I have discussed the purpose of the EOC with emergency managers across the country. Most have agreed that the EOC has a two-fold purpose:
1. To develop and maintain awareness of the emergency situation for decision makers
2. To coordinate support for emergency responders
The first purpose, To develop and maintain awareness of the emergency situation for decision making, is critical. Why? Because, it is the basis for making critical decisions and for releasing information that could effect the lives of everyone in the jurisdiction. Making critical decisions without situation awareness borders on irresponsible; it can be dangerous and may become a potential legal liability.
Before we can understand the value of the EOC, we need to define some of the terminology we use to describe the EOC.
Decision makers: We are not talking about the expertise in the EOC. We mean chief elected officials or their authorized representatives who are responsible for making the critical decisions that may effect the entire jurisdiction.
Critical decisions: These are the strategic level decisions that chief elected officials or their representatives must make. Strategic level decisions are those that may effect the entire jurisdiction. The experts running the EOC make the tactical level decisions.
Critical strategic level decisions usually reveal themselves as difficult questions during an emergency. Can we handle this emergency? Should or could we declare a disaster or state of emergency? What are the public safety or legal implications of ordering curfews, evacuations, deployments, and quarantines? What will it cost? What, when, how, or should we tell the public?
Emergency Public Information is the second important reason for having an EOC. Emergency Public Information includes tools such as press releases and public service announcements, press conferences, etc. Chief elected officials can use these tools to affect how the public reacts to an emergency and, consequently, affect the scope of the emergency.
In summary, if we are not adequately aware of the emergency situation, then we do not know what to say to the public. We are gambling. In the absence of a steady flow of credible information from chief elected officials or their representatives, the public may seek its own answers in rumors or from a speculating news media.
Now, let’s look at the second purpose of the EOC: To coordinate support for emergency responders. It is second behind situation awareness because, if you are unaware of the emergency situation, it follows that you cannot effectively and responsibly coordinate support. Again, to understand this purpose, we need to define the terminology.
Support. This is a key term. It involves the supplying the resources needed to sustain emergency responders and their activities.
Emergency responders. These are the people in the field who must deal with the emergency, firsthand. The “field” could be outdoors or in hospital emergency rooms which become the “front lines” during epidemics.
Coordination. This is the process of linking requests for resources from responders to providers of resources, or “match making,” if you will. The process involves answering a call from a responder, finding and calling resources, arranging deliveries, following up on promises, and monitoring results on behalf of the requester. Much of this is done by telephone, some by radio. By whatever means, coordination for a request should be the responsibility of one EOC staff member who reports a result to the requester.
Coordinating is different from managing. Practically speaking, the EOC does not manage responders or their resources. Response agencies have their own operations centers, or dispatch centers, for managing responders and their resources. The EOC is “behind the lines,” monitoring the situation and “feeding the pipeline” by coordinating requests for support from responder operations centers.
An EOC that can develop situation awareness has the capability of effectively coordinating support for responders in the field. These two capabilities make the EOC an essential tool and an integral part of the jurisdiction’s arsenal of emergency resources.
Clark Reynolds & Co.
Before we can explore EOC Internal Communication Methods, we need to review the nature of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). What sort of communication is going on in the EOC? Simply stated, communication in the EOC is about the EOC staff processing information for decision makers and coordinating support with each other on behalf of anxious emergency responders who need help right away.
Therefore, quick reaction time characterizes the nature of coordination communication within the EOC.
Communication is a broad term and its definition is the source of confusion among information systems professionals and emergency managers who are striving for the same goal: improved communications in the EOC. Many information systems professionals have a business world perspective. What distinguishes emergency coordination communications from the business world is quick reaction time.
In the business world, people have longer communications cycles; more time to complete transactions, etc. For example, one or two days to fill an order is considered great turnaround time. On the other hand, EOC staff members have a much shorter communications cycle, usually minutes or hours, because responders in the field need answers now, not tomorrow or the next day.
P. Bordia compared the results of 18 studies regarding face-to-face versus computer-mediated communication in The Journal of Business Communication:
“Experimental studies show that, compared to face-to-face communication, communicating through computers encourages participation but creates frustration and reduces performance in interdependent tasks when time is limited.”(1)
“When time is limited” is the key phrase. Limited time in the EOC demands the use of the highest quality communication channel which is defined by a hierarchy of communication channels.
