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The impacts of COVID-19 led to the need for more virtual emergency operation centers (EOCs). Virtual EOCs became necessary to follow protective strategies (e.g., social distancing, teleworking, and isolation and quarantining of ill or infected individuals) to reduce disease transmission and promote health and safety among first responders. In addition, the ongoing pandemic required emergency management agencies to rapidly reduce in-person meetings and evolve into a more virtual footprint for preparedness and response.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, agencies leveraged technology to use virtual EOCs for smaller incidents with limited physical impacts. However, in most communities, COVID-19 was the first test for officials leveraging the virtual EOC concept for a major incident. A virtual EOC is a web-based EOC that serves to monitor and host web-based communications for incident command and coordination while responding to a disaster. This report highlights the use of virtual EOCs and the successes and challenges.
After COVID-19 emerged, this agency successfully applied the virtual emergency operations center concept.
Traditional vs. Virtual EOCs
Traditional EOCs are housed in brick-and-mortar buildings, sometimes close to a disaster site, to centralize strategic planning and operations from a physical location. They serve as a central hub to coordinate on-scene operations, resources, and information to support incident management during the disaster cycle from response to recovery. Face-to-face collaboration is essential for solving complex acute problems that often accompany a disaster. When the speed of messages increases during a disaster, one of the first challenges agencies face is communicating effectively. The ability to rapidly problem-solve is one of the core advantages of the traditional EOC construct.
Having a system in place, such as using the Incident Command System (ICS) structure, is critical to ensure coordination and allow information to be relayed for situational awareness. The ICS is easily adaptable to a virtual or hybrid space (e.g., a physical location equipped with technology to allow core staff to participate in-person and virtually). Hybrid EOCs limit the number of on-site personnel and are helpful for medium- to large-size jurisdictions that are required to coordinate with multiple cities and counties regardless of the complexity of the event. Hybrid and virtual EOCs need a virtual coordination plan and platform to support web-based communication for sharing and monitoring incoming information, uploading daily reports, and communicating across partners.
The benefits of virtual EOCs are that they promote health/wellbeing for staff, provide some delivery relief and work-life balance, and reduce administration costs. While there are certainly a number of benefits related to virtual EOCs, some challenges have been noted in setting them up. The following list explains some of what could be gained (pros) and what could be lost (cons) when considering the implementation of virtual EOCs compared to the physical EOC:
Saves money on renting, remodeling, or building a physical EOC;
Releases real-time information to public safety personnel;
Lessens the burden of access control and security screening of personnel into a brick-and-mortar facility that has security checkpoints;
Reduces the need for parking, which may be an issue for some facilities when fully activating and requesting liaison officers to participate in a physical EOC;
Minimizes public transportation exposure with other riders;
Saves costs on catering for provided meals;
Assists with cleaning and sanitizing protocols due to less people trafficking through common areas;
Increases coordination by all partners and access to satellite and weather forecasts in a consistent manner (forecast projections help to identify where and who to deploy within 120 hours of storm surge or touch down);
Improves staff role assignments to physical locations to address staff shortage;
Enhances efficiency by decreasing staff deployment to multiple locations (reduce travel concerns related to security access, traffic jams, debris on the roadway, and severe weather);
Reduces commute time to a physical EOC and enhances administrative coordination of staff workload shifts to prevent burnout; and
Improves synchronization with media outlets and accuracy in monitoring input from social media platforms to address misinformation.
Requires stable access to electrical power source and internet to support operations (may require a secure web server or e-subscription service);
Loses information due to remote participant failing to pay attention or multi-tasking instead of focusing on assigned task;
Impacts employee morale due to lack of face time with staff and partners (less face-to-face interaction with partners limits the ability to pick up on social and subtle body language cues);
Lacks specific detail (e.g., include names) for feedback provided from all staff and partners who supported virtual operations in an after-action report;
Pace and scale depend on the complexity of operation (there may be a change from prior activation partners for a variety of reasons); and
Virtual platforms may not be as effective in large-scale and complex disasters where the plan needs to be frequently updated during the 24-hour operational period (operational plans for smaller-sized events may not be adaptable for more significant events, and some information may fall through the cracks if not requested from state, local, tribal, and territorial [SLTT] partners).
