Virtual Eoc Challenges In A Rural Environment
Until the recent pandemic made its way into our communities, most disasters were managed ina physical Emergency Operation Center, with face-toface interaction among its stakeholders using various technologies, and sometimes by using paper and pencil. The COVID-19 disaster quickly changed how emergency services would conduct business and has created some management challenges for Emergency Managers, especially in rural areas of our country. Quickly, localities had no choice but to leverage technology and become proficient in conducting operations online when the physical location was no longer a practical solution.
In the City of Winchester, our commitment to moving the entire management of the COVID-19 disaster into a virtual environment occurred within days of the Presidential disaster declaration. Previous experience taught us that to make any plan work, it must come with a logistical capability and understanding of what would be operationally needed. To mimic the plans contained in our Emergency Operations Plan and apply them to the virtual environment, we would need to understand and implement technologies that personnel were not generally accustomed to and then quickly apply proficiency training.
As many new terms emerged with the pandemic, the phrase ‘Virtual EOC’ became a buzz word for the place where we would coordinate our disaster management operations using online technology. Literally, using cloud-based services to conduct meetings such as WebEx and Zoom, to name a few, along with email, SMS texting, and traditional phone calling, permitted information sharing and coordination to take place effectively and efficiently.
For some localities in rural areas that did not possess the technical know-how, the virtual environment would give challenge. Significant difficulties included having sufficient internet bandwidth to conduct virtual meetings, establishing cloud-based subscriptions, and making emergency procurements for mobile computing equipment with internet access that could be deployed to their team members. Tie all of this in with a personal lack of knowledge in using mobile technology and the re-thinking of operational process flow from afar, made the challenges cumbersome.
In Winchester, these challenges were real and could be described as a failure in our risk and vulnerability assessments. However, looking back, how could any planning document prepare you to react to the infinite amount of details that would be experienced. These details would quickly be realized as the collaboration of the various internal agencies understood what was at stake. The initial challenges were getting our internal stakeholders to understand the use of the technology employed, sending daily situational reports on a timely basis, and understanding the simple task of how to mute their mobile devices while on conference calls.
For example, our emergency operations workflow consisted of weekly WebEx conference calls with the internal agency leadership team to assess the disaster situation, discuss ourcontinuity of operations, and address any emergency support function needs. Daily situation reports were disseminated to the Virtual EOC from each department within the City government utilizing a fillable Adobe .PDF form and email.
Simultaneously, EM would gather information through conference calls with neighboring jurisdictions, local hospital officials, the local Health Department, and State agencies and included this into the daily situational report. From these reports, master situational reports would be distributed to all team members each evening, describing known issues from all levels of government. This produced a consistent level of situational awareness while maintaining a common operating picture throughout the disaster, making the Virtual EOC a successful environment.
What we learned was that sometimes, disaster management challenges are not just having to deal with the actual disaster event, but can also include managing operational needs along the way. The new term and meaning of a Virtual EOC can now be etched into our planning documents as an effective alternative way to conduct business.