When catastrophes strike a city, county, or state, agencies have to coordinate their responses in real-time. Lives, property, and public safety all depend on firefighters, police officers, public works professionals, government officials, and National Guard members being equipped to do their job in a coordinated fashion.
In most cases, a central nerve center coordinates each response unit’s work to avoid duplicating activities or leaving an area unserved. This nerve center is called an Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and it operates much like a command and control center does at the federal level.
While a command and control center usually manages national security events, international conflict, or corporate and industrial functions, an EOC provides a central location for local teams to address up-close events. In the event of a fire, flood, hurricane, terrorist attack, mass shooting, or disease outbreak, responders rely on the team inside an EOC to coordinate efforts and dispatch resources.
That team, in turn, depends on their space and technology to simplify and streamline their coordination activities. For most state and local governments, an EOC is a critical investment, and one that needs regular care and maintenance.
What is an Emergency Operations Center (EOC)?
An Emergency Operations Centers’ definition is a secure location on a campus or in a facility that provides space for centralized monitoring, control, and command of an emergency event.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency defines EOCs specifically as, “Off-site locations where staff from multiple agencies come together to address imminent threats and hazards (and to) provide coordinated support to incident command, on-scene personnel and/or other EOCs.”
Emergency Operations Centers are the physical locations in which teams use technology to manage disruptions to public life at the state or local level.
EOCs operate much like an operations center or a command and control center. Typically, however, an operations center provides space to a single organization while an EOC serves as a common location for a multi-disciplinary team.
These centers house the personnel, equipment, and communication technology the government needs during an emergency response. The team inside may handle crisis communication such as press inquiries or calls from family members of victims along with conducting incident stabilization management and ensuring business continuity to the extent possible.
Unlike a command and control center, which tends to be the preferred design for federal agencies, an EOC is specific to county, city, or state government and focuses on disaster or casualty response rather than coordinating an attack or deploying military presence.
Where did EOCs come from?
Emergency management and response are central roles of government according to the U.S. Constitution. Typically, the state, county, or city operates at the front lines of emergency management while federal agencies play a secondary role.
The first recorded emergency management relief package at the federal level happened in 1803 when Congress appropriated money to assist a New Hampshire town devastated by fire.
It wasn’t until the beginning of the Cold War, however, that emergency relief and coordination began to play a key role in national security, public health, and disaster risk management. State and local agencies started to establish and coordinate defense and deployment infrastructure for emergency security situations.
In the 1960s, these roles expanded to include natural disasters.The following decade, five national agencies and departments created disaster management arms. The Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 brought domestic terrorism under the umbrella of state and local emergency direction. By the time 9/11 happened in 2001, disaster management had become an integral function of government at all levels.
The history of the Emergency Operations Center changed after the September 11 attacks, which saw many first responders taken down, heightening the public’s awareness of the need for complex emergency control systems.
Now, many emergency teams focus more on disaster mitigation and preparedness than on response and recover.
At all levels and in all functions, however, communication and coordination are key to successfully dealing with a public crisis. That’s why EOCs remain a critical component of an emergency management system.
The four functions of a typical EOC
According to FEMA, the four emergency operations center functions are as follows:
- Collecting, analyzing and sharing information. Each of an EOC’s functions falls under one of two major roles — interagency coordination or decision making. Information collection, analysis, and distribution is part of coordination. The team members may use on-site responders, activity logs, social media, traditional media, and victim statements as information. Typically, they catalog this data and turn it into reports for local or national leaders. The EOC team may also distribute information from leaders to the general public, serving as a knowledge hub for news media members.
- Supporting resource needs and requests, including allocation and tracking. Acquiring, allocating, and tracking resources requires coordinating among all involved agencies and departments along with on-site incident responders. To conduct this part of their responsibilities, the EOC team may use project management software such as Resource Guru, HubPlanner, or 10,000ft Plans. The ideal technology for an Emergency Operations Center is sleek, functional, and easy for the team to use.
- Coordinating plans and determining current and future needs. An EOC contains an ecosystem of multiple agencies that all work together in a coordinated fashion. EOCs aren’t usually places where teams make operational incident management plans, international plans, or resource allocation plans. Instead, they help the agencies work together to form a coherent, comprehensive disaster response under the guidelines of the National Incident Management System.
- In some cases, providing coordination and policy direction. According to FEMA, an EOC’s team “provide(s) guidance on strategic priorities and resource support.” Team members also work with legal counsel, authorize protective measures such as curfews, and authorize information sharing with external audiences such as the media. Typically, staff in an EOC liaise with other government agencies at all levels, including state, local, tribal, and federal.
How to equip an EOC at any scale
EOCs come in all shapes and sizes. Small counties typically need a small center and have smaller budgets for equipment. Large, urban areas tend to need a spacious EOC with the capacity to manage more actors in the same facility. This distinction doesn’t always hold true, however, since some low-population counties may encompass large landmasses.
In some cases, a county might buy an EOC and let cities within the county combine resources within the same facility. States, however, usually have a main EOC in the capital along with regional or state agency-specific EOCs. Who owns the EOC often comes down to who has the budget. Sometimes, these facilities get funded by federal grants from agencies such as FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, or a weather response bureau. A county, city, or state agency can get money from the federal government and build their own.
Creating an Emergency Operations Center checklist covering all the things you want to coordinate can be a simple but effective way to determine how large and well-outfitted your center needs to be.
Consider factors such as the number of people in the facility and the number of things you are controlling or monitoring. A center can be as simple as a single 98-inch monitor with a small video processor to receive 4-6 feeds and a few workstations with PCs and communications. That kind of setup may run around $20,000.
For a larger system, you could go as big as a 64-monitor video wall with 55-inch screens in a 16-across-and-4-down-arrangement.
Prior to construction, the responsible agency needs to make a list of Emergency Operations Center equipment and Emergency Operations Center furniture since those components will also need to be included in the budget for the center’s construction and its maintenance.
Optimized EOC design layouts
EOCs need adequate, flexible space so all participants can view the giant monitors or video wall along with enough space for teams to split into smaller working groups. Agencies may also need to store giant projectors or other oversized equipment in the EOC. If physical space is a serious limitation, you can try using large format displays or projection.
A good Emergency Operations Center floor plan takes into account both the size of the display area and the number of workstations and operators using the facility. An Emergency Operation Center layout typically offers a main command center area plus back rooms for working groups. For instance, if you have 30 operators from 14 different agencies working in your center, you may need an Emergency Operations Center design that makes use of additional space for other staff in back offices.
When drafting your Emergency Operations Center layout, be aware that video feeds and data feeds need to go on the screen(s) so the data input work may be a little more intense than some installers expect. Also, an EOC team may receive more radio communications than a comparable command and control center would get. The field staff from different agencies might use different radios and radio frequencies, creating multiple communications streams coming in from different sources and platforms, making it more intense to coordinate than a command and control center of the same size and scope.
Design regulations and best practices for EOCs
EOC design standards vary according to the size of the facility, what it’s used for, and how many agencies are involved. Of course, any construction must be ADA compliant as well as Section 508 compliant. A competent engineering or architecture firm can help assure ADA compliance. Section 508 addresses U.S. government regulations on IT accessibility and universal design. Agencies construction an EOC should contact their Section 508 program manager to make sure their technology meets federal regulatory standards.
Designing firms for emergency operations centers consider two main factors when thinking through emergency operations center design standards:
- IT, technology, and communication. The facility will hold a large volume of technical equipment that must be physically secure as well as cyber secure. The people inside the building need to access that equipment without losing critical productivity. Communication streams into and out of an EOC can burden the technical systems. A qualified EOC design firm can help an agency think through the best design structure for them.
- Operations. Each agency or department using the facility needs space to function effectively on its own and in cross-disciplinary teams. Designers need to know how to create space that allows for meetings and group work in a tight facility.
Good design needs to create functionality and take into account concerns from both IT and operations team leaders.
Good design needs to create functionality and take into account concerns from both IT and operations team leaders.
Who needs an EOC?
Cities, states, and counties typically construct and maintain EOCs. Some federal disaster management agencies such as FEMA or parts of the CDC also purchase these facilities.
An EOC is not usually specific to a single entity but instead houses a multi-agency coordination effort with representatives from departments as diverse as public safety, agriculture, health, urban planning, and national security.
Any municipality or state agency relying on obsolete communication technology such as fax machines or that separates departments during a crisis due to lack of space needs an EOC to help anticipate emergencies and respond to them through interdisciplinary collaboration and state-of-the-art technology.
EOCs don’t have to be all about disasters. The Northern Command, for instance, uses their EOC to track Santa Claus’ flight around the world on Christmas Eve.
How to create an Emergency Operations Center
Build a planning team representing each agency that will use the EOC and appoint a team leader to project manage the process. Typically, this leader will either serve as a city or agency manager or will come from an affected IT department. This team can work with architects, communication technology providers, and furniture companies to build and equip the center effectively for their needs.
The planning team should also create a testing and maintenance schedule to ensure the EOC’s operational efficiency and functionality.
AGT relies on these strategic partners to plan and implement successful EOCs for our clients: