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Emergency Operations Management in Rural and Suburban Areas

by Dave Dillinger

EMA Emergency Management, EMS Emergency Medical Services, FD Fire Departments, Law Enforcement, badges article logo label

During Hurricane Sandy, New York police commanders could talk by radio with fire department supervisors across the city, to officials battling power failures in nearby counties and with authorities shutting down airports in New York and New Jersey. As routine as that sounds, it represented great strides in emergency communications and it addressed one of the tragic problems of Sept. 11, 2001 — that police and fire officials at the World Trade Center site could not reach one another by radio (1). Communications represents only one aspect of a much larger problem, managing emergencies and unexpected crisis.

New York City like many other major cities throughout the world have state-of-the-art, multi-million dollar “24 hour Emergency Operations Centers” staffed by highly trained personnel of varying First Responder disciplines, utility companies and government agencies. They are constantly planning, training and rehearsing for the unexpected. What about suburban and rural counties and towns? We don’t have the budget, resources or infrastructure of a big city. How do we plan for, prepare for and manage the resources necessary when a threatened or actual natural disaster, acts of terrorism, or other man-made disaster occurs? Are we prepared to manage an unexpected, threatened or actual natural disaster, act of terrorism, or other man-made disaster that threatens our community?

When At the Ready Magazine first approached me to write about Emergency Operations Management. I asked myself, “How can I contribute?” What my research uncovered was that large metropolitan areas have the infrastructure and funding in place to easily address the issue of Emergency Operations Management, but Rural and Suburban municipalities have a greater challenge to overcome. So my intent is to write a series of articles quarterly throughout 2014 introducing you to Emergency Operations Center concepts and management. I will address topics such as considerations and concepts; choosing the right type of EOC for you; duties and responsibilities; manning and staffing; assets available to you; training and training funding; Inter-departmental and multi-jurisdictional agreements; combining local and regional resources, and affordability (including available State and Federal funding). My desire is that over the next twelve months, you will review your preparedness and consider how emergency management and an operation center can assist you in safeguarding your community. Understanding the need for, deciding how and planning to develop an EOC is like eating an elephant, best in small bites. So below is an overview of an EOC and some considerations that will aid you as you ponder how an EOC can aid you.

What is Emergency Operations Management? Emergency Operations Management (or Crisis Management) is the process by which a municipality reduces vulnerability to hazards and copes with natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other man-made disasters that threaten to harm the general public through a central command and control process. Emergency Operations Managers are responsible for coordinating and integrating all activities necessary to build, sustain, and improve the capability to mitigate against, prepare for, respond to, and recover from threatened or actual natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other man-made disasters. An Emergency Operations Center, or EOC, is a central command and control facility responsible for carrying out the principles of emergency preparedness and emergency management, or disaster management functions at a municipal level in an emergency situation, and ensuring the continuity of operation.

An EOC is responsible for the municipal overview, or "big picture", of the disaster, and does not normally directly control field assets, instead making operational and support decisions while leaving tactical decisions to lower commands and Incident Commanders. The common functions of all EOC's is to collect, analyze and organize data; make decisions that protect life and property, maintain continuity of the municipality, coordinate between public and private municipal agencies, organizations, neighboring municipalities, and higher level governmental agencies; request, coordinate and release additional resources and disseminate those decisions to all concerned leaders, agencies and individuals, handling the media so the Incident Commander’s can focus on their responsibilities. In most EOC's there is one individual in charge, and that is the Emergency Manager.

Concept of Operations. EOC’s operate under three primary conditions: normalcy, when no emergency incident exist sufficient to warrant full activation of the EOC; emergency without warning, when an incident occurs requiring full activation of the EOC in response to the incident; and emergency with warning, when the EOC is brought into full or partial activation to preemptively reduce the impact of impending incidents, and respond to the impact of the incident when it transpires.

Determining the EOC for you. Selecting the type of EOC that is right for your municipality is based upon several factors including but not limited to the size, scope, land area, population size, and city budget. While considering these factors, also consider the availability of resources your Municipality can commit in an emergency. Small municipalities often suffer from few resources and operating budget constraints. If after considering your budget and the resources you have to commit to this effort, you find yourself thinking “there’s no way we have the resources to set up an EOC”, then consider if combining efforts (and resources) with other nearby municipalities to form a collective EOC and response is a possible solution. The pooling of resources may be the right answer for you!

A few considerations when determining the right type of EOC for you is:

EOC Size, Scope and Staffing. An EOC can range in scope from a dual use conference room or specialized vehicle through a multiple space center located in general building to a standalone specialized facility. The size and structure of the EOC will be primarily driven by the number of people required to carry out the EOC functions during an emergency. The number of staff will be driven by the functions that the EOC is responsible for and the size municipality that the EOC serves.

Here are a few EOC concepts that will aid Suburban and Rural municipalities: fixed site (F/T), mobile (P/T) and Hybrid (F/T and P/T).

A fixed site EOC is a permanently manned and funded office headed by the Emergency Operations Manager, appointed by the Mayor. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a fully operating staff during office hours and a reduced staff at night and on weekends. During ‘non-emergency’ operations the EOC plans, prepares, coordinates, monitors and trains for all possible scenarios.

A mobile EOC is a vehicle (normally a truck or panel van) or portable shelter that is maintained by a specific organization such as Fire or Police department) and manned by pre-selected and trained personnel and is only used when threatened by or reacting to a disaster or emergency. It is managed by the Emergency Operations Manager, appointed (F/T).

A hybrid EOC is a fixed or mobile site that is manned and managed by a reduced full time and part time staff of one to four personnel. They normally include the Emergency Operations Manager, F/T and a small staff comprised of Fire, Police, EMS personnel carefully interviewed by their Chief and government representatives. These pre-selected personnel receive additional training and participate in pre-scheduled EOC meetings and exercises as required. The Fire, Police, EMS and government personnel assigned to the EOC remain under the normal control and direction of their respective departments until the EOC is activated. At that time, they are ‘conditionally assigned’ to the EOC for the duration of the emergency or disaster then released back to their respective departments.

There are several Federal, State and County resources available to aid the small municipality build their emergency response plan. For the small rural town, multiple use options and multi-municipal cooperation can increase resources while spreading out the cost and responsibility.

When was the last time you blew the dust off your co-use, cooperation, and multi-jurisdictional agreements? When do they expire? Do they still meet your needs or are they outdated?

In the next and future articles, we will discuss in-depth the EOC from concept and planning considerations through staffing, equipping, assigning responsibilities and training; discuss how co-use, interoperability and jurisdictional agreements can aid you; and how federal, state and county responsibilities and can help you fund, equip and train your EOC.

About the Author:

Making timely difficult decisions and putting the welfare of others before himself is not foreign to David. He served the people of the United States in various First Responder, operations center and Infantry roles throughout his career. He has held positions as Volunteer Fire Fighter, Nationally Registered Emergency Medical Technician (NREMT), Emergency Action Operations watch Team leader, Emergency Action Operations Training supervisor, Emergency Action Operations Center Manager, Operations Sergeant for both an Infantry Battalion and Division as well as Deputy Current Operations Manager, Combined Joint Task Force, Afghanistan and career Infantryman.

   1.   The New York Times, National Network for First Responders Is Years Away, by Edward Wyatt, December 6, 2012

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