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Use of WebEOC is Insanity Defined

Take the WebEOC survey here in this blog Post

My quest for a better information management system continues. That perfect or at least better solution has not yet been demonstrated to me. Which led me to write the opinion piece below. Perhaps it will spark some conversations among emergency managers and others who previously or currently use the WebEOC platform. 

In order to find out what you think, I'd appreciate it if you would take a few minutes to take this WebEOC User Survey  And, please forward this link on to others who you know are using the application or have used it in the past. I look forward to getting as much input as possible. And, I will share the results of the survey with you in a future blog post in the weeks to come. The more individual input we get on their personal experiences--the better. 

Use of WebEOC is Insanity Defined

In my accounting, it appears that the information system for emergencies and disasters that dominates emergency management agencies at all levels of government is WebEOC. While other systems come and go, it is WebEOC that has captured the majority of the emergency management market. And yet, I have yet to find only a few people, generally those who sell and teach the system, who are enthralled by it. I compare it to the same coffee maker that every organization has purchased, it makes bad coffee, and still, everyone continues to drink it. Why?

I’ve always considered myself an “operator” of sorts having held the title ‘Operations Officer” for ten of my 20 years in the Army as an infantry officer. Even when not holding the title, I had duties that required the coordination of military resources for a variety of missions. Then in civilian emergency management I have been responsible for a state Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and a large metro county’s Emergency Coordination Center (ECC).

In the military and civilian EOC applications you need to gain situational awareness and then coordinate the application of resources to counter the enemy in wartime or the impacts of a disaster in the civilian world.

I have always been interested in finding a better information system mousetrap for use in an EOC. My first ‘failed attempt’ was way back in about 1994. In Washington State we purchase a system called Emergency Information Management System (EIS) for use at the State EOC and then we also purchased a system for every county (39) in the state. At that point in the beginning of computers in emergency management we actually had to buy some smaller county programs a computer, since they had none.

Big mistake—this was the DOS prompt era of computing and it was just too difficult for novices to utilize effectively. A failed experiment in automating the EOC.

Then, when at King County, Washington State I, along with the City of Seattle, decided to go with WebEOC as an information management system. Other cities and organizations followed, along with Washington State Emergency Management Division.

The promise of WebEOC included:

  • A digital map for displaying the current situation and the ability to overlay different GIS layers as needed to show utilities, parcels, etc.
  • Remote access so that agencies could update boards remotely that pertained to their discipline, e.g. roads closed, shelters and capacity, hospital status, etc.
  • A biggie was the ability to submit a resource request at the city level, track it going to the county, any resource actions there and then the transmission to state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and to know the status of that request being fulfilled.
Disappointment has followed me on all of the above. Broken promises abound. There has been no ability to “quickly” post data to a map and share a common operating picture beyond an individual EOC. The connectivity and input to boards has been sporadic at best. Generally, only good for internal organizations. Lastly, for what I’ve observed no ability to connect a myriad list of EOCs and implement resource tracking.

I tried to push the needle from my various positions to improve WebEOC and have failed. In trying to get the State to develop 6-10 common boards, the then WebEOC coordinator boasted he had created 600 boards—gag me!

I’ve read some reports on how WebEOC worked for Cascadia Rising 2016, a large multi-state earthquake exercise here in the Pacific NW and it was a WebEOC wasteland. No or very little connectivity and the system became rapidly overwhelmed with requests. Basically, it might be good for a smallish disaster, but it has zero scalability for catastrophic events.

Maybe there is another state where emergency managers are much smarter than those here in Washington State. Where WebEOC reigns supreme and everyone is drinking the WebEOC Kool-aide and people are happy with what they get from the system.

I forgot to mention that before the Cascadia Rising Exercise there was a failed attempt by one of my successors at King County who poured $1M into trying to develop a new system that would work. When King County said it would cost $200K annually to maintain and users would have to kick in funding—that system got a budget knife stuck in its jugular vein.

Here we are in the information age and our emergency management discipline appears to be stuck using a system that is ubiquitous, and universally found lacking. Thus, the definition of insanity since we keep using it.

Government agencies are notoriously risk adverse, and thus switching horses to another information management system seems risky at best and perhaps a dry hole that you just pour dollars into with no return on the investment. Plus, there is that pesky inter-jurisdictional connectivity that we crave, yet can’t seem to obtain.

I would like to say there is hope, with light at the end of tunnel…but it could be a train headed this way.


A reminder to please take a few minutes to take this WebEOC User Survey





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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