Numerous management theory authors and experienced emergency managers have known for years that when time is limited some communications channels are better than others. These channels can be ranked into a hierarchy. R. L. Daft in his book, Organization Theory and Design (2), distinguishes the following communication channels into the following hierarchy:
1. Face-to-face communication. Face-to-face communication is the richest medium. Communicating this way keeps communication cycles extremely short.
2. Telephony. The telephone and related personal electronic media such as voice mail are next in richness. Though the telephone lacks a visual channel, it is a relatively rich medium for communication because feedback is fast and messages are personally focused (the only exception being group telephone meetings).
3. Written, addressed documents. Addressed documents such as letters, memos, notes, and faxes are lower still in richness. All operations on a message (composition, editing, transmission, reception, feedback, and reply) take more time compared to the richer media.
The Incident Command System recommends that the Operations Chief periodically conduct a face-to-face meeting of all EOC coordinating staff members because it is the fastest way to update everyone on the emergency situation and to communicate, simultaneously, in both directions. This is one reason for having everyone in the same room.
Whenever possible, EOC staff members should use face-to-face communication, which is the highest quality form and fastest method of communication, to coordinate with others in the EOC. Any EOC communications system you install should preserve the quality of face-to-face communications.
(1) Bordia, Prashant, “Face-to-Face Versus Computer-Mediated Communication: A Synthesis of the Experimental Literature,” The Journal of Business Communication, 1997, vol. 34, pp. 99-100, 110-113.
(2) Daft, R. L., Organization Theory and Design, (West Publishing Company, 1992) (fourth edition)
Clark Reynolds & Co.
Much of the information that converges on the EOC during an emergency arrives in verbal form as calls, mostly by telephone and some by radio. Some calls are more important than others which implies that all calls should not be processed the same way. The steps involved in handling calls, from reception to delivery, is an important process. In this article we present an EOC call processing model inspired by observation and the concept of reengineering.
Since its appearance in the 1990’s, reengineering has become a standard method for improving processes in business. One of the lessons of reengineering is that effective processes are integrated. This means that the more steps one person can do in a process, the better integrated the process. What emerges is a “case manager” who provides a single contact for the customer resulting in fewer misunderstandings and errors.
Processing calls coming into the EOC is a perfect application for reengineering. In this article, the EOC is defined as the place where situation awareness is displayed and function coordinators work.
If some calls coming into the EOC are more important than others and information accuracy is critical, then what is the best way to handle calls? Reengineering is part of the answer. The rest of the answer may lie in a study of call processing in the EOC. The following observations are typical:
1. In the EOC there are roughly five steps in processing a call: Receive, Prioritize, Route, Write, and Deliver. Some of these steps may be performed in a different order, depending on the process used.
2. Prioritizing is fundamental to correctly processing a call coming into the EOC.
3. Incoming calls fall into two general levels of priority: Urgent and Routine. Urgent calls include requests for support (coordination) or information, reports of major events, or other time-sensitive calls. Routine calls may include reports of emergency statistics (damage, casualties), and status reports which do not need immediate delivery.
4. EOC function coordinators or similar staff members should process urgent calls.
5. People who work in the EOC are in a better position to evaluate the priority of an incoming call because they are aware of the emergency situation displayed in the EOC.
6. When a person converts verbal information into writing, the written message loses some meaning and is distorted because of human filtering and choice of words.
7. When steps in processing calls are physically separated into different rooms, EOC complexity increases because more systems are needed to route calls and to deliver written messages.
8. When a written message must be delivered, manually or electronically, the potential for lost, misdirected or overlooked information increases.
9. In an EOC with a separate message center the person who writes a message may not be available to clarify it.
Model Design Factors
The list of observations above depicts a perilous journey for calls working their way through an EOC. Verbal information coming into the EOC is subject to distortion by people and systems. People filter, fragment and, sometimes, misroute information. However, certain design factors emerge from this mass of observations that can be used to develop a call processing model:
Human behavior will impact call processing.
The priority of a call will dictate how it should be processed.
