EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation — July 11, 2007

Command or Collaboration?
A Group Discussion on Effective EOC Organization

Lucien G. Canton
Emergency Management Consultant and Author
San Francisco, California

Amy Sebring
EIIP Moderator

The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. A raw, unedited transcript is available from our archives. See our home page at http://www.emforum.org

[Welcome / Introduction]

Amy Sebring: Good morning/afternoon everyone and welcome to the EIIP Virtual Forum. Our topic today is "Command or Collaboration? A Group Discussion on Effective EOC Organization."

By way of background and definition of terms, you may recall that the NIMS document is under revision. We do not have the final version, but the March 07 review draft is linked from today's Background Page. Based on that version there is now a section under Component IV, titled Multiagency Coordination Systems, (MAC or MACS). According to the draft, "MACs include a combination of facilities, equipment, personnel, and procedures integrated into a common system with responsibility for coordination of resources and support to emergency operations."

The Emergency Operations Center, (EOC), is one of the commonly used elements of a MACS. "For complex incidents, EOCs may be staffed by personnel representing multiple jurisdictions and functional disciplines and a wide variety of resources."

With respect to EOC organization, "EOCs may be organized by major discipline (fire, law enforcement, medical services, etc.); by jurisdiction (city, county, region, etc.); by emergency support function (communications, public works and engineering, transportation, resource support, etc.); or, more likely, by some combination thereof."

We have a new term, the MAC Group. "A MAC Group typically consists of administrators/ executives or their designated representatives from responsible agencies and/or jurisdictions whose organizations have response authority and responsibility in the impacted area(s), are heavily supporting the response effort, and/or are significantly impacted by the use of local agency resources."

Finally, the draft document states "Often times MAC Groups are confused with Area Command," and a table is provided (Table 4) which summarizes the differences.

Now to the mechanics of today's session. We have pre-posted a list of ten discussion questions, which you can access at http://www.emforum.org/vforum/EOCquestions.doc. You can also access the questions from a link on today's Background Page. After each question, our guest today will input his comments, then we will open the floor for YOUR comments.

Now it is my pleasure to introduce today's speaker: Lucien G. Canton, CEM(r), CPP, CBCP, is an emergency management professional with over 30 years experience in hazard and risk analysis, loss reduction, and emergency planning. Currently an independent consultant, Mr. Canton previously served as Director of Emergency Services for the City of San Francisco, from 1996 to 2004, where he was responsible for coordinating the City's emergency management program and served as a policy advisor on emergency management and Homeland Security issues to Mayor Willie L. Brown, Jr.

Under his direction, the City increased its overall response capabilities through modernization of the emergency operations center and the institution of an aggressive exercise program. Prior to his appointment, Mr. Canton served as an Emergency Management Specialist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 1990 to 1996. He assisted in the development of Federal disaster response capability, to include tactical and strategic planning, inter agency coordination, and field operations.

In addition to his duties as a planner, Mr. Canton served as a senior staff officer on all major disasters in Region IX including the Loma Prieta earthquake, Hurricane Iniki, the Northridge earthquake, the Southern California Wildfires, and the California Winter Storms of 1995.

Welcome Lucien. I now turn the floor over to you to start us off with your opening remarks.


Lucien Canton: Good morning. It's a pleasure to be here with you today.

I'd like to begin our discussion by addressing a number of points that may seem obvious but are often overlooked in our discussions on how an EOC is organized. The first is that there is no "one size fits all" solution. There are a number of reasons for this, primarily the complexity of the crisis and the size and the resources of the jurisdiction dealing with it. A small jurisdiction may well be able to bring together all its players into one EOC and deal with the crisis directly. However, if you are the recipient of a Presidential Disaster Declaration, you're going to have a whole bunch of folks showing up that will need to be integrated into your response.

This brings me to me second point: there are qualitative distinctions between the EOC as command post and the EOC as coordination point. Part of the problem, of course, is that the term "EOC" is neutral. It's a place or a virtual space from which a crisis is managed. However, the organization that uses that place or space can be quite different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. If you establish the EOC as an Area Command, all activities related to response should funnel through the EOC. If the EOC is established as a MACS, this isn't the case.

Essentially, opting for command creates what social scientists refer to as a closed system: if you're role is not well defined in the process the system has problems integrating you. This is why some jurisdictions have such a hard time integrating emergent volunteers and outside or private organizations into their EOC organization. This is particularly true if there is no legal basis for assuming direct authority over them and their resources. On the other hand, MACS represents a more open system that is better able to integrate new players.

