The Role of the EOC

You have been tracking the weather forecasts for many days. There’s a storm coming and it’s going to be bad. The fire department is calling in more personnel, and when you arrive at the station, you hear, “EOC has been activated.” The deputy chief is rumored to be at the emergency operations center (EOC), and word comes down that your engine company needs to go over to the high school and support an emergency evacuation shelter for local residents.

We are all aware of how the fire service manages day-to-day incidents under the Incident Command System (ICS). But what criteria are required to activate the EOC? Who is involved when it is open, and what decisions do those people need to make? How does this all tie into our normal operations? Following is a quick overview of the EOC’s role during a disaster in the community, and how the fire service works in that system.

Emergency Management

Emergency managers are highly concerned about disasters, both natural and manmade (including terrorist events). Because many of their efforts are devoted to planning, emergency managers tend to focus heavily on the preparedness, recovery and mitigation roles. But the fourth role of emergency management-that which most involves the fire service-is the response mode. This is where the EOC’s purpose really comes into focus for the community.

Each community designates their own emergency manager. For local governments this may be the fire chief or the police chief, or sometimes the organization will have a dedicated individual with specific training and experience in emergency management.

During a disaster, the emergency manager’s role is somewhat comparable to that of incident commander (IC)-overall responsibility for coordinating the response. However, unlike a typical structure fire with a single IC, a disaster response requires a much greater focus and effort toward coordinating multiple and disparate departments (many of which have little public safety experience), external agencies from across the community (which you may have no formal authority over), while simultaneously dealing with leaders from state and perhaps even federal agencies. Adding to these challenges, the disaster often covers a large geographic region. Amid all this, the emergency manager works from a pre-designated EOC where key personnel are assembled. And let’s not forget that because it is a “disaster,” the media’s appetite for information will be all that much greater.

The Emergency Operations Center

The EOC’s role is that of a multi-agency coordination system, and its structure is designed to recognize that fact. The overall plan for a community is contained in your community’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan (CEMP), which is based on the federal government’s National Response Framework. This framework also includes an outline for EOC operations, including recognition of Emergency Support Functions (ESFs). These ESFs are essentially the same from community to community, and each jurisdiction’s local CEMP defines who is the lead agency for a specific ESF, and which agencies serve in a supporting role.

Florida’s ESF structure, modified slightly from years of hurricane experience, is shown in Table 1 at left. The agency responsible for a specific function can be part of the local city/county government, a special district (i.e., school board) or even a non-profit organization (i.e., local Red Cross).

In most jurisdictions across Florida, the county fire-rescue agency coordinates all functions under EFS-4 (Firefighting) with other local fire departments. As needed, the State’s fire-rescue resources are accessed from the State EOC through the Florida Fire Chiefs Association that staffs ESF-4.

The fire service is also typically the lead agency for both ESF-9 (Search & Rescue) and ESF-10 (HazMat), along with a strong support role in other ESFs including ESF-8 (Health & Medical). Not surprising, this makes the fire service an essential component of emergency management and EOC operations in almost every jurisdiction across the nation.

Because of the wide impact disasters have in the community and the multiple stakeholders involved, command functions are often modified within an EOC. For example, it is common that a unified command system be established in the EOC. This approach is where all primary stakeholders have a shared responsibility to evaluate and determine the overall response and relief efforts. Even though there may be multiple players involved, the unified command participants will develop the incident action plan together and then work through a single Operations Section Chief.

If you ever thought you might like to serve in an EOC during disaster operations, you must first have the appropriate level of training and experience required. The jurisdiction’s emergency manager is typically the one to establish and provide the necessary training opportunities. This includes ICS 100—400 and ICS 700 and 800. Specialized courses also exist for a wide range of other roles, including damage assessments, debris management after a disaster and even effective public information/media relations. Through its Emergency Management Institute located adjacent to the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., FEMA provides a wide range of online and resident courses (http://training.fema.gov/EMI/).

Layer-Cake Approach

We are all aware of FEMA. Despite a rocky history, the agency today is once again widely respected for its capabilities to deal with impacts of disasters. Its current director, Craig Fugate, is a former firefighter and state emergency manager from Florida. Fugate recognizes the importance of a closely integrated response system with a wide variety of participants. FEMA’s immediate past director is Dave Paulison, a fire chief in Miami-Dade County when Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992 (and an author in this issue of FireResuce; see p. 64). Paulison took the helm in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and rebuilt FEMA into an organization that was forward-leaning in its readiness to help state and local governments.

This comes into play when we consider the very definition of a disaster-an event where the resources required to effectively manage an incident far exceed that which are available. When the local community does not have the resources needed to respond, they seek help from the State, through its EOC. The State, in turn, requests a Presidential Declaration and seeks federal assistance through FEMA.

This concept has been described as a “layer-cake” approach where one level of government relies on, or builds upon, another. To accomplish this, we require a common nomenclature and operating guidelines by which federal, state and local resources (including the fire service) operate. The federal government recently released the second edition of the National Response Framework (www.fema.gov/national-response-framework) through FEMA that defines the major operating principles, structure and nomenclature that all levels of government need to use.

When we recognize that local resources may be inadequate to fully meet the community’s needs, then we call for state and federal help. But how does that request for help occur, and most importantly, how long will it take? That is where the EOC comes into play.

Giving Help/Getting Help

A common misperception is that the fire department somehow loses control of their operations during a disaster, but nothing is further from the truth. The EOC’s role is to coordinate the emergency response across many different agencies. This is accomplished by tasking specific missions to the appropriate ESF, which in turn identifies a resource (fire service or other) to meet the mission’s objective. So if a specific neighborhood needs to be searched, this mission would be tasked to ESF-9 (Search & Rescue), and the local fire rescue agency would likely be tasked to handle that mission. Depending on the type of event and resources available, this could be a Type 3 Search & Rescue Team or perhaps an engine company from the local fire department. However, once tasked with a specific mission, it is that agency’s responsibility to respond and manage the request as they deem appropriate. A mission tasking from the EOC is similar to a dispatch from the 9-1-1 center-but with an ongoing responsibility to keep the chain of command well informed of how and when the mission is successfully completed.

Further, it’s common for fire crews in the community to come upon situations that they are not equipped to handle (e.g., persons trying to locate other family members; residents no longer able to access healthcare services, such as kidney dialysis; residents looking for disaster assistance information). The EOC has the information you need to help those individuals.

Communication from the EOC to the field will often happen along your normal processes, either from shift briefings at the beginning of shift or up/down the normal chain of command, ultimately accessing ESF-4 (Firefighting) in the EOC. Chief and company officers, as well as line fire personnel, should be informed by the EOC on how best to transmit these requests for assistance.

Other times, firefighters may come across situations that require quick action from the EOC (e.g., a nursing home is without power or water; the motor pool, where you get apparatus fuel, is out of diesel; a shelter in a nearby school is running out of food supplies). In these circumstances, your crew needs to transmit those requests back to the EOC. At that point, the need will be evaluated and assigned to the appropriate ESF for further work. This is the process where needs in the community and available resources are matched up and a (hopefully quick) response is put into action.

Final Thoughts

Working in a disaster situation is a stressful event. The value of EOC operations is that it builds upon the systems the fire service uses every day. Within the community, some of your best people should be assigned to the EOC to provide an effective mechanism for getting information or resources to address the situations line personnel find in the community. Strong leadership, both in the field and in the EOC, are what make for an effective disaster response. You can fill your role by understanding EOC operations and being prepared to respond when the unexpected happens.

Table 1

STATE OF FLORIDA EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT — EMERGENCY SUPPORT FUNCTIONS (ESFs)

ESF 1 – Transportation

ESF 2 – Communications

ESF 3 – Public Works

ESF 4 – Firefighting

ESF 5 – Info and Planning

ESF 6 – Mass Care

ESF 7 – Unified Logistics

ESF 8 – Health & Medical

ESF 9 – Search & Rescue

ESF 10 – Hazmat

ESF 11 – Food & Water

ESF 12 – Energy

ESF 13 – Military Support

ESF 14 – Public Information

ESF 15 – Volunteers & Donations

ESF 16 – Law Enforcement

ESF 17 – Animal Services

ESF 18 – Business, Industry and Economic Stabilization

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