In Case of Disaster: Emergency Operation Centers

College and university professionals tasked with setting up or upgrading a campus emergency operations center (EOC) have their work cut out for them.

What are some campuses doing right now with EOCs, particularly in terms of disaster preparedness? First, EOCs can be confused with field-deployed, tactical command posts (ICPs), said Shad Ahmed, director of the National Institute for Public Safety Research and Training and the University of Rhode Island’s chief of emergency medical services and emergency management coordinator.

ICPs are manned by responders with legal jurisdiction and have “the sole legal responsibility of managing the incident to stabilize it and protect life, property, and the environment,” Ahmed said. EOCs, on the other hand, are “all about resource coordination and communication to support the activities at the incident… and to possibly coordinate resources in the recovery phases.”

Ahmed reported that other than notification, the federal government has no specific requirements that universities and colleges need EOCs, nor to his knowledge, do states or local authorities. That being said, campus administrators recognize the need to collaborate and communicate and manage incidents, whether they are man-made or natural. Accordingly, “I see a lot of campuses in the process now of creating or upgrading EOCs,” said Ahmed.

The EOC Landscape
Colleges house EOCs in campus police or public safety buildings, a classroom or training facility, physical plant management building, or elsewhere. Campuses typically set criteria for activating EOCs, designate alternate sites, and coordinate response policies with local community and county safety authorities. Campuses also stipulate who will staff an EOC—public safety, health and information, IT, high-ranking administrative, buildings and grounds, and others may convene to guide a campus through a disaster. It is basically an academic campus version of what cities, agencies, corporations, and others institute in their own EOCs.

There are too many variables to estimate an average cost to set up an EOC. However, “We are not talking about millions of dollars or even six figures to convert an existing space even as an interim dual-purpose area. A low-level non-dedicated EOC facility is not a major investment and the cost/benefit ratio is almost ‘nothing at all’ to ‘everything to gain’,” Ahmed observed.

He added that there are some essentials. “You want to ensure that there is an adequate individual workspace, face-to-face conference area, room for laying out plans, equipped with decent computers and telecom and communications infrastructure, and room for wall-mounted charts and maps.” Options range upward from there. Ahmed said these include a backup power generator and radio or cellular communications backups. Additionally, “setting up multiple potential locations that are roughed-in for telecom, electric power generator backup, networking, lighting, seating, and work surfaces, but that are also used as classrooms or conference areas, provide dual-purpose functionality and also prevent you from putting all your eggs in one basket.”

Threats and Preparedness
Take, for example, an institution in a hurricane zone, Palm Beach State College (PBSC) in Lake Worth, FL. The college has tasked the provosts of each of its four campuses to “identify existing rooms on each campus that would serve as the EOC in the event of an emergency,” said PBSC spokesperson Grace Truman.

John Smith, PBSC’s chief of security, said that includes primary and alternate locations on campus, and hopefully off-campus locales in the future. Smith explained PBSC’s criteria this way: “the EOC must be located where it can be logistically supported. Power, phones, computers, and such, as well as the right number and the appropriate subject matter experts are essential. Having an EOC without proper guidance and direction is just a gathering.”

Like any institution, “everything we do has budgetary implications and EOCs are no exception,” Smith said. Yet what PBSC lacks in, say, costly hurricane-rated structures to house EOCs, it gains in the option of multiple locations: the college can shift the EOC to a different campus if warranted.

Another option available to some institutions is to incorporate an EOC into current construction of buildings. Two cases in the Midwest illustrate this.

First, the College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL, is building a public referendum-financed, $25M Homeland Security Education Center. The center, set to open in 201l, will house a range of law enforcement, firefighting, and emergency training functions, including an EOC, according to one of its design firms, Legat Architects in Chicago.

Being in or around tornado alley doesn’t mean that other kinds of disasters don’t hit. The University of Iowa, for example, experienced a major flood in June 2008. The University’s director of public safety, Charles D. Green, says that when the flood came, the University’s EOC equivalent, called the Incident Command Center, was about a year old and fully equipped — a key asset in a tough situation. Officials, including the University president and her cabinet, convened in the center, housed in the campus’ public safety building, to guide the response-and-recovery phase for several months. The center “serves our purpose very well,” Green said. But officials aren’t resting on their EOC laurels. Green adds that the center “recently acquired the ability to teleconference with the Johnson County (Iowa) EOC.”

How about seismic areas? Ask an EOC planner in California. Architect Jim Wirick, whose firm, LPA, Inc., designed California State University, Fullerton’s new Police Station, a comprehensive public safety complex that includes an EOC, said it this way: “The EOC must be up when everything else goes down.”

First, earthquakes are “the primary design concern.” EOCs and the buildings that house them need to be designed to essential facility standards. And second, power — an emergency generator to keep essential computer, communication, and ventilation systems up and running, Wirick said.

There’s an added wrinkle for campuses in seismic areas that, like California, have warm climates: air conditioning. Wirick pointed out that such a system means a larger load and requires a bigger generator and diesel fuel tank for it. On another point, he added that “storage spaces for cots, water, and food… allows those responding to remain on site for a longer period of time.”

“You can go as large as your imagination in designing an EOC, but eventually you're going to hit some real-life restraints, especially the financial kind,” added Ahmed. Still, there are plenty of ways for campuses to set up or upgrade EOCs creatively and proactively. Given the complexities and today’s tough budgets, there seems to be no other choice.

Scott Berman is a Denmark-based freelance writer with experience in educational topics.

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