Disasters and other large-scale emergencies have shown repeatedly the importance of the EOC – the Emergency Operations Center – where leaders and experts from each of the many organizations and disciplines responding to the emergency can work together, sharing information and monitoring the status of hundreds of tactical operations.
Typically every agency and organization in a jurisdiction (city, county, state) has 2 to 4 representatives physically located in the EOC, each with deep domain experience for their agency/expertise (e.g. public works, fire, police) and personal relationships with many of their personnel in the field.
During most of the past three decades, the EOC consisted of wall-mounted status charts and maps and a telephone for each agency representative. Today, the modern EOC uses color projectors of computer screens to display up-to-the-moment status information, graphical display of maps and satellite photos, and a number of software applications are emerging to assist with the management of the incident. All of this has been a tremendous improvement.
Ironically, the only thing that hasn't been updated in the modern EOC is the communications. Even in a drill/practice scenario, let alone the real thing, the EOC is a cacophony of sound and noise. Everyone is using their desk phone simultaneously, cell phones are ringing (and often being used for primary communications because landline phones aren't working yet), handheld radios are on every desk squawking, and "runners" are used to move messages in and out of the room.
Rationalizing The Communications in an EOC
Experience has shown that the personnel in the EOC need four things from the communications infrastructure in order to be most effective in their jobs:
- Each staffer needs to be able to monitor and transmit to their field teams on their agency’s radio, to give assignments, get status and otherwise communicate. This is not dispatching (which is usually handled separately). In the best case, each staffer will also have a dedicated intercom or other secure method of communicating to their agency’s dispatch to minimize the staffer’s need to transmit on the agency channels (but will still need to monitor).
- Each staffer needs telephone access to the outside world (with a dedicated phone number that can be called back when they leave a message) to access other organizations, outside experts, vendors and personnel without radios
- Intercom access to other EOC staff, which keeps the overall level of noise in the EOC down to a manageable level by minimizing the shouting across the room.
- Monitor, and in certain cases transmit, on other agency’s radio channels. The value of “listen only” interoperability is very high in chaotic emergencies, particularly if the staffer has an intuitive and easy to use interface for monitoring multiple audio sources.
We have found that the “communications workstation” provided to each EOC staffer should not be a traditional dispatcher’s console, as that kind of equipment requires training and a certain level of expertise.
The EOC staffer is usually selected for their expert domain experience and understanding of their agency’s capabilities, not because they are a professional communicator. So we emphasize a simplified tool, preferably touch-screen, which can be introduced and taught to a staffer in less than 2 or 3 minutes.
We strongly recommend IP Radio as an architecture for the EOC, with a software interface such as the
Pro that fulfills all four requirements described above.
A Software Radio Console for Each EOC Staffer
With IP Radio we use an administrator’s screen to configure access for each user -- determining channels they can listen to, transmit on, as well as intercoms within and outside the EOC, and inbound and outbound telephone dialing. When each user uses their credentials to access the system, the software reads their profile to determine their specific configuration.
The screen shot below demonstrates one of the many ways the EOC user's radio/telephone console could be configured (the software shown is
National Interop's IPVoiceCommand Pro).
In this case, each of the ICS/NIMS branches has been allocated an intercom channel (or "talkgroup") for which participants can be inside the EOC, outside the EOC or even connected by cellphone. Additional "channels" have been allocated for different types of radios, some with permission to transmit and some not.
Typically each user's channels reflect the intercoms in use in the EOC, a few local channels, and the channels used by their home agency... so that they can talk directly to their colleagues in their home agency.
Telephone or Radio?
Although a purpose-built telephone system, whether it is PBX-based or using a more modern technology, is always going to provide a superior experience and we generally recommend that these be designed into EOCs. However, those systems can be vulnerable, so as a backup we recommend that the IP Radio system be configured with a few VOIP phonelines so that at least a few incoming and outgoing calls can be made via the same IP broadband connection that is being used for the radio traffic.
The same software console used to access the IP Radio can usually be configured with a telephone -style dialing keypad (on the screen) and used to access VOIP for phonecalls.
Calm in the Storm
By providing each EOC staffer with a communications "console" on a laptop, we also control the ambient noise in the room. Handheld radios can be turned off (it may even be a good policy that they must be turned off, or used with earphone) to eliminate unnecessary noise and to avoid echo's and feedback.
Each computer can be supplied with an inexpensive headset (or a more-expensive noise-cancelling headset) so that audio is not heard.
Foot switches can be helpful, so both hands can be used for typing and taking notes.
In short, the cacaphony of the EOC can be reduced providing a less stressful work environment, decreased possiblity of missed critical messages, and the increased ability for various staffers to talk and collaborate among themselves as they solve challenges.
Accomodating More Users in the EOC
Crucial to modern EOC design is the ability to scale, as the demands on the EOC increase as an incident unfolds and expands. This means that the communications infrastructure should support additional workstations with ease, scaling up from perhaps 4 positions to 40 or more positions.
An IP Radio system is no more difficult to expand with additional workstations than an office can add additional PC workstations for word processing: additional Ethernet networking with hubs/switches, additional laptops, and voila, you have additional communication workstations. Other than plugging in the additional laptops and network connections, which do not require expert abilities, all of the technical work to scale up the system can be handled from an off-site location by experts linked only by phone to the EOC.
You cannot do this easily with traditional radio consoles, which have a limited ability to scale (typically 16 or 24 maximum), are very expensive to scale (each additional station costs more, on a per station basis, not less), and require expert technical staff on-site to install the proprietary hardware.
Contact us for more information about how we can configure an EOC for you.
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