Source: U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2018).
Support for Planning Tools and Process
In 2022, although the virtual infrastructure is in place to allow the virtual deployment of emergency managers to assist through all phases of the disaster cycle, refresher training may be needed through virtual platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams on procedures. In addition, as part of a planning tool, there needs to be a virtual orientation toolkit available for staff to visit and raise their awareness of how virtual EOCs function and their use of ICS. The planning process must address staff workloads, shift changes, and how staff should manage current daily operations for the 24-hour period. Expansion of current documents housed in online incident management tools such as WebEOC can be updated to remain relevant.
Critically important to facilitating virtual EOCs is access to appropriate equipment. While many emergency management agencies provide access to a laptop or a workstation with equipment to support virtual operations through tools like WebEOC, this is not consistent and presents challenges in implementing widespread virtual EOCs. Many states provide online management tools as a resource to their local emergency management agencies. The virtual infrastructure requires more-frequent sharing of updates with staff using an electronic method of communication from phone or computer.
Maryland’s Experience Implementing a Virtual EOC
Before the pandemic, the Maryland Department of Emergency Management (MDEM) primarily leveraged a traditional EOC concept for most activations of the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC). Beginning in the mid-2010s, with the increased availability of technology and user comfort, MDEM began using a hybrid approach to SEOC activations for more minor incidents with limited impacts. Immediately, the benefits became apparent. Allowing staff to work remotely from home reduced staff burnout, increased safety by keeping staff off the roads when unsafe, and increased the number of operational periods the state could sustain. Although MDEM successfully used the hybrid approach to activations, the state still relied primarily on a traditional EOC concept for medium- or large-scale incidents.
Like agencies across the nation, MDEM had to completely restructure its approach due to COVID-19. At the start of the pandemic, when the activity level was highest and the problems complex, MDEM maintained an in-person EOC activation. From May 2020 through that summer, MDEM gradually reduced its physical footprint, eventually transitioning to virtual operations. In August 2020, MDEM successfully managed the response to Tropical Storm Isaias 95% remotely, with only a small group of staff activating in person. From conducting live Weather Channel interviews in staff’s living rooms to virtual damage assessments, MDEM showed that the model worked. MDEM managed nearly the rest of the COVID-19 response virtually. However, operations went back to a hybrid status in February 2021 as vaccination efforts required in-person management. Subsequent disasters demonstrated the viability of the virtual EOC in Maryland for most events.
Since communication is the weakest link to successful virtual EOC operations, selecting a software platform that can be used in emergencies and daily activities is important. Microsoft Teams and the Google Suite provide the versatile integration of video and document management that emergency managers need to succeed. Being prepared in an evolving world requires staying up to date on changing technology and equipping staff with the knowledge and technology to support the successful activation of virtual operations. It also requires enhancing coordination through the creation of a plan on how to activate a virtual or hybrid EOC. Planning includes determining in advance how to restructure the plan to support the mission (e.g., guidance on how to operate from a physical EOC, hotel, or home residence of record, what information to post internally and externally, and the speed and frequency speed for updating websites accessible by staff and by the public).
Developing a high-functioning emergency management workforce in the future will require regularly exercising virtual and blended hybrid EOC operations to address staff technology access issues and work-time accountability. New staff orientations are often delivered through virtual operations and allow for staff mentoring and development. Virtual and hybrid EOC policies may need to be updated over time to address procedural changes in the legal landscape (e.g., electronic signature, authorizing of public information, privacy protection, or purchasing and approval of materials) and to keep staff informed of policy changes.
The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the need for agencies at all levels to adapt to virtual EOCs for on-scene operations. The emergency management profession will need to continue to adapt and consider virtual and hybrid EOCs as a way of doing business moving forward. As tools and technology change, agencies must update standard operating procedures and communication plans to use these tools efficiently to support interactions with partners and adapt to conditions presented in future responses.