Breathing New Life Into EOCs

The push is on to revitalize emergency operations centers into sophisticated, dazzling headquarters for officials from the major branches of emergency response.

by / April 4, 2005
Nothing in government comes easy, or fast.

The Department of Homeland Security has built sufficient momentum over the last couple of years to begin reshaping how local governments plan and build emergency operations centers (EOCs). The focus is an EOC housing all emergency-response disciplines, from police to fire, EMS, public health and other entities seemingly unrelated to emergency response, such as public works departments, or water and sewer agencies.

New Attitude
Cincinnati is just one example of what can happen with a little encouragement from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Officials there have put the pieces in place to renovate an existing EOC that will house emergency response representatives from three surrounding cities and Hamilton County, said Edward Dadosky, district chief of the Cincinnati Fire Department.

"As a city and county, we're coming together within the walls of this structure like we never have before," Dadosky said, explaining that the EOC is a Cincinnati/Hamilton County joint project -- the city owns the building and the county has built out a significant amount of space inside the building.

"The county is putting money into the EOC and putting people here," he said. "We're using our grant money to bring us closer, in that respect." Dadosky said the way the DHS administers Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) funds has driven the city/county relationship. "They've forced the core city, which has traditionally been the bully in this area, to work with the core county."

Dadosky said the DHS' message -- that the city and county will not build separate EOCs with separate funding streams -- got through loud and clear. The grant's structure forced the city and county to plan together on all aspects of the EOC, and city and county officials both had to sign off on every purchase made under the grant, he said.

"That has been the most unsung accomplishment of the DHS," Dadosky said. "If the DHS had not required us to do this, I think there would have been a lot more politicizing of different projects and plans. But because we knew that either one could veto the other, there was no sense fighting about it. We had to figure out a way to get it done."

Over the winter, the city was hit with significant snowstorms, something the city is not fully prepared to deal with, Dadosky said. Officials from City Hall took a lot of criticism from residents because nobody seemed to know where the snowplows were operating. Dadosky said he got a call asking if the plows could have been outfitted with automatic vehicle location technology and tracked from the EOC.

"I said, 'You're damn right it's something we could have done out of the EOC,'" he recalled. "I said, 'This ops center isn't waiting around for Osama bin Laden to attack. This is to manage day-to-day emergencies. If we're just building stuff for the terror incident, we're being really silly.'"

The EOC will house key city and county officials from various emergency response and homeland security disciplines, and also from the Hamilton County Fire Chiefs' Association, the Greater Cincinnati Hazardous Materials unit, and the county's Emergency Management Agency. The Hamilton County Police Chiefs' Association has also expressed interest in having a representative housed at the EOC.

"This kind of thing was unheard of as recently as two years ago," Dadosky said. "Now, here we are with a potentially good deal of the decision-makers operating in one facility under one roof, and not just jurisdictionally speaking. Police and fire -- everyone thinks of them in case of an emergency -- but we all know now the key role that public health plays in one of these incidents. We've done a good job bringing them into the fold as well."

Fighting Perceptions
Despite the good that a regional EOC could do for emergency response entities, Dadosky said, Cincinnati has worked hard to convince other groups the EOC is a utility for everybody to share.

At a minimum, officials wanted to create a city/county EOC, he said, though the EOC was to be regionally available if and when other jurisdictions in the region decide it could help them with a particular need or support them during an incident.

"That's been one of the political challenges, to assure people that in no way, shape or form can we or do we even want to take over one incident going on in northern Kentucky," he said.

When the upgrade to the EOC is complete, it will be the first stand-alone EOC in the region that's comparable technologically with these in regions such as Los Angeles or Washington, D.C., he said.

In the future, Dadosky said he sees the EOC providing operational support to whatever jurisdiction needs such support -- whether keeping track of snowplows or coordinating a multi-agency response to a natural disaster.