The best process is the one with the least risk of misdirecting, distorting or losing information.
The call processing model we propose could be expanded when needed and would have two operating levels depending on the volume of message traffic:
Operating Level 1: A switchboard operator transfers all calls, regardless of priority, directly to an appropriate function coordinator in the EOC.
Discussion: The switchboard operator refers to a one-page directory of EOC function coordinators to transfer calls. EOC function coordinators are cross trained to take messages, regardless of function, so they can answer calls for each other when needed. Each EOC function coordinator acts as a “case manager” for Urgent calls and as a message taker for routine calls.
This level is more integrated because it requires the fewest people in the call handling process. The switchboard receives and routes the call. The EOC function coordinator prioritizes and writes the message. Little, if any, delivery is needed. This reduces the risk of information misdirection or distortion.
The system is simple, resulting in fewer routing procedures and delivery systems.
The system is flexible because a Message Center can be added, if needed.
There is no risk of misdirecting urgent or routine calls at the switchboard.
If a call is misrouted to an EOC function coordinator, a redirection can be made quickly because the call is already in the EOC.
The risk of incorrectly prioritizing a call is reduced. The EOC function coordinator who answers a call is aware of the emergency situation or can draw on the collective judgment of other nearby EOC function coordinators to correctly prioritize a call.
Because messages are written in the EOC, there is little risk that a message writer is unavailable to clarify a message.
Message taking training for EOC function coordinators and message center staff can be identical. No special handling instructions are needed.
There is no risk of losing written messages between the EOC and a message center.
EOC staff handles both Urgent and Routine messages. If message traffic escalates, the EOC staff may be overloaded. However, the overload threshhold may be quite high in practice. Note: an EOC with a dozen EOC function coordinators easily absorbed an incoming call rate of 75 messages per hour during a recent exercise.
EOC function coordinators need training on message taking techniques. However, this should be an essential skill for coordination.
Operating Level 2: Insert a message center to take routine calls from the switchboard operator.
Discussion: The only difference between Level 1 and 2 call processing is that, in Level 2, the switchboard operator must prioritize calls and transfer routine calls to a Message Center where calls are converted into written form. This written information must then be delivered to the EOC staff. The switchboard transfers urgent calls directly to an EOC function coordinator as in Level 1.
Call processing steps for urgent calls remain integrated at the EOC function coordinator level.
EOC function coordinators focus on urgent calls while the message center focuses on routine calls.
Extremely high incoming call traffic can be absorbed.
This level inserts more people into the call handling process. Because the processing steps are split between the message center, the EOC and a delivery system, there is increased risk of information misdirection, distortion, or loss.
More people need to be trained because more people are involved in processing calls.
There is risk of incorrectly prioritizing and misrouting calls at the switchboard. Because the switchboard is not aware of the emergency situation displayed in the EOC and does not have the benefit of the collective judgment of EOC function coordinators, urgent calls may be transferred to the message center by mistake. Misrouted calls increase the risk of information distortion, loss or delay.
Routine calls that go through the message center to the EOC will be delayed. Routine reports such as casualty statistics or status reports may become urgent depending on the emergency situation. The switchbaord and message center may not realize the new urgency.
Message takers in the message center are not available to clarify written messages to readers in the EOC.
More specialized training in call processing is needed. The Switchboard operator must learn to immediately prioritize calls. Routing and delivery systems are needed between the switchboard, message center and the EOC.
Recommendation: This article describes a model with two operating levels which includes a message center. Try to maintain the simplest call processing situation. Keep EOC call processing at Level 1 as long as possible to reduce the risk of distortion, delay or loss. Go to Level 2 when message traffic increases to an unmanageable level, but be aware of the risks that can degrade call processing.
Clark Reynolds & Co.
The system for displaying information in the emergency operations center (EOC) should reinforce the purpose of the EOC which is to display situation awareness and to coordinate support for emergency response. EOC displays are the primary source of information about the scope of the emergency and the progress of emergency support coordination.
Having all displays on the walls of the EOC has advantages over briefing books or individual computer screens. Wall displays are always visible, so there is never an “out of sight, out of mind” risk. And, perhaps more importantly, the staff does not need special training to find display information that can be only viewed one display at a time on a computer screen.