Let me illustrate this with an example. In the City of San Francisco, fire and police mutual aid operate within a very well defined system. As we were considering how to operate in a crisis, our first thought was that all such mutual aid requests would be submitted through the EOC. However, when we tried this in an exercise, we found that we actually delayed mutual aid and caused considerable confusion. We eventually realized that the EOC didn't need to make decisions on mutual aid; that was the chief of department's call. We just needed to know what had been requested so we could develop a support plan. We opted to go with our existing system and instead focused on making sure the EOC police and fire representatives knew mutual aid had been invoked. We opted for coordination over command.

This raises the third point that I'd like to make. There is no right or wrong way to organize your EOC; there is only the way that is right for your jurisdiction. One of the first questions I ask clients is, "how do you react to crisis on a daily basis?" The second is, "why wouldn't that work in a larger crisis?" One of our principal mistakes is adopting an EOC organization without doing some strategic thinking beforehand. Imposing an artificial, half-understood system at the time of crisis should be counterintuitive but we do it every day and then wonder why we failed.

Instead, we need to consider the jurisdiction's culture and day-to-day operations as a much as possible as this is what people will default to in a crisis. I personally favor MACS because all my work has been at Disaster Field Offices or large city EOCs. That does not mean that this is the right system for all jurisdictions. The question is not command or coordination but rather what works best for a given jurisdiction.

One final thought before we get to our questions. How does this fit in with NIMS and ICS? Another major mistake we make is to assume that NIMS is ICS and that ICS is the field operating structure. NIMS is a management system that correlates well with NFPA 1600.

ICS is just one component of NIMS and one could argue that is not as important as some of the others. However, DHS has placed a huge emphasis on it and a good portion of NIMS compliance rests with the adoption of ICS. Like NIMS, ICS is a system that includes much more than just the field operating structure. ICS principles apply whether you have organized as an area command or are using MACS and they are extremely effective. Apply the principles and be flexible with the structure. NIMS gives you this flexibility and you should make maximum use of it.

Let me turn you back to Amy now for the question session.

Amy Sebring: Thank you very much Lucien, and now we will move to our first discussion question. Audience, we would also like your comments to reflect what the ACTUAL practice is in your own jurisdiction, not just classic textbook assumptions.


Question 1. What is the purpose of the EOC vis a vis the on-scene response? Lucien first please.

Lucien Canton: One of my personal rules has always been "don't just do something; stand there!" Craig Fugate suggests "take a deep breath, then your pulse. If you can do both, you're okay." There is considerable pressure on the EOC to "do something" and meddle in the on-scene response. That's not our job. There's already an Incident Commander on the scene and if he or she can't handle it, they need to be supported or replaced.

Instead, we need to focus on impacts. What does this mean to the jurisdiction? Are we drawing down resources that need to be replenished? What do we need to do in the next 8, 24, or 72 hours? It's our job to jump ahead, see the big picture, and marshal the appropriate resources. We also need to be looking ahead to recovery and reconstruction. We need to orchestrate the transition from continuity to longer term restoration. The incident commander handles the incident; we have to manage the crisis.

Gary Holland: In Franklin County, Ohio (Columbus) our institutional relationships are well defined and the emergency management agency's role is to exercise support functions and NOT interfere with on-site incident command.

Question 2. Is the notion of "command" appropriate for an EOC, assuming you have multiple organizations, each bringing their own resources to bear?

Lucien Canton: Personally, I don't believe it is. There is a normal chain of command in a jurisdiction and the insertion of an EOC at a time of crisis could tend to disrupt this. Positioning the EOC as a support element to that chain of command is much more effective. However, it does require a strong capability to gather situational data.

The second issue is that many of the organizations that may join you at the EOC will have their own authorities and, indeed, their own agendas and may not be inclined to accept your "Incident Commander". Coordination eliminates this conflict and frees you from having to develop a convoluted Unified Command. Using coordination can also increase your span of control. You can effectively supervise about six or seven folks; you can coordinate the activities of a lot more.

Finally, we also forget that your EOC is too small; it doesn't matter how big it is, it's too small. Many of the EOC participants will be representatives of agencies and groups whose real work is performed off-site. For example, our shelter working group in San Francisco had over 50 members and our EOC could only hold 60+. Your incident commander will have little control over these off-site activities.

