Going virtual: How COVID-19 has changed EOC and first responder operations

The pandemic will solidify new best practices for agencies to manage a disaster that inhibits physical EOC operations


By Paul Witry

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally shifted the way those on the front lines operate during disaster response. With the traditional EOC representing a primary transfer point for COVID-19 due to high concentrations of personnel, this has presented a new challenge for first responders. The emergency management community has been forced to implement new modes of operation through virtual EOCs and response operations.

FEMA has issued a series of best practices for EOC operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. This encompasses the implementation of a physical and virtual EOC and some in a hybrid system to limit on-site personnel. By implementing these best practices in a virtual environment, first responders and emergency operators can ensure the security and efficacy of their operations.

With the traditional EOC representing a primary transfer point for COVID-19, this has presented a new challenge for first responders.
With the traditional EOC representing a primary transfer point for COVID-19, this has presented a new challenge for first responders. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)

While virtual environments have been used in the past, COVID-19 has forced more operations than ever into the digital domain. And while this represents an adjustment for many response communities, there are opportunities to increase operational continuity and efficacy for the future. Software and services such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Google allow for effective video conferencing and file sharing. Additionally, some tools provide emergency management-tailored services for organizations and agencies. These resources allow for better tracking of required documentation and maintaining interoperability between agencies and stakeholders when necessary.

Below are some of the challenges and benefits that emergency managers and first responders face due to increased virtual operations.

EOC virtual benefits

While not comprehensive, below are some unique benefits to EOC's operating in a virtual environment.

  • Hybrid operations: COVID-19 has changed the way the world perceives social interactions. CDC guidelines encourage social distancing and reduction of large in-person gatherings. By using a fully remote or hybrid model, operations can ensure operational health. Staggering on-site staff alongside remote operations can decrease the risk posed to key operational assets who are required to fulfill an in-person role.
  • Ease of collaboration: Shifting to a virtual environment allows for collaboration among agencies more quickly and safely. Large briefings and response meetings can be hosted instantaneously rather than in a conference room or EOC to discuss operations. It also promotes more efficient collaboration on documents, program development, and information sharing.
  • Centralized information and data: Documentation and tracking is a priority for emergency operations. Through virtual platforms, operations can maintain records for short- and long-term activations. This allows for quick reference to past documentation, current data and standard operating procedure (SOP) for organizations.
  • Future incident operability: By establishing SOPs for a virtual EOC, emergency management agencies will be better equipped to transition in future disasters and use this format more efficiently. It represents an investment in the agency and their resiliency in an all-hazards response plan. 

EOC virtual challenges

Below are some challenges that EOCs need to be aware of when operating in a virtual environment. 

  • Security concerns: New platforms for large urban management teams present a security risk when their operations are shifted online. Mitigating access security threats requires restrictions of permissions on the platform used by a team, which can also cause extended information-sharing issues.
  • Communication management: While remote and online communication is a benefit for ease of information sharing, it also presents challenges. In a typical physical EOC, partner agency representatives are often within the operations center. Without all individuals and liaisons on site, identifying and contacting those who fulfill a role in the EOC can be more challenging, especially during an extended response period.
  • User functionality: For agencies who may be using a remote format for the first time, training on a new platform during an emergency can present its own challenges. Familiarity with systems can be a hurdle for those joining an operation in progress. Additionally, the initial implementation of such a system may take longer if it is the first time it is being used by public safety and emergency management teams. Ensuring that users can effectively operate the deployed technology is key to the continuity of a virtual EOC.
  • Information technology (IT) concerns: Shifting to online operations places a higher dependency on public infrastructure, primarily internet service providers (ISPs) and cellular providers to keep individuals connected to response critical services. While EOC systems may have secondary safeguards such as power generation and cellular backup, those connecting remotely have a higher dependency on these public forms of infrastructure to maintain connection.
  • Concurrent disasters: The risk of secondary disasters impacting response capabilities during COVID-19 has been a concern for many public safety officials, particularly considering evacuation weather disasters and their implementation amidst a pandemic. However, the dependency on infrastructure can represent a risk for high-impact weather systems that may affect local infrastructure and power for an extended period. This would limit remote operations. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged emergency management and public safety agencies to adapt and establish new modes of operation, response and recovery. While the shift to hybrid operations is not unknown, the sustained response that has been required for COVID-19 places more dependencies than ever on access to technology. The implementation of these systems will stand as a model for disaster responses in the future. This pandemic will solidify new best practices for agencies of all sizes to manage a disaster that inhibits physical EOC operations.


About the author           

Paul Witry is currently a graduate student at the University of Chicago studying Threat Response and Emergency Management. He holds a double B.A. in Political Science and International Relations with a focus in National Security from Loyola University of Chicago.

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