Ready for Anything

Oct. 27, 2008
How to Design the Right Emergency Operations Center for your Business

Determining a need for, and designing and placing an effective Emergency Operations Center (EOC) into operation can be a daunting task. As corporate awareness for sound business continuity plans grow, quite often those same corporations determine a need for an EOC — a necessary component to a sound business continuity plan for most mid-to-large size corporations, hospitals, colleges and universities.

Choosing the Right EOC

When planning the development of an EOC, take a broad approach, focusing on how it will operate on a day-to-day basis. There are two basic types of Emergency Operations Centers: a full-time center, which is in constant use and usually housed in a large, technologically advanced room; and a part-time EOC that is housed in shared space and opens only for an impending emergency.

A corporation's emergency manager must consider the increased costs associated with full-time EOCs — the most expensive being the salaries of the people who operate it. For a small to mid-sized corporation, or for an organization such as a municipality or hospital that does not provide emergency services, the part-time, shared space option may prove to be a cost-efficient alternative.

Not only should the choice between a full-time EOC and part-time center be based on the organization's size, but also whether it interacts regularly with outside agencies, and is part of the critical infrastructure of a community (i.e. hospitals, utilities, transit companies), or whether it is an organization with multiple corporate sites.

Design and Layout

Although the size of an EOC may vary based on organizational size and need, the layout must be efficient, comfortable and large enough to accommodate section chiefs and other leadership personnel.

The use of Incident Command Structure (ICS) is imperative to a successful EOC. ICS is based on a common framework within which people can work together effectively to solve an incident. ICS is designed to give standard response and operation procedures to reduce the problems and potential for miscommunication. An EOC without an ICS in place will only be a chaotic room with ineffective distribution of information and resources.

The comfort of those occupying the EOC should be a primary concern during the design phase. Everything from having the air conditioning on generator power to the ergonomics of the seats should be considered. Although frequent rotation of staff should be conducted, 8- to 12-hour shifts are not uncommon, so comfort level will have a large impact on operator performance.

Additionally, create an area for executive conferences adjacent to the actual EOC. Also, ensure that a media area is also nearby, but not close enough to be able to observe or overhear actions and conversations that are occurring in the EOC.

Expectations of your EOC

Knowing the functions of your EOC will aid in the construction and design process. If your organization has or expects to have a full-time emergency management staff, I recommend the full-time, dedicated EOC room — whether manpower allows you to staff it today or you are looking at staff additions in the near future. If your organization has a single emergency manager, you may want to use the part-time EOC model. If the emergency management staff is a part of the overall corporate security structure, the full-time operations center is probably the right choice.

The North Shore-LIJ Health System Model

My own organizational structure at the North Shore-LIJ Health System (NSLIJHS) incorporates the Emergency Management Group with the Corporate Security group. Although each unit has different responsibilities, all members are cross-trained and all are responsible for performing tours of duty assigned to the EOC. Combining these two disciplines provides a well-blended team that provides a strong front line of protection.

NSLIJHS employs 37,000 people, has 3.6 million patient contacts per year in addition to visitors, vendors and sub-contractors. There are 15 hospital campuses, a research facility, laboratories, corporate headquarters and numerous corporate locations in office building-type settings.

Corporate security oversees the security departments at each of these campuses, and it provides executive protection to the corporation's senior leadership and visiting dignitaries. Corporate security also protects high-profile special events and conducts investigations for high-profile incidents with the potential for substantial economic loss.

Working side-by-side with corporate security is the emergency management staff, which is charged with the responsibility of disaster planning and emergency response.

Knowing that emergencies are occurring both internally and externally is the responsibility of the emergency management team, with support from the corporate security team. Our EOC allows us to maintain a constant state of situational awareness.

Our EOC and the offices of the Emergency Management Division are located at our Syosset, Long Island location, which also houses our Emergency Medical Services division. Emergency management staff mans the EOC only during business hours and declared emergencies, although we are increasing that staffing to 16 hours per day with the slowest hours being monitored by the EMS Dispatch Center . Should an emergency arise, the on-call emergency management staff member is notified and he/she will determine the level of response, resources needed and if additional staff need to be activated.

This level of situational awareness is accomplished through the monitoring of Office of Emergency Management radios and fire and police radios; and interagency liaisons, including daily contact with law enforcement, fire service and other OEMs. In addition, we are connected to an emergency management software tool from The National Center for Crisis and Continuity Coordination (NC4) called E-Team, which is used with another of the company's products, the National Incident Monitoring Center (NIMC). The subscription service allows our security and emergency management staff to receive local, national and global events sent in real-time to computers, PDAs or pagers.

Our EOC and corporate security offices are also able to view all facilities through an extensive camera system, enabling personnel to view emergency situations in real-time and remotely provide intelligence to any responding staff. The corporate security office is connected to the EOC through a video conferencing system. The system-wide camera system is provided through security integrator Intelli-tec Security Services.

Each corporate security and emergency management member performs a tour of duty in the EOC, assuming the “watch commander” role approximately once every nine days. The watch commander's job is to maintain our situational awareness status; document any incidents using the E-team incident reporting system; field all calls to our EOC via our Health Systems intra-system emergency number; and monitor traffic, weather and breaking news. Weather monitoring during the summer and autumn months is critical, because Long Island can be vulnerable to hurricanes. The EOC uses HURREVAC software, a hurricane tracking product to monitor, chart and forecast potential landfalls and storm severity.

The Final Piece: Experienced Staff

Technology, trusted partners, redundant communications and power sources are all critical to the success of an efficient and effective EOC; however, the most important aspect of an effective EOC is the personnel that staff it. Our staff all has emergency response experience and healthcare experience. The importance of this experience is reflected in the ability of the EOC staff to correctly interpret and appropriately evaluate an emergency situation and deploy the proper staff and physical assets.

The proper interpretation and associated delivery of services is directly related to our staff's previous or current emergency service experience.

Final Advice

Do not feel compelled to start off with an elaborate EOC. Of course, if staffing and finances allow, design an EOC that is appropriately sized for your company and staffed accordingly.

There are many alternatives, however. At NSLIJHS, for example, we have started small and slowly increased our capabilities with both staffing and equipment. The important thing to keep in mind is that your EOC has redundancy in communications, power and technology, and is comfortable for its users.

Do not try to re-invent the wheel! There are well-designed EOCs out there with emergency managers that will be glad to share thoughts and ideas. If you see an EOC that works, it doesn't hurt to use some of those components to help design your own.

James A. Romagnoli is corporate director of security and emergency management for North Shore-LIJ Health System, Great Neck, N.Y.