Art Botterell: One of my ongoing concerns is that the EOC tends to become an information bubble and that we wind up spending a lot of time doing PowerPoint decks for each other and generally spinning an internal story of the operation that may or may not correlate well with ground truth outside. One symptom of this is folks running outside with their cell phones not, as one might assume, to call their families, but rather to check via their personal networks as to "what's really going on out there?" And this tends to reinforce the impression in the field that the folks in the EOC don't really get it. So I wonder whether getting a clearer view of what's happening outside, - call it "situational awareness" or "common operating picture" or whatever buzzwords our particular vendors are offering this week - whether that might not be a critical prerequisite to effective coordination?

John Rodgers: Lu: MACS? Wouldn't this concept be a Unified Command at the EOC level to share the information and decision making for overall disaster between lead agencies?

Lucien Canton: Not at all. Unified Command is just that--a command element. MACS is about coordination. Information analysis takes place in both. The difference is whether you allow independent action outside EOC control.

Gary Holland: Art makes a valid point but isn't that the role of a joint information center (JIC), not the EOC per se? There is a discrete difference between gathering, collating and reporting information versus pushing out consensus news of the event response and recovery efforts to the media and general public.

Lucien Canton: Art is indeed correct. However, the JIC's role is to deal with the media. This does involve information collection and analysis but it's not their primary function. In actual practice, my plans unit and the JIC worked extremely closely. I gathered the information; they were a client and shared what they knew.

Theresa West: Coordination and support are more appropriate for the EOC. Don’t assume the field where the incident occurred is the only ICP. The medical center can also be an additional ICP in MCI. We coordinate medical operations by utilizing decision makers involved in providing treatment, usually by conference call, to set objectives to maximize the number of lives saved.

Lucien Canton: Correct. You could argue that a department’s operations center is, in fact, its own command post.

Amy Sebring: My comment in response to the discussion above is I was not happy about the renaming of ESF #5 in the National Response Plan. It used to be Planning. How do you feel about that issue Lu?

Lucien Canton: Good question. ESF 5 was always misnamed. Many of us argued that it was unnecessary, that what we were was the plans unit under ICS. However, at the time FEMA had to have its own ESF. My reading of the NRP is that they've completely changed the concept and separated ESF 5 from the planning function.

Gary Holland: Not to split hairs but the media is only a facet to how we implement joint information. The released content is also shared with partnering organizations on a different stream. So, we kill two birds with one stone as they say!

Lucien Canton: I agree. The JIC really needs to be integrated with the rest of your operation.

Question 3. How is your local EOC organized? How is your State EOC organized?

Lucien Canton: Let me caveat my remarks by saying that my experiences in FEMA and San Francisco are several years old and may not reflect the situation as it is today. Interestingly enough, both organizations were organized roughly the same. FEMA, of course, used the ESF system and San Francisco did not but both had very structured organizational charts, with sections and branches and directors and unit leaders and so forth. In actual practice, we ignored the organizational chart.

Instead, we used a facilitated planning meeting and formed ad hoc working groups to deal with specific issues. I believe one of the reasons that this worked was because we had clearly designated leads for various functions and knew who would chair the working groups. It was also easy to integrate new organizations and agencies. This is one of the reasons I favor getting away from a rigid ICS field structure in EOCs.

Steve Marks: Our EOC in Guilford County (Greensboro, NC) needed an organizational structure. We do coordination and support as opposed to command and control, so we decided to utilize the organization chart outlined in NIMS (EOC MGR overseeing Coordination, Communications, Resource Mgmt and Info Mgmt). It has worked well for us and reduces confusion with the standard ICS command organizational structure.

Kailash: In Rajasthan District EOCs were organized by rotating different staff. I as a consultant recommended for permanent staff. Rajasthan is a state in India and districts are like counties. The District Administrator is the Incident Commander. It is probably mix of command and collaboration, unlike in US where it is Command and Control. In India, a lot of NGOs and civic societies join and help in coordination.

Amy Sebring: Last I knew, our State EOC was organized by the State EOP Annexes, (which at one point they cross-referenced to the ESF's of the Federal Response Plan).

Grant Schlosser: Given the physical constraints of an EOC (size) technology can play a key role in true communication collaboration, command and control. Flexibility is key and the ability to "mobilize" command center function seems to be an essential. How heavily do you rely on technology for effective EOC operations and organization?

Lucien Canton: It's a complex question. I think there are clearly important uses for technology and we should consider exploring them. However, we sometimes let technology dominate our planning; we don't develop a strategy first. We sometimes look at the technology and let it drive our strategy. Each new whizbang becomes a solution in search of a problem.

Kent Schod: In response to Grant's comment, I would agree that flexibility is key; however, Lu also has a point. Technology will only support an EOC when it has a firm grasp of the principles of emergency management, and that EOC has been established to meet the needs of its community.

Technology also allows for greater mobility in establishing remote or alternate EOC's as the situation may call for it. But technology cannot be the foundation of solid emergency management practices. I think that although ICS provides a framework, our current situations require fluid responses to dynamic incidents.

Gary Holland: Franklin County, Ohio has integrated technology with the human factor; we strive for balance. We use OpsCenter to track and update info, the Telephone Emergency Notification System (reverse 911) to broadcast instructions to targeted audiences, and we have a video teleconferencing capability that minimizes the need for an actual physical presence at the State EOC or local health departments in declared emergencies. Sometimes we use all; most times, there is limited use of any particular segment.

Question 4. What are the factors that affect how your EOC organizational structure is designed?

Lucien Canton: Well, one of the first things I think you have to consider is how you operate day-to-day. The closer you can mirror this the better. Along with this is the issue of how your boss wants to operate. Some officials are comfortable having the EOC coordinating the response. Others are more, shall we say, "hands on"?

A second factor is the resources you have available. I'm not talking just about operational resources but the staff, equipment and supplies you need to run the EOC. You need a core of people who are trained in EOC operations and can help the new arrivals.

Finally, I'd consider who will be joining you. In San Francisco we had several volunteer groups and agencies that were part of our normal EOC compliment. We also had designated space for public utilities and other liaisons. But we could also integrate people that we hadn't planned on because our structure wasn't rigid. It was more a question of finding them a chair and a telephone than deciding where they fit on the org chart.

Kent Schod: In addition to political and environmental factors, it would seem that MACS are more important for those areas that are limited in their resource cache.

Lucien Canton: I hadn't considered that point but I have to agree.

Amy Sebring: That was going to be my comment also. I think the less staff you have available, such as in a smaller community, the more hats one staffer will wear. Even in a medium sized city, it is a challenge to find enough staff to fill all the positions in all the various EOC and ICS structures for ONE shift, let alone multiple shifts. I think this fact needs to be recognized and planned for accordingly.

Lucien Canton: Staffing is always an issue. I used staff from different department and agencies most of the time.

Brad Wilson: In our quest to further educate the public about us we strive for better staffing in some cities, (Dallas as an example) there are small offices staff-wise. What would be some good innovative ways to help increase awareness and funding for more staff?

Lucien Canton: It's unlikely you'll get it. I think the best solution is to train a solid core group from various agencies and keep your system simple enough that new arrivals can be integrated. As Art is fond of saying, "No matter who you train, someone else will show up".

Art Botterell: Lu preempted me! Botterell's Third Law says "No matter who you train in advance, somebody else will show up." Staffing and organizational structures are always going to be fluid, I think. That suggests organizing principals like manageable span of control may be more important than pre-determined structures. And just-in-time training and orientation may work better than tightly-scripted job descriptions, in my humble opinion, at least.

Kent Schod: Regionalization of resources, especially for those areas where money, staff, and physical response resources are limited would do well to utilize a MACS system. This was well established and working to this day in the local commonwealth community of York, PA (where I came from).

Steve Elliott: Between emergencies, Succession Planning should be a part of the departments' Business Continuity Plan. That’s where you can begin to identify and train individuals to replace the first shift of decision-makers.

Lucien Canton: I agree. One of the areas we have not emphasized well in EM is continuity planning.

Question 5. How is the organization impacted by the size of the disaster?

Lucien Canton: Your EOC is too small. Doesn't matter what you think, it's too small. First, it's the place to be in the first 24 hours and everybody wants to get in. Secondly, your one or two agency representatives are going to bring experts and support staff that you didn't plan on. Third, your ad hoc working groups will need places to meet and will start expanding as emergent groups are added. Fourth, mutual aid, state and federal resources will begin to arrive, each with their own entourage. Finally, the media will begin to arrive and your single PIO will suddenly discover why he or she should have planned for a JIC. One could make the argument that in a major event, the EOC is where you begin operations until you can find somewhere big enough to hold everybody.

Question 6. How is the organization impacted by the phase of the disaster?

Lucien Canton: Well, I think we sometimes do ourselves a disservice by applying the four-phase CEM model to tactical operations. It's a great planning concept but can be misleading when applied to operations. I think the phases of EOC operations are a bit different. There is, of course, the preparedness phase where we build the facility and teams.

