Emergency Management and Emergency Operations Centers

Disasters can happen anywhere and, as so poignantly demonstrated in New York, it's our job to manage and mitigate them.

An Amtrak train crashes into a freight train, derails and catches fire just outside Wendover, Utah, on Sept. 13. Many passengers are injured and in need of immediate medical care. Fortunately, none were killed.

In Texas, barges hit a piling and knock two 80-foot segments of the Queen Isabella Causeway into the Laguna Madre channel early Saturday, Sept. 15. A third span crumbles and drops 85 feet into the water below, hours later. Anywhere between five and 10 people are dead. Among the dead is Port Isabel Fire Chief Robert Harris, 46. The bridge was the only link between the mainland and South Padre Island, a popular resort on the Gulf of Mexico.

Most of us were riveted by television coverage of the Sept. 11 horror in New York City. Yet, emergency management teams around the country were managing their own jurisdictions' responses to the tragedy in New York and the threat that it may visit their regions as well. There may also have been other major events in their own cities, counties and states.

Disasters can happen anywhere and, as so poignantly demonstrated in New York, it's our job to manage and mitigate them.

What Drives An EOC?

In San Diego, the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was activated within a few hours of the New York event. EOCs throughout the country became active to fulfill their obligation to the people they serve. Like the term in real estate sales, "location, location, location," the catch phrase for emergency management is "preparation, preparation, preparation."

Local and state emergency management officials work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to prepare their jurisdictions for catastrophic events, a weapons of mass destruction attack, an airliner crash, major hazardous material spills, large fires, floods and storms. The list is limited only by our imagination and now, things we never imagined.

Staffing EOCs are staffed by all the departments within jurisdictions that are responsible for critical services. In many jurisdictions, these include Law Enforcement, Fire, Emergency Medical Services, Power and Gas, Streets or Highways department, Water services, Sewer, Governmental Management (City Manager, County Manager or Governor's Office) and Press Information.

This constitutes a Unified Command structure. It is a unified team effort, which allows all agencies with responsibilities for the incident -- either geographical or functional -- to manage an incident by establishing a common set of objectives and strategies. This is accomplished without losing or abdicating their individual agencies' authority, autonomy, responsibility or accountability.

EOCs are broken down into Command, Operations Planning, Logistics and Finance categories. The EOC participants are officials given the authority by their respective agencies to make decisions for that agency. In other words, the police official speaks with the authority of the chief; the fire official with the authority of the fire chief; the water utilities representative with the authority of the department head of that agency, etc.

Practice Scenarios are dreamed up and plans are made to deal with those scenarios. Most agencies participate in drills in which the situations are broken down into time-lined events and then played out in real time to officials in the EOC. This is done to learn how they will handle the events as they come. Afterward, a team of experts critiques the whole situation. They look at what was done well and what areas require further work.

The most critical component of any EOC is communications. This is true not only for talking with their people in the field but with each person in the room as well. The people in the command center must be capable of communicating with one another. No shrinking violets are invited. They must be able to concisely tell their counterparts what their agencies' needs are and what they can do as the situation develops.

The EOC commander must be able to turn to anyone in the room and immediately be informed of what that agency's current capabilities consist of. Communication from the field is the lifeblood of any EOC operation. After all, if information on a given incident does not flow into the EOC, all you have is a bunch of officials sitting around in a dark room watching CNN on big screen television.

Using mobile video technology from the field can be a force multiplier in the information battle for emergency management. During a recent event in San Diego, we used video from a number of different sources. The FBI set up stationary cameras to monitor the area around our convention center.

Video feeds from the sites were transmitted on fiber optic line directly into the EOC. We had live feeds from within the convention center using the center's in-place security cameras. This was accomplished using a video codec, an electronic device that compresses and packages video data for transmission on telephone lines supplied by the video conferencing vendor, RoseTel.

We were able to use our existing RoseTel video conferencing system to view video in real time at the full 30 frames per second rate. We used portable 2.4GHz spread-spectrum microwave transmitters attached to handheld cameras that sent a line of sight signal to a tall building in our downtown area and then retransmitted using fixed microwave equipment to the EOC.

Additionally, we used GPS tracking microwave technology provided by Broadcast Microwave Services to transmit signals from both our police department helicopters' on-board camera / FLIR systems to our Headquarters building. The signal was then retransmitted to the EOC using the RoseTel Video Conferencing system.

Hand-held receivers were passed out to the field commanders linking them to the helicopter video. This video gave the decision-makers the ability to see what was going on in the field and make decisions regarding personnel allocation based on real time information. Because of this, response time to incidents was cut drastically.

Responding officers were able to get to a specific location quickly using routes that were reconnoitered using video and were able to bring the equipment appropriate for the situation. It was like having an invisible intelligence officer in the middle of the incident, communicating with the command staff. The EOC commander was able to have multiple views of the same incident and use the information to deliver assets that were appropriate for the situation.

Recovery Phase

The final and equally important responsibility of the Emergency Management System is recovery. The job is not over when the threat or incident stops. Days, weeks or months may be involved.

FEMA has many programs in place to assist local and state governments with clean-up and recovery. These include low interest rate government loan programs. The Public Assistance Program provides supplemental federal disaster grant assistance to help state and local governments and certain private non-profit organizations rebuild.

There are individual assistance programs that assist people and businesses following a disaster and help them get back on their feet. One of the ironies of EOC operations became highly visible Sept. 11. The address of The New York City Mayor's Office of Emergency Management was 7 World Trade Center - 23rd Floor.

It's another testament to Emergency Management personnel in New York that they were able to respond after the destruction of their center and rapidly open up a backup center to handle operations. With the abrupt change we have experienced in recent weeks, the emphasis on Emergency Management will surely grow.

Gaining a working knowledge of the system is critical for all law enforcement personnel. If we know how the system works, we will be better able to respond to incidents and events as they occur. We will understand the capabilities of our jurisdiction's Emergency Management teams, what their needs are and how to communicate with them to satisfy our needs in the field.

Our hearts go out to all those in New York who were affected by the recent attack. They deserve the highest level of praise for their tremendous response to that unprecedented emergency.

Dave Douglas is a sergeant on the San Diego Police Department and is involved with the EOC program’s technical installations. He is also the Sergeant of In-Service Training at the Regional Academy.

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