Industrial Facility Exercises: Linking the Emergency Operations Centre and Tactical Level

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Originally Posted 26 August 2016

There is an increasing expectation from regulators and within communities that industrial facilities, railways, trucking, and pipeline operations validate interoperability with the community through valid, full-scale exercises. It is critical to test the vertical communication from the tactical component in the field to the Emergency Operations Centre(s) (EOCs). The intent is to ensure the outcomes of these exercises accurately reflect the response capability.

Often the EOC team is exercised through a tabletop exercise, independently of Response teams. Response teams train and exercise frequently, and the outcome of their effort is generally predictable. From their perspective, the Command Officer in the field often does not have the opportunity to practice communication vertically to the Operations Officer within the EOC. The ESI Team has noted that when this vertical linkage is not practiced or evaluated frequently, it is a common point of failure.

Emergency Operations Centre Cadence

The personnel within the EOC have a desire to set a regular operational cycle. Often, in the beginning of the crisis, the cycle is set with a shorter duration of 20 to 30 minutes, as information is being gathered and processed. Then, based upon the dynamism of the event, cycles of 45 to 60 minutes are set and activated by the Planning Group-led briefing, where “Command” or the EOC Director hear from the active Incident Command System (ICS) positions. The linkage to field Tactical Command is the “Operations” Chief. This position must remain situationally aware of all developments outside of the EOC. This may be achieved through the use of an earpiece to discretely monitor tactical operations. Should there be a sudden change in the field, “Operations” may even cease the briefing to notify the EOC team. This makes sense when you consider that the main product from the briefing is an updated set of objectives in the form of an Incident Action Plan. Should there be substantive change in the field, it is likely that without interruption of the meeting, objectives will not be accurate. Usually such an interruption is around the situation suddenly worsening in the field.

Technological Solutions

Given the criticality of the vertical linkage between field Command and the EOC, all advancements that can be provided to create redundancy and efficiency must be considered. In a recent exercise, the ESI Team provided drone video feed above a radiological incident and Command Post back to the EOC. Planners and Safety personnel immediately recognized the real-time advantage to having eyes in the sky.

Emergency Preparedness and Management Software with facility information and other information such as hazardous material manifests provide a common operating picture for both the Field Commander and EOC personnel. This information was surely lacking during the response to the Tianjin fire and subsequent explosion in August 2015 (BBC News, 2015). These solutions work best when they are populated by all community stakeholders and regularly validated through full-scale exercises. In Canada, DisasterLAN (DLAN) seems to be capturing a large share of the recent purchases within the emergency management community. Similarly, WebEOC software is popular in the nuclear industry and the United States Government, and Sentinel Systems for example, is used in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Interoperability

Evacuations of a facility, or worse, a community, are examples of a high complexity scenario where likely more than one organization or EOC must be interoperable. Again, technology can provide the necessary situational awareness for the horizontal exchange and sharing of information. Many planning documents provide formalized liaison between EOCs to ensure nothing is lost in translation and that access to key information is ensured rather than relying upon calling an already busy cell phone. Command Post or EOC face-to-face discussions are always a good investment of team time and resources.

Summary

More and more often, Executive Level Managers and their staff are recognizing that there is a need to exercise the Emergency Operations Centre. Field Operators that provide response are generally quite skilled at their Tactical Response; however, they rarely get the opportunity to validate their vertical linkage to the EOC.

Interoperability issues and gaps must be illustrated prior to a crisis through a validation exercise. Often the antidote to these issues is a relationship between response organizations and EOCs, which may be enhanced through the use of technology.

Finally, the cost of exercising, planning, training, and technology must be commensurate with the risk that the industrial entity and community faces. Avoidance of one mid-sized crisis will pay for the Emergency Management Program for the life of the firm.