The information displayed should be accessible to all EOC staff and updated in a timely manner. In the ideal EOC, displays surround the entire EOC staff. All displayed information can be viewed, simultaneously, and at a glance. This can be achieved by positioning displays around the EOC staff, on the walls of the EOC.
For example, the EOC operations chief or emergency manager could stand in the middle of the EOC and brief anyone calling in on the telephone by scanning the EOC displays and reading emergency information. An EOC mass care coordinator could quickly view information on a display about evacuations and road closures while coordinating shelter transportation on the telephone.
Who should update displays? It depends on the priority of the information coming into the EOC. EOC staff members should update EOC displays with urgent information. Specialists should update displays with routine reports.
In summary, effective EOC display information
* Is legible from the center of the EOC, a distance of around twenty feet for most EOC’s
* Summarizes the status of emergency functions and critical statistics
* Is sufficient to aid coordination
* Is available at all times
* Is organized by emergency function and are close to relevant EOC function coordinators.
* Is easily updated and in a timely manner
* Is visually appealing and with meaning that is self-evident. Updating displays should require no special training
Clark Reynolds & Co.
What level of detail about emergency resources should the EOC maintain? This is a controversial question and the answer may lie in defining the emergency support role of the EOC.
The EOC can be defined as a behind-the-scenes administrative center at the local government level. It anticipates and coordinates the support needs of local response agencies, according to the changing emergency situation. The EOC keeps the resource “pipeline” full by backfilling exhausted emergency resources which include people, equipment and facilities.
The amount of detailed information about an emergency resource depends on who dispatches the resource. For example, a dispatch center for the fire department or public works has detailed information on each piece of equipment it dispatches. The EOC should have a similar level of detail on all resources coming into the EOC’s resource staging or holding areas which typically remain under the control or dispatch authority of the EOC.
Some EOC’s attempt to keep detailed information on every resource item available to the local government such as vehicles, individuals and pieces of equipment dispatched by response agencies. One rationale for this perspective is that the EOC should be ready to fill in as an emergency dispatch center when regular dispatch centers cease to function. There are many reasons why this is probably not a practical contingency.
First, the probability that the EOC could match the personnel and communication capabilities of a full-time agency dispatch center is low. Response agency dispatch centers have trained personnel and radio contact with all resources. The EOC lacks both.
Second, it is difficult to keep current details on emergency resources. Specific contact information such as names of people or titles can change quickly over time. General contact information such as 24-7 phone numbers and main department phones numbers with plenty of alternate numbers stay current, longer.
Third, the EOC, unlike dispatch centers, is activated only on rare occasions. Therefore, detailed resource information stored at the EOC may be too old when needed.
Fourth, the EOC cannot possibly account for all equipment in response agencies during an emergency. Instead, the EOC should maintain estimates about the present and future capacity of each response agency, depending on the scope of the emergency situation.
Fifth, if regular dispatch centers cease to function, the local government is probably in serious trouble. It would be difficult for the EOC to come up to speed, quickly. It is better to expect response agencies to activate an alternate dispatch center.
Sixth, having detailed information on all resources at the EOC increases the temptation to micromanage response resources based on assumptions about resource consumption, causing conflicts with regular dispatch and centers.
The last reason above touches on an interesting issue: How to avoid resource assignment conflicts. Prioritizing resource use is essential, but it cannot prevent conflicting assignments. A simple way to avoid conflicts is to separate resource contacts by emergency function in the EOC so that staff members cannot inadvertently assign resources belonging to another function. For example, the Fire and Rescue coordinator who needs aviation resources should not be able to view Health and Medical aviation resources. This forces the two coordinators to negotiate with each other, eliminating surprises.
In conclusion, the EOC should maintain mostly general and some detailed information about selected resources. Build the EOC resource database by collecting information on 24-7 contacts and general resource capabilities. When done, accumulate enough detailed information about response resources to project resource needs as the emergency evolves.
Clark Reynolds & Co.
Before discussing the obstacles to conducting frequent functional exercises, we should verify what we know about them.