But response can be divided into immediate response and sustained response. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, most of us never get past the initial response phase. Most of our EOCs activations are for emergencies of relatively short duration. Consequently, we never really get to practice for events of longer duration. Immediate response is characterized by high involvement and high visibility and high confusion. In events of long duration, you can't keep up this pace.

Gradually, things become routine. But other issues start to crop up: people get burned out, resources get expended, support agencies want to go home, and departments start demanding their personnel back for regular duties. Very few plans that I see have considered how the jurisdiction will manage sustained operations.

We also don't practice transition to recovery. This may or may not be managed from the EOC but there has to be a smooth hand over or you'll be competing for resources. By the way, this is also an issue during the initial response. Continuity plans are to the jurisdiction's business as response plans are to its citizens. Both are vital, both are implemented immediately and both must eventually transition to recovery.

Art Botterell: I'd only add that it's at the transitions that things tend to go wrong.

Question 7. If your EOC is organized along the lines of ICS, does your EOC staff really understand and use ICS? (That, is, do they "get" it?)

Lucien Canton: I suspect that most folks coming to the EOC will probably not have a deep understanding of ICS, as they don't use it on a day-to-day basis. Trying to impose a structured ICS may be counter-productive. However, using just the five main functions and emphasizing ICS principles, particularly management by objectives and the incident action plan, can overcome this problem. Give them just what they need to know to do the job, using your core staff (who should have expert knowledge of ICS principles) to guide them.

Kailash: What is not used on day-to-day basis will not work during an emergency. This is one reason why HAM radio works

Lucien Canton: That's why I believe we need to focus on principles rather than structure.

John Rodgers: We use ICS, as it the system that is published in the State and Federal regulations. The MACS concept seems to be a friendly way to get the job done. This is an interesting point of view.

Gary Holland: Lucien's precept of sustained operations is right on the mark! If we use pandemic influenza planning as an example, we can test and retest our response and/or support functions. This is especially valuable if your EMA uses health care modeling and exercises. More than 120 relevant agencies have opted to use a Unified Command Structure with areas of responsibility clearly spelled out and disseminated.

Russell Coile: Ten years of annual earthquake exercises in Pacific Grove, California (population 15,000) organized along classic ICS lines worked well. FEMA gave us an "exemplary performance" award.

Question 8. Do you use the ICS forms? If so, how helpful are they?

Lucien Canton: I think this is an area that really needs some work. You have to remember that the current ICS forms were designed for a particularly purpose, are a bit dated, and may not be useful in the EOC environment as written. Conceptually, they work great. We made some slight modifications to the forms at FEMA to suit our own needs and then used the existing ICS methodology to assemble our daily IAP. In San Francisco, we stayed even closer to the ICS forms and put together IAPs for citywide events to demonstrate their value to the departments that still weren't using ICS. It would be great if the NIMS folks would take a look at standardizing a more emergency management related set of forms and building an electronic version.

Kent Schod: It has been my experience over the past 20 years of work in and out of emergency services that the principles of ICS can be used universally provided the user is capable of expanding or limiting the use of ICS to meet their needs. ICS is a great framework, but it isn't the total answer either. As Lu has stated, fluid flexibility is the key to any response situation.

John Rodgers: Conceptually, ICS forms are used and adapted as seen fit. Strictly, not really.

Steve Marks: I'm not sure just how applicable ICS forms would be in a MAC environment, but I would like to know what others might be using (like WebEOC).

Lucien Canton: ICS forms can be used in MACS, the principles still apply and the use of an IAP still works. Systems like WEBEOC and ETeam should help automate the process.

Russell Coile: California now has a computerized system based on the forms called Response Information Management System (RIMS).

Art Botterell: It's easy to confuse the form of a paper document with the underlying, and generally more flexible, structure of data and relationships. So while the ICS forms in their fixed, paper-bound dimensions may not always fit, there may be value in abstracting the experience they embody in more flexible digital formats. This is something the XML standards folks have flirted with, but always, it seems, been drawn off into more elaborate undertakings.

Question 9. Are the planning concepts derived from ICS too simplistic for a major disaster or catastrophe? That is, can they lead to too much focus on a single objective or mission priority vs. multiple (simultaneous) objectives and priorities?

Lucien Canton: Not at all. I was first trained in ICS planning concepts courtesy of the US Forest Service on Hurricane Iniki and have used it in major response operations across the country, in the Pacific and in the Caribbean. Our planning meetings included over 25 federal agencies and never lasted more than a half hour. The trick is to use the whole system, not just parts of it. This means you have to set overall objectives and priorities, conduct a planning meeting, and publish a written IAP. The objectives set the direction, the planning meeting assigