Understanding the Benefits of a Virtual Emergency Operations Center
The value of an Emergency Operations Center (EOC), a physical (or mobile) hub where Emergency and Incident Management teams coordinate information and resources during low-frequency, high-risk incidents, is pretty clear. The EOC supports incident management activities, up to and including on-scene operations.
The very utility of the approach explains why physical EOCs, i.e. fixed, brick-and-mortar facilities, have proliferated in recent years. After all, they help teams and organizations mobilize people and equipment for incident response that lasts the entire lifecycle of an emergency.
Physical EOCs aren’t a cure-all, though. Indeed, the research suggests that physical EOCs alone often prove insufficient for critical incident lifecycle management. What’s more effective, then: supplementing the integrated emergency management effort with a virtual emergency operations center. Here’s why.
For starters, Emergency Management, like every other all-hazard discipline, is contending with a marked increase in emergencies. Not just natural disasters and catastrophes, either, but also relatively, newer threats that tax Emergency Management resources, like terror and cyber incidents. It’s this shifting context, more than anything, that’s forcing a major reevaluation of traditional EOC objectives, goals like establishing a common operating picture, facilitating long-term operations, improving continuity, providing ready access to all available information, simplifying information analysis and verification, and promoting resource identification and assignment.
Meeting those objectives has traditionally meant undertaking the following core EOC functions:
- Coordination. Inter-agency coordination as well as capability and resource management; NIMS, in particular, requires that the communications and information management systems for all EOCs must be deployed with due consideration to the interoperability and redundancy of systems.
- Policy-making. Creating broad-reaching policies.
- Operations. Direction of all incidental tactical operations required during the disaster response.
- Information-gathering. Determining the nature and extent of disaster conditions, including damage assessment.
- External communication. Informing relevant publics, including the media.
But now, many of the critical events that physical EOCs have been set up to manage can be handled virtually. In fact, organizations that have developed virtual Emergency Operations Centers (for mobile impact teams or others) in addition to traditional brick and mortar EOCs tend to use the former more extensively than the latter. The University of Oregon, for instance, uses its virtual emergency operations center around 12 times a year, while it only uses the physical EOC twice.
What accounts for the differential? Well, virtual Emergency Operations Centers have taken full advantage of the profusion of digital technologies (mobile, cloud-based platforms, video, incident management dashboards, geographic information systems, etc.) to create a modern emergency management software solution that facilitates data-driven response to major incidents.
So too have physical EOCs, you’d be right to counter. But the key difference is that virtual EOCs have been purposefully set up to enable anywhere, anytime access to all available incident management tools and information; often, only a user name and password are needed.
You see, today’s Emergency/Incident Management practitioners must be able to process and effectively distribute information from any number of sources, at any point during the lifecycle of an emergency. A virtual EOC gives practitioners the ability to share critical resources, continuity data, and important reports on a unified platform that senior leadership can log in to, as well. This digitization of information management, in particular, helps teams establish a common operating picture.
Other EOC objectives are achievable by teams once situational awareness has been achieved. Case in point: for-profit and non-for-profit organizations who’ve given virtual EOC access to city emergency management staff find that it accelerates multiagency collaboration – relevant people come to the table sooner without a geographical barrier to entry – and keeps everyone with access to the virtual EOC on the same page throughout the response.
Further, since virtual EOCs improve information sharing, they require fewer administrative resources. In contrast, physical EOCs take large staffs to maintain, teams often comprising of high-qualified practitioners who could otherwise be at the disaster site. That’s no reason to jettison fixed facilities (or mobile EOCs) altogether. Instead, a mixed physical/virtual approach can help better maximize resources, so that the right people get access to crucial information without having to step away from where they’re needed.
The technical capabilities that enable a Virtual Emergency Operations Center
So, then, what are some technical capabilities Emergency Management teams should be scouting out in order to add a virtual EOC to their toolkit? First things first. Nothing improves modern incident coordination more than system flexibility. Unfortunately, that’s where a lot of integrated emergency management solutions fall down: they only offer advanced functionality in discrete mission areas.
Instead, virtual EOC teams need to be able to manage all information, communications, plans, and tasks within a single, flexible platform. Specific features to improve communication and facilitate collaboration include alerts, dashboards, and collaboration spaces for teams, as well as notifications and updates via email, SMS, voice, or in app.
What’s more, software that supports a virtual EOC must necessarily provide situational awareness for each critical event – bonus points for steady-state operations, as well. And therefore, the solution should be able to transmit intelligence from diverse sources and methods, including field personnel, data and GIS feeds, email, and SMS. That intelligence will facilitate informed decision making, whether those decisions come from the field or the brick and mortar EOC.
Best-practice solutions will provide comprehensive dashboards for events and operations, as well as integrated, map-based functionality for visualizing the locations of incidents, risks, people, and assets. In fact, some solutions even come pre-configured with best-practice incident templates, forms, dashboards, and assets specifically for Emergency Operations Centers. That means much of the work is completed, right out of the box.
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