What is a functional exercise? The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) lists the following characteristics of a functional exercise:
“A Functional Exercise is lengthy and complex; requires careful scripting, careful planning, and attention to detail. Is interactive; designed to challenge the entire emergency management system. Can test the same functions and responses as in a full-scale exercise without high costs or safety risks. Usually takes place in an EOC or other operating center. Involves controller(s), players, simulators, and evaluators. Geared for policy, coordination, and operations personnel (the players). Players practice their response to an emergency by responding in a realistic way to carefully planned and sequenced messages given to them by simulators. Messages reflect a series of ongoing events and problems. All decisions and actions by players occur in real time and generate real responses and consequences from other players. Guiding principle: Imitate reality. The atmosphere is stressful and tense due to real-time action and the realism of the problems.”
Why should functional exercises be conducted? Functional exercises are the primary means for testing and developing the local Emergency Operations Center (EOC) or other operations centers. The EOC is a critical resource for coordinating responder support during a large emergency or disaster.
In addition to testing EOC systems, functional exercises will enhance local emergency response coordination capabilities by building EOC staff teamwork and interest. The EOC functional exercise is a chance for local agencies to assemble and get to know each other in a working environment.
Why is it important to conduct EOC functional exercises, frequently? Like any team, the EOC team needs practice. More frequent EOC functional exercises are the best way to sustain emergency readiness. Annual functional exercises may not provide enough continuity. Every six months is better. Every quarter would be ideal.
So, what are the obstacles to conducting frequent EOC functional exercises? The list of functional exercise characteristics FEMA describes above provides a clue. Generally, the more time-consuming an exercise is to prepare and to conduct, the less frequently it will occur. However, some basic obstacles are rooted in a lack of facilities and resources at the local government level.
In this article we will review some basic obstacles to conducting frequent EOC functional exercises and some potential solutions. These obstacles such as No EOC Facility, Preparation Time, Designing Exercises From Scratch, and No Money are discussed below.
No EOC Facility. Before you can conduct an EOC functional exercise, you need a place to conduct it. If a permanent EOC facility is not available, you can set up an effective EOC in a temporary facility. Any classroom or large conference room can be an effective, temporary EOC, if properly outfitted with simple manual procedures and a rollover telephone system. A temporary EOC that is easy to set up can facilitate additional activation exercises, too.
Preparation Time. Since EOC functional exercises are complex and require time to prepare and coordinate, it is easy to put them off. Instead, we make time each year for large, mandated exercises and have little time for the smaller exercises in between that are essential for maintaining readiness. Exercise templates are available that generate exercise scripts, instructions and exercise messages, or you can develop your own from the last EOC exercise you conducted. Exercise templates can kick start the exercise design process and substantially reduce preparation time.
Designing Exercises From Scratch. The thought of designing an exercise from scratch is daunting. The design process involves training in preparing exercise documents, instructions for evaluating and conducting exercises, developing exercise scenarios, and writing exercise messages, to name a few. You can avoid reinventing the wheel for many of these tasks by using an exercise template to guide the process and to provide most of the content for exercise documents.
A list of prepared exercise messages is the heart of any functional exercise. However, producing a large volume of realistic messages that embody the exercise scenario is difficult and very time consuming. The exercise template should have plenty of exercise messages that are formatted for inserting local government data for extra realism. The messages in an exercise template can be reused, which will reduce exercise preparation time and, therefore, increase the frequency of functional exercises.
No Money. Hiring consultants to prepare and conduct EOC functional exercises is expensive. Federal and state exercise grants are available and help pay some of the costs, but the process is still expensive and time consuming. If you have an exercise template that you have developed yourself or purchased, it will be less expensive to repeat EOC functional exercises.
In summary, an EOC functional exercise that is simple to prepare and to conduct will happen more often. You can develop your own methods for facilitating EOC functional exercises or you can purchase inexpensive tools, such as templates, to set up an effective EOC and to ease the functional exercise process.
Clark Reynolds & Co.
SimCell is short for “simulation cell.” Emergency management uses a SimCell during training exercises to provide communications between EOC players and simulated outside agencies. This article describes the benefits of SimCells and some issues regarding their use.
