Challenges to Virtual Emergency Operations
How COVID showed the limits of physical EOCs
For some time now, incident command in public safety has been increasingly clustered in emergency operations centres (EOCs) – mostly physical facilities where decision makers congregate to guide emergency response and recovery. With COVID something had to change; but were there remote structures in place to facilitate it? Read on to learn the challenges to virtual emergency operations organisations encountered.
Indeed, with COVID, clustering together in a windowless EOC quickly became a nonstarter for many organisations and agencies. Many teams went remote – often for the first time.
The transition wasn’t easy, however. Many of the supporting emergency management systems, dubbed as virtual EOCs, weren’t enough.
Why many virtual EOCs weren’t enough
As agencies and organisations learned, their solutions only served to collect data from the field.
That’s only one aspect of the EOC function, though. Collected information needs to be made actionable, to create a real-time, common operating picture (COP).
EOC functionality also needed to change, so that agencies and organisations could adjust processes and procedures as the incident required. Often, that wasn’t happening, either.
Further challenges with digitisation in emergency operations
The larger question is why? If the digitalisation of emergency and incident management tools, practices, and processes could facilitate some of the remote transition, why not all?
Well, it turns out transitioning emergency operations to a virtual environment isn’t easy. These three challenges stand out:
- Lack of responsive design. Formerly, software platforms only had to deliver a mobile-friendly experience – one that works for mobile users out in the field. That’s no longer the case.
Mobile-friendly, designed with desktop users in mind, is not actually optimised to mobile users.
As the public safety sector has learned, the less user-friendly any aspect of the emergency management platform is the more time, effort, and money the organisation spends on training and administrative overhead to get mobile users up to speed.
- Poor usability. Of course, responsive design only covers one aspect of the usability challenge confronting EOCs in the virtual environment.
Too many practitioners still complain that their platforms lack basic usability. They feel stiff, even painful.
Again, the research suggests that it’s not a specific feature set but great user experience that drives software adoption. Conversely, poor user experience lowers adoption.
Where there is adoption, it’s unwilling: use is grudging, users less willing to engage. And that’s when you get users coming up with more effortful workarounds – enter Shadow IT.
Relatedly, new users are also cycling into emergency operations during incidents, many who have never been involved in an emergency response before. These users interact with the emergency management platform; and poor user experience makes training them that much harder.
- Security and accessibility risks. Poor usability and the resulting rise of shadow IT also present security risks for emergency operations that have shifted online.
State backed and non-state actors alike are keen to access the information stored in these platforms; nor are those actors adverse to impeding the operations themselves through nefarious actions.
For agencies and organisations, workarounds, like restricting permissions, tend to exacerbate usability and information-sharing challenges.
What was there to be done, given the need for digital emergency operations? Part of the technology solution turned out to be emergency management software that operationalises best practice in digital form.
Such platforms support EOC structures, whether they be best-practice Incident Command System (ICS) or Australasian Inter-Service Incident Management System (AIIMS), departments operating in the context of normal relationships, or customised structures that don’t follow ICS or AIIMS at all.
That’s not all, though. To learn more about the innovations needed to improve emergency operations in the new normal of COVID, download our guide to Virtual Emergency Operations Centers.