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Managing Shift Change in the EOC

It is not exercised enough during training.

My October Disaster Zone column for the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Bulletin has been published.

See below for a copy of what I wrote on the topic of shift change briefings in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

Managing Shift Change in the EOC

24-7 Emergency Operations Center (EOC) requires that multiple shifts of EOC personnel staff the EOC function. Handing off the reigns from one shift to the next is rarely practiced and in some cases, there are no procedures that specify how control of an incident will be passed from the outgoing shift to the incoming shift. In EOC operations this would be defined as a “Danger Area” that requires special attention.

The challenge for civilian organizations is that disaster exercises are not typically conducted as 24/7 events. In my 30-year civilian emergency management experience I can only think of one exercise that had civilian agencies operating beyond the day shift. That was TOPOFF 2 which was a National Level Exercise (NLE).

Actual disaster events will require 24/7 operations depending on the size and scope of the disaster and especially the time of day when it begins. Admittedly, it is possible for a disaster response to occur during daylight hours and the situation resolved to the point where the continued operation of the EOC overnight is not required. I’ll caution you that “it isn’t over until it is over” so don’t just pack up and leave.

However, every part of the nation has the potential to have a really big disaster that requires “all hands-on deck” and continues for multiple days or even weeks. These do require a 24/7 operational procedure for multiple shifts in the EOC.

I do think that there should be procedures that outline what is to occur when someone walks in the door to take your place and continue your work. I have seen circumstances where the person being relieved is like, “Great to see you, I’m out of here!”

If I could wave my magic emergency management wand, I’d prefer that the following happen.

  • There would be a set time for shift change to happen. Twice a day—I like it around mealtimes so that the incoming shift can have eaten breakfast or dinner and the outgoing shift can then leave and do the same.
  • The incoming shift arrives 30 minutes before they are to assume the duty for their shift.
  • There is then a situation briefing from the outgoing EOC management team providing the status of the event and highlighting any big ongoing issues. I’ve written about this before about how to brief, but I like someone to use a map. This briefing should take no more than 10 minutes. It is an overview!
  • The remaining 20 minutes are used for each person being relieved to brief their counterpart on the details of what went on in the last 12 hours.
  • It would be good for the incoming person to review the written log to ensure they don’t have any surprises about ongoing issues after they have formally relieved the person of their duties.
  • Which gets to the point that the person turning over the shift to the incoming shift does not leave until the incoming person says, “OK, I’ve got it—you can go!”
My former deputy told me she has never seen an EOC conduct a shift transition all at the same time. Mostly, people trickle in and relieve their counterparts one on one, and not simultaneously. This is when I miss the military and the ability to compel people to be present at a specific time.

I fondly recall one two-week 24/7 exercise here in the United States that simulated a nuclear attack on the homeland. We got into a battle rhythm that included having the incoming shift come into a separate briefing room where they got the situation briefing before going on to replace their individual counterparts.

My final thought on the above is that you can’t assume that people will just “do the right thing, because they know how to do it.” They don’t know how because in their day-to-day jobs no one picks up and does their job while they are gone for 12 hours.

Other than for instance 911 Centers where they have a protocol in place for replacing one another. In that case for instance, a dispatcher who is due to be relieved will not do so until an incident is cleared if it is complex. They know that switching horses midstream during an incident” is not a good thing.

Whatever process, procedure, or protocol you use, just be sure you have one before attempting 24/7 shift change operations.


by Eric E. Holdeman, Senior Fellow, Emergency Management Magazine
He blogs at  His Podcast is at Disaster Zone
Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.
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