For decades, the U.S. military has used a form of simulation cell to exercise battlefield command. The challenge for players is to visualize the situation on the simulated battlefield and to coordinate military units using voice communications, maps and information displays. Civilian emergency response agencies face similar challenges.
In recent years, state and local governments have recognized the benefit of simulation cells in conducting functional exercises for emergency operations centers (EOC’s). Simulation cells provide realistic, real-time, two-way communications between the EOC and simulated response and support agencies.
A SimCell is a roomful of controllers who play the roles of various organizations that would typically interact with the EOC during an emergency or disaster. The simulated organizations may include Incident Command Posts, other operations centers, government agencies, the media, and non-government agencies that control emergency support resources.
The SimCell is connected to the EOC by telephone or radio. During an exercise, the EOC staff interacts with SimCell controllers to develop situational awareness, react to scenario events, and to coordinate resource support and public information. A SimCell simulates resource requests and availability and the time needed to move emergency resources from one location to another.
Like the military model, the task of the EOC staff is to develop a picture of the simulated situation staged in the SimCell room and to practice support coordination, using telephone lines or radios as channels of communication.
Controllers make up the most important part of the SimCell. SimCell Controllers initiate exercise events and process information from the EOC and requests for simulated resources. Controllers role-play people who would typically interact with the EOC during an emergency such as incident command staff, local officials, and contacts in support agencies from local, mutual-aid, State and Federal sources.
The SimCell must have an organizational format that helps controllers organize and track information. The format can vary widely, and will affect the amount of training needed for controllers.
An effective SimCell presents the same tasks that the EOC staff would experience during an actual emergency: take calls from other agencies, gather information for situation awareness, and coordinate resource support. An effective SimCell can do the following:
1.Present time-critical problems that compel the EOC staff to set priorities, plan and allocate resources.
2.Interact with EOC to exercise the public information function. The SimCell must be able to request and receive documents and interpret public information from EOC.
3.Role-play multiple Incident Command Posts, local officials, and support agencies from local, mutual-aid, State and Federal agencies.
4.Reconstruct events, message content, timing and consequences of the exercise. The SimCell must be able to answer challenges from EOC players regarding SimCell accuracy and actions during the exercise after-action session.
5.Represent the resources that are in addition to on-duty people and equipment needed to support disaster response. Resources should be described by resource category and kind to reinforce the Resource Typing System in the National Incident Management System (NIMS).
6.Simulate the physical movement of resources. Movement must factor in realistic constraints of time and distance.
7.Ensure that the EOC exercise players receive consistent information from SimCell controllers.
8.Adapt to various exercise scenarios. Exercise designers should be able to modify the level of exercise intensity and scope in the SimCell.
9.Generate a Master Scenario Events List (MSEL).
10.Provide EOC Performance Measures for evaluation. The SimCell should assess casualties and damage, if the EOC staff does not react to events and requests within a reasonable time. Casualties and damage are realistic indicators for evaluating EOC performance. Events and requests with varying importance will present opportunities for critical decision-making. The EOC should consider potential casualties and damage from conflicting requests and to prioritize resource support.
Although a SimCell is very realistic, there is some artificiality that is unavoidable, but not significant, such as:
1.Telephone numbers to simulated agencies in the SimCell must be set up. The same voice may answer for various agencies in the SimCell because a SimCell controller must play many roles. For example, some messages from the SimCell may request that resources be sent to a central destination for distribution.
2.Response times of resource support are compressed, so exercises can be completed within the exercise timeframe.
An effective SimCell can provide unsurpassed realism for an EOC functional exercise by presenting an array of decisions to the EOC staff with realistic consequences, resulting in a high quality learning experience. The stress created can test the mettle of the EOC staff.
Local emergency management can develop an in-house SimCell capability by using a SimCell system that is simple, reusable and that can be staffed by local emergency responders. To learn more about such a system, click EOC SimCell.
(DOWNLOAD at End of Article)
Clark Reynolds & Co.
During area emergencies or disasters, county and city Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) must synchronize the efforts of multiple agencies in the jurisdiction to avoid tragic misallocations of support and resources. A proven method for synchronizing such efforts is to publish a written action plan. But, which format is appropriate?
The National Incident Management System (NIMS) requires that the Incident Command System (ICS) be used for directing tactical on-scene response in the field. Although NIMS addresses planning at the incident command level using specific ICS forms as a format, it does not provide similar planning guidance at the multi-agency coordination level of the county and city EOC. ICS forms are not suited for EOC action plans.
ICS forms can be confusing in an EOC. In ICS, several forms make up the Incident Action Plan (IAP) format for incident command: ICS Forms 202 – 206, 215, plus others. Typical EOC staff members are unfamiliar with ICS forms and few examples of written IAP’s using ICS forms exist, compounding the confusion.
According to NIMS, “EOC’s are organized by major functional discipline (fire, law enforcement, medical services, and so on); by jurisdiction (city, county, region, and so on); or, more likely, by some combination thereof.” This is quite different from an ICS organization.
I have adapted the successful plan format used by the U.S. military to fit the organizational and the more generalized multi-agency coordination needs at the county and city level. I call it a County/City Action Plan (CAP).
Click this link to Download a FREE County/City Action Plan (CAP) format, along with an example CAP.
Clark Reynolds & Co.
The two primary functions of the EOC are to show situation awareness and to coordinate resources. These functions describe, generally, what goes on inside an EOC. Another way to describe EOC activities is to focus on the output of an EOC during an emergency or disaster, such as official documents and records. Focusing on output can help guide EOC training and improve EOC support to response agencies.
Official documents include anything on paper that leaves the EOC. They include press releases, status reports, plans, lists, warnings both public and internal, and instructions for jurisdiction departments and sometimes to the public.
EOC credibility demands that official documents be on the jurisdiction’s letterhead. For example, the EOC planning section produces continuous status reports to higher jurisdictions and prepares plans to synchronize departments within the jurisdiction. Such documents must appear official, not unauthorized.
Records include messages, staff logs, or other information that typically stay within the EOC, and provide an official record of communications resource coordination. Internal records such as staff logs should be entered on forms identifiable to the EOC. Whether electronic or manual, these documents should be collected and stored together.
Other internal records such as displayed information, either manual or electronic, should be recorded and stored in its original summarized form. Electronic displays must be able to provide copies of displayed information for recordkeeping. Wall displays that are manually updated can be easily converted into computer files using digital cameras.
The EOC should be equipped to publish official documents in a timely manner. Access to sufficient word processing equipment, printers, and fax machines is essential to an effective EOC. At a minimum, the planning and the public information functions should have equipment dedicated to their publishing needs.
The production of documents and records make excellent objectives for an EOC exercise. The EOC staff can be evaluated on the quality and timeliness of the official documents and records it produces. However, exercise participants should not be allowed to simulate the publication of documents or to hand-scribble notes and present them as official documents.
Focus on the output of the EOC; on what is done, not how it is done. It will help organize the EOC to produce needed documents and records, provide measureable objectives for EOC exercises, and emphasize the importance of having simple EOC systems that the EOC staff can use with minimal training.
Clark Reynolds & Co.
HICS SimCell is short for “Hospital Incident Command System Simulation Cell.” A simulation cell can provide realistic, real-time, two-way communications for hospital disaster exercises. This article describes the training benefits of using a HICS SimCell to exercise a Hospital Command Center.
In a city or county disaster, the local government emergency operations center must develop a picture of the emergency situation and coordinate support resources using voice communications, maps and information displays. The Hospital Command Center faces similar challenges during a disaster, with the additional problem of patient influx and its impact on hospital capacity.
A HICS SimCell is a group of exercise controllers in a room who are connected to the Hospital Command Center by telephone or radio, just as in a real emergency. The controllers play the roles of various in-hospital and local contacts that would typically interact with the hospital such as hospital departments, government agencies, the media, and non-government agencies that control emergency support resources.
An exercise disaster scenario is played out in the HICS SimCell room where controllers communicate with the Hospital Command Center regarding scenario events and the status of simulated resources and patients. The challenge for the Hospital Command Center is to visualize the unfolding disaster scenario and respond to it.
To maintain exercise participant interest and an appropriate level of stress, a Hospital Command Center exercise should be consequence-based. For example, the HICS SimCell should be able to add and downgrade patients, if the Hospital Command Center staff does not respond to events and requests within a reasonable time.
