Disaster Zone: Emergency Operations Center Facilities
April 9, 2021
Category: Guest Author , Emergency Management
All photos used for the blog provided courtesy of the City of Kirkland.
No matter what size your county, city, or special purpose district is, you need a physical location to coordinate from when a disaster strikes. It does not need to be a dedicated space, but it does need to have some functional aspects, as described in this blog.
A space where people assemble to react to a disaster on behalf of a jurisdiction or organization is normally called an Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Another term used by some, and one I prefer, is Emergency Coordination Center (ECC) because it aptly describes the activity that takes place in that location.
General Space Needs
A “designated” EOC needs to have the following attributes: (1) Open space with enough room for a significant number of people to gather, based on the size of your organization; (2) As many tables (the standard 30”x72” oblong table will do) and comfortable chairs since a shift in an EOC can be for 12 hours or more. It is best to group tables into functional pods so that people can sit across from one another to coordinate activities.
The room needs as much wall space as possible because you will need plenty of display space for maps and status boards. The need for maps in an EOC is self-explanatory, but you should have ones that extend beyond your jurisdictional boundaries so that you can plot information from your neighbors that could be impacting your area (e.g., road closures). You will need some clear acetate for the maps so that you can annotate with water-based markers indicating incident sites, etc. A GIS capability might replace a series of maps, but I still recommend one physical map you can brief from that is large enough so that people can assemble around and view it at the same time.
Your EOC should also have enough wall space for status boards, which can be as simple as a reappropriated conference room whiteboard. Its purpose is to group and keep important information visible about a subject. The number of status boards will be determined by the event. A disaster with injuries necessitates a hospital status board. With evacuations ongoing, you will need a shelter status board, etc. Road closures always seem to be a common occurrence and a list of these via a status board is needed. Finally, you should also have a board with the phone numbers for other activated EOCs or organizations that staff will work with to coordinate disaster response activities.
Because we live in a world of electronics, there will need to be plenty of extension cords and power strips for people to plug into. You will also need power for computers and printers as well as recharging options for cell phones and radios. Ideally, those working in an EOC will bring a laptop for their personal use. Having sufficient Wi-Fi capability is absolutely essential today. Given the dependence on electricity, having a facility that has a generator for emergency power is also very beneficial.
Most EOCs use a mix of landline phones and cell phones. One challenge that can result is that people bring and use their own cell phones during operations. When that phone number is shared for coordination purposes, what happens when the owner of that phone gets off shift and takes their phone home with them? There may be another person replacing them when the EOC is in 24/7 operations, but people are still trying to call the previous number given them from the earlier shift. Cell phone number procedures must be in place and followed by all EOC participants in order to maintain effective coordination between staff as well as with external partners.
Where agency staff are using portable radios, I suggest that they be sure to have an earpiece, otherwise the noise will be deafening.
One fail-safe communications capability that needs to be in place is amateur radio. There will usually be many volunteers in your community. Organizing them into a team can be helpful as back up when there are communication systems failures.
The EOC needs to have adequate restrooms onsite, and this can be supplemented by portable toilets. Housekeeping duties and facility supplies will also need to be expanded for longer events.
Food and liquid refreshments are also a necessary element of any EOC facility. Staff and space need to be allocated for these basic of human needs. When I was with King County, I told people we could serve 800 cups of legally addictive stimulant — coffee — an hour.
All of the above are just the very basics that you will need and can be added to your EOC with time, money, and imagination. The most critical element is that everyone on your team knows where the EOC is located; they have attended trainings and exercises in the facility and know that they should go there immediately when calamity strikes.
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