"That's the message that we're trying to give to surrounding counties," he said. "'We're not in charge of your incident. We have no interest in being in charge of your incident. If you decide you need 150 bulldozers, and you're having problems and your ops center is already overwhelmed, if you ask us to activate, we will. We'll help you with that little piece of the problem, and then tell us to go away.'

"Those walls and that mistrust are still very much prevalent among jurisdictions," he said. "We're the same way. If another town was building an ops center and they told us the same thing prior to us starting on this center, we would have thought the same thing. It's not right, but it's the reality. If we don't start talking about the reality of the situation, what's the point? We're not going to solve the right problems then, because we didn't identify the right problems to begin with."

Gaming Influence
Anaheim, Calif., also tapped UASI grant funding but created an entirely different EOC. The city's enterprise virtual operations center (EVOC) is Web-based, relying on Web services to connect to legacy mainframes and deliver data to authenticated users. There is no physical EOC.

"Anaheim wanted to have the capability to manage emergencies that exceeded their current incident command center, which is a bricks-and-mortar facility," said Steve Hutchens, director of Homeland Security for EDS. "EVOC gives them the capability to manage incidents virtually -- in addition to the operations center they have for bringing people together when that's necessary."

The rationale for the EVOC comes straight from Murphy's Law -- incidents happen at the most inconvenient times, and usually when key decision-makers aren't in the city, Hutchens said.

"In those instances, those key stakeholders were limited to engaging in the incident to strictly what they heard over the cell phone or an office phone," he said. "With EVOC, we're able to extend the operations center to them on their desktop wherever they are on Earth."

The EVOC provides redundancy to city EOCs, especially in cases where an EOC becomes uninhabitable, he said, describing the EVOC as an advanced graphical user interface that mirrors a three-dimensional video game.

"One of the companies we worked with on this 3-D visual interface, their staff consists of people who have expertise in writing virtual gaming software," Hutchens said. "They've been able to tie together the business processes, back-end systems integrations that we do with hard-core IT work, along with a gaming environment to make the information more visually appealing and much more interactive in terms of how it interfaces with the users."

Hutchens said the next level of functionality to be built into the EVOC is data correlation and analysis to identify common themes that humans might not readily ascertain.

If a 911 operator gets a call about a suspicious person loitering near the Anaheim Reservoir, he or she might not pay much attention. The same could happen if another operator gets a similar call on the next shift.

"To the person, not much going on there," Hutchens said. "Third shift, same day, same report. Now what's the probability of three suspicious person reports within 24 hours that prevalent, and also, given the fact that there hasn't been a suspicious person report like that in five years? The system is able to start comparing operational elements and alert the human operator that there could be something more than what they could see as individuals.

"The data objects that come into EVOC from the various systems are aware of each other," he explained. "It's not a big deal for us to correlate those data elements to start to surface some operationally significant information that individual systems, by themselves, wouldn't necessarily point out, but in aggregate, become obvious."

New Breed
No matter what form EOCs take and how much data the EOCs' new information systems can give emergency managers, the importance of the right type of talent on the human side is critical, said Bruce Baughman, director of Alabama's Emergency Management Agency and vice president of the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA).

"Unless you've got good analysts who can tell you what that data means or know people who know what to do with that data, it doesn't give you much," Baughman said. "There's a human element there too."

Most of the various staff involved in data analysis for EOCs have come up through the ranks, he said, and though their experience is clearly helpful, a new wave of staff is needed for EOCs to effectively manage and interpret the increasing amounts of data piped in.

"It's up to us, myself and others as emergency managers, to change the culture, to look at what skill sets we need in our new EOCs," he said. "I've been to some state EOCs where they're still using a grease pencil and standard paper map, and gathering data is done manually. In fact, most data can be aggregated via computer, and there's a lot more data available.

"You now need smart, young GIS people who can rapidly retrieve the information, analyze the information and tell you how the information can be best used to manage the disaster."
Shane Peterson Associate Editor