An effective HICS SimCell can present the same tasks that the Hospital Command Center staff would experience during a real emergency:
1. Transmit time-critical problems in the form of messages that compel the Hospital Command Center staff to make decisions, set priorities, practice emergency procedures, write plans, and to coordinate and allocate resources.
2. Exercise the hospital’s public information function. The HICS SimCell must be able to request and receive and interpret public information documents from the Hospital Command Center.
3. Role-play multiple hospital department contacts, local officials, and contacts for local, mutual-aid, and government sources of support.
4. Accurately manage emergency events, message content, timing and consequences of the exercise.
5. Answer challenges from Hospital Command Center players regarding simulated events and consequences during the exercise after-action session.
6. Simulate the physical movement and status of patients and resources. Movement must factor in realistic constraints of time and distance.
7. Adapt to various exercise scenarios. Exercise designers should be able to modify the level of exercise intensity and scope in the HICS SimCell.
8. Generate a Master Scenario Events List (MSEL) as an overall guide.
9. Provide Performance Measures for Hospital Command Center evaluations that are consequence-based.
10. Reinforce the use of the Hospital Incident Command System.
Although contact with a HICS SimCell can be very realistic, there is some artificiality that is unavoidable, but not significant, such as:
1. There are only a few controllers in the HICS SimCell, so the same voice may answer the telephone or radio for various simulated departments and agencies.
2. Response times of resource support are compressed, so exercises can be completed within the exercise timeframe. The HICS SimCell tracks a reasonable amount of time to coordinate resource delivery, not the time actually needed to deliver the resource.
In summary, an effective HICS SimCell can provide unsurpassed realism for a Hospital Command Center exercise. It will present an array of decisions to the Hospital Command Center staff with realistic consequences, resulting in a high quality learning experience. The stress created can test the mettle of the Hospital Command Center staff.
Clark Reynolds & Co.
This article describes objectives for table-top exercises that are relevant to emergency coordination centers such as local government emergency operations centers and hospital command centers. Table-top exercises will help prepare the groundwork for more complex simulation exercises that test the real-time management of a coordinating center.
Reviewing procedural documents used in an emergency coordination center make ideal objectives for table-top exercises. A typical emergency coordination center uses written Checklists, Hazard Reminders and Responsibilities, or similar types of documents, to translate an organization’s policies and standard operating procedures into action during an emergency. If no documents exist, a table-top exercise can develop them. Each of the three documents types can serve as the focus for an entire table-top exercise.
One objective for a table-top exercise could be to test the effectiveness of a checklist in helping the staff access information in emergency plans and other references. Checklists are arguably the most important procedural documents in a coordination center. An effective checklist guides the coordinator in a logical sequence to all other relevant documents such as emergency plans, mutual aid agreements, or even to other hazard-specific checklists. For example, a checklist could start with items that pertain to any emergency, such as alerting others that the coordinating center has been activated. The next checklist item may lead to a list of hazards, which, in turn, lead to protocols, hazard-specific checklists, or other documents. Hazard-specific checklists may then lead to more specific locations in larger documents such as appendices in emergency plans, and so on.
Another objective for a table-top exercise could be to review documents that help coordinators anticipate hazards and problems related to, or generated by, an initial emergency situation. A Hazard Reminders document is similar to the potential hazards described in an all-hazards emergency operations plan, but has more detail that is cross-indexed with related hazards and probable impacts on operations. The Hazard Reminders can be formatted as a list, but tables with rows and columns can fit more information on a page. Hazard Reminders can help the coordinating staff to think “outside the box” and beyond the scope of general hazard descriptions.
Finally, a table-top exercise objective to check documents that identify department or agency Responsibilities would help reduce confusion during an emergency. Like hazard reminders, responsibilities can be formatted into a list, but tables cross-indexed by organization name and emergency function can show inter-relationships between organizations, including potential gaps.
Procedural documents used in an emergency coordination center make ideal objectives for table-top exercises. The result of such a table-top exercise is an improved document or draft for a new one. During the exercise, participants will become familiar with the coordinating documents used during an emergency such as checklists, plans, protocols, directories, forms, and most importantly, will learn to find and use them.