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EOCs Step Up Their Game

Modern emergency operations centers are opening across the country, complete with more space and high-tech tools to better serve the public.

Stepping inside an emergency operations center sometimes requires vying for a cramped spot in a bare-bones facility. But visiting one of the new, state-of-the-art emergency operations centers emerging across the country means encountering advanced technological tools situated in a more spacious environment. Safety professionals say these high-tech centers allow them to better assist the public in quickly navigating emergency situations.

Technology tends to draw the most attention, but it’s generally not the primary factor driving the construction of a new EOC. Space constraints frequently motivate staff to campaign for a new facility. That was the case for New Jersey Transit safety employees, who had been working out of a 53-foot-long trailer for an EOC until they recently opened a permanent building.

“It became very apparent that the facility we were using was not adequate,” said New Jersey Transit Police Chief Christopher Trucillo. “It took a lot of coordination and convincing — because dollars are very dear in a public entity — to get folks to understand … that we would be better at what we do as a result of having an adequately sized and staffed emergency operations center.”

Wisconsin Emergency Management also struggled with functioning optimally in its previous facility because of “bottlenecks and large crowds and people crawling over each other,” said Greg Engle, planning and preparedness bureau director. “It was very difficult for people to move around and work together. And we built some expansion capacity into [the new building] so if we have other agencies come in, we can set them up.”

Insufficient space prompted emergency managers in St. Charles County, Mo., to request a new facility, which is scheduled to open next year. “We really need a more technologically advanced and bigger space to bring services to our residents,” said Capt. Chris Hunt, director of emergency management. “The growth of the county and the responsibilities of public safety have increased tremendously.”

Expanded emergency management responsibilities, in addition to the space issues, played a role in securing Wisconsin’s new state EOC, which opened last December. “When I started 20 years ago, our focus was on tornadoes and flooding. But emergency management has changed over the years to include [threats such as] 9/11 … and cyberthreats,” said Wisconsin Emergency Management crisis communications manager Lori Getter. “We have to continue to be ready to evolve and help our citizens.”

Many contemporary EOCs are anchored by a large main room that glows with dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of computer monitors located at staff work stations. Various room layouts exist, but most situate stations so workers face or easily can view a “smart wall,” typically consisting of many smaller monitors or tiles. “We have a huge screen that can be a full screen or broken out into smaller screens or visuals,” said Richard D. Flinn Jr., director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

New Jersey Transit finds its smart wall beneficial. “[It] enables us to integrate all our video, all our audio, all our networks and PCs, as well as commercial services like cable TV and satellite TV … and put it up on the board,” said Capt. Robert Noble, commanding officer for the office of emergency management. “And our 3,500-plus [closed circuit] TV camera system.”

Cameras in public spaces, especially traffic cameras, have become a game-changing resource on which cutting-edge EOCs capitalize. The cameras offer real-time oversight of situational aspects. “If something happens, they zoom right in and see what’s going on,” Flinn said of employees at the Pennsylvania EOC, which opened last year. “That’s something we did not have in the old building.”

New Jersey Transit relies heavily on its video feeds to simultaneously observe a variety of conditions. “We can display up to 36 cameras on those monitors at once,” said Noble. “Rail operations is using them to look at passenger flows or train movement, but we’re also having the same set of eyes on noticing any terrorism action.”

Although it’s still rare, a few EOCs use streaming video transmitted by drones. “We’re getting real-time images through drones or through state-owned aircraft,” Getter said. The aerial images help officials to assess the scale of a situation, especially in areas that are difficult to access. The footage becomes more advantageous when used in conjunction with a geographical information system. “We’ve really pushed areas … such as GIS,” Getter said. “Using the traditional aircraft and drones for aerial footage … and comparing them with the GIS mapping … has been a tremendous asset. We’re going to a whole other level.”

Similarly, geocoding helps distribute messages to select groups of citizens via wireless emergency alert systems. “We are able to geocode” where an incident occurs and send an alert “right to [nearby citizens’] phones, and ask folks if they want to get information about what’s happening,” Flinn said. “Just keeping somebody informed about what’s happening helps alleviate stress [and] it alleviates folks calling 911 to see what’s going on.”

Social media is another frequently upgraded area. “Social media has been the biggest addition to the EOC,” Noble said. “We’re able to quickly share a lot of information … from people out in the field.” Pennsylvania’s state agency pushed social media to the forefront in its new facility as well. “We realized that in the changing world, we have to be involved in monitoring what’s happening on social media,” Flinn said.

High-tech tools fall short, however, without a solid technological infrastructure. Fast, disaster-resistant networks are another focus in new EOCs. “Our network infrastructure is going to be so robust and so powerful. We’re not going to be limited by a network that is going to slow things down,” St. Charles County’s Hunt said. “And our county IT department is going to house all of their servers and all of their infrastructure in this facility.”

That sharing of resources — such as space and technology — among departments and agencies is a financially beneficial trend prevalent at advanced EOCs. Wisconsin Emergency Management, for example, is co-located with the Wisconsin National Guard’s Joint Operations Center in its new 24,500-square-foot building.

Harris County, Texas, essentially created a public safety campus. The 30,000-square-foot building accommodates several related departments, including emergency management and safety communications. “We made the best use of the building,” said Judge Ed Emmett, director of homeland security and emergency management. “In our case … it’s the fact that you’ve got four different government entities sharing one building that makes it such an efficient use.”

Pennsylvania’s emergency management collaborates with the state Department of Transportation, whose employees “sit right beside our watch officers, 24/7,” Flinn said. They also share space with some human services employees. Beyond cutting costs, such a system fosters relationships among groups that need to cooperate during an emergency. “We’re working side-by-side on ‘blue sky days’ on planning and logistics issues, and then when an incident happens we have that relationship and flow right into activation mode,” Flinn said.

In addition, agencies sharing space and viewing the same information on the EOC’s smart wall speeds daily and emergency operations by eliminating the need to actively contact employees in other locations. “Information is presented in real time on the wall and everyone can make their own decisions based on the information that’s in front of them,” Noble said.

Safety professionals’ increased roles and investments in capital-intensive tools both have led an increasing number of agencies to scrap the concept of using separate centers for daily operations and emergency activations. Instead, they occupy one well-equipped facility that allows for both. For example, many new EOCs include communications workers staffing a 911 call center, whereas that function is located separately from emergency management in many older configurations.

Emergency situations often unexpectedly require extended responses, but many existing EOCs are not adequately outfitted for longer-term operations. That, too, is changing in modern centers. “The whole thing has been designed for people to stay there for extended periods of time and work as efficiently as possible,” Emmett said of Harris County’s new facility.

During extended activations, emergency workers in under-equipped facilities might be forced to attempt to sleep in the midst of a bustling EOC. Managers realize the toll that takes on their staff, though, and modern EOCs therefore better meet basic needs. “What makes this of particular importance during an emergency is that you work in shifts,” Emmett said. “For people who are … not on shift, to be able to rest properly is a critical component.”

Harris County’s previous facility didn’t have sleeping quarters and only had two showers. “To say it was not the most comfortable environment would be a real understatement,” Emmett said. But the new building provides access to “two large rooms that can be converted to sleeping areas, about a dozen showers and locker rooms,” he said. “We also made it easier to get food service in and out ... now we have loading docks, and those have improved things a great deal.”

Designing the facilities to withstand natural disasters and security breaches further boosts value. The St. Charles County EOC, for example, will have few windows due to its location in a tornado-prone area. “It took about a year in working with constructors to develop an EF-5 rated building,” Hunt said. Plus, it has “fencing and bollards … it’s all gated, all key card access. The entire campus is under video surveillance that’s monitored 24 hours a day.”

Designing a new EOC doesn’t simply involve hiring an architecture firm to figure out the details. Safety staff report taking an active role in offering ideas to improve upon their previous facilities by incorporating lessons learned from past successes and failures.

Harris County’s staff carried over findings from Hurricane Rita because “that evacuation went very badly. … One of the big problems was that people would get outside of Houston and they’d run into traffic jams in smaller towns,” Emmett said. Therefore, the new EOC houses improved technology for monitoring traffic and communicating with responders assisting with traffic flow. “If there’s an evacuation, I can monitor the traffic all the way to Dallas and San Antonio,” Emmett said. “We can tell you the deputy that’s supposed to be at each intersection monitoring it. If they don’t check in on their laptop, we can find out why they’re not there.”

New Jersey Transit considered difficulties experienced during several longer responses when designing its new EOC. “The experience with Superstorm Sandy being so devastating and having an impact not just for a few days or a couple weeks, but literally for a couple months … really crystallized the need to step up our game in terms of an emergency operations center,” Trucillo said. Safety planning for the Super Bowl and the Pope’s visit also were influential. 

St. Charles County emergency management staff acutely felt their EOC’s shortcomings when a tornado struck in 2013. “With all the emergency support functions [in there] it was extremely crowded and made it difficult to communicate,” Hunt said. That prompted research into not just a larger space, but also noise and echo reduction measures to ease communication.

Agencies also benefit from researching other EOCs and learning from other entities. “Everybody should be doing that,” New Jersey Transit’s Noble said.

St. Charles County safety staff toured other new facilities and discovered the importance of right-sizing visual equipment in large rooms. Some EOCs they visited encountered problems from installing “what you think is a gigantic monitor on a wall. But when you put it up, it’s really small. So you can’t see what content is on those monitors,” Hunt said.

Wisconsin Emergency Management staff visited and borrowed ideas from facilities in multiple states. Most notably, they reworked their main room’s layout based on Ohio’s EOC, “which groups together the different emergency support functions in pods,” Engle said. “Our previous layout was in long rows like a movie theater. But in these pods people are working together more in groups.”

Many agencies across the country have entered into new territory by constructing state-of-the art operations centers. But in the end, as Emmett said, “an EOC is only as good as the people that are in it.”