From tornadoes to floods to explosions, emergency agencies bring experts together in emergency operations centers (EOCs) to manage and coordinate operations. Before the pandemic, they did so largely in person. The risk (and reality) of infection, however, has forced EOCs to go virtual – out of necessity.
Makeshift affairs, many of these virtual emergency operations centers (VEOC) are virtual in name only. How, then, to get the most out of your VEOC?
First things first, a virtual emergency operations center still has to meet the same objectives that brick-and-mortar emergency operations centers were set up to achieve in the first place. Those goals are likely to include (1). establishing a common operating picture, (2). facilitating long-term operations, (3). improving continuity, (4). providing ready access to all available information, (5). simplifying information analysis and verification, as well as (6). promoting resource identification and assignment. And those goals are usually pursued via the following, core EOC functions:
- Coordination. Inter-agency coordination as well as capability and resource management. Incident command frameworks, like NIMS and AIIMS, will usually require that 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.
Funny enough, these functions can transfer seamlessly enough to the digital world. Just ask, organisations that made the shift to VEOCs (pre-pandemic). They found that they got even more out of their virtual offerings than their traditional EOCs. That included when VEOCs were set up to supplement, rather than replace, brick-and-mortar structures.
What was key to the successful transition, then? We’d say technology mattered. Effective VEOCs aren’t just a collection of video conferences, a trap many pandemic-era agencies might fall into if they aren’t careful.
Instead, effective VEOCs make the most of available digital technologies (mobile, cloud-based platforms, video, incident management dashboards, geographic information systems, etc.), to create an integrated emergency management solution. And that solution facilitates data-driven response to major incidents.
It’s this point that’s key. The sum has to be greater than the parts. VEOCs, like traditional EOCs, must yield positive outcomes in terms of response capabilities. The in-built advantage that VEOCs bring, though, is the ability to give managers and responders anywhere, anytime access to available incident management tools and information.
Adding to that, VEOCs should give 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 digitisation of information management processes, in particular, will help teams establish a common operating picture of an incident quicker.
Other core EOC goals fan out from there. For instance, anecdotal data shows for-profit and non-for-profit organisations who’ve given VEOC access to city emergency management staff find that the virtual setup helps accelerate multi-agency collaboration.
Why? Relevant people come to the table sooner without a sometimes-steep geographical barrier to entry. After they do, access to critical information keeps everyone on the same page throughout the lifecycle of the incident.
What’s more, since effective VEOCs improve information sharing, they require fewer administrative resources to keep up. In contrast, (pre-pandemic) physical EOCs took larger staffs to maintain, with those teams often comprising highly qualified practitioners who could otherwise be at the disaster site.
Of course, that’s no reason to jettison your fixed facilities just yet. We’ve seen ample evidence that a mixed physical/virtual approach helps to better maximise resources. But remember, technology matters. To learn what specific technical capabilities can drive better VEOC outcomes, download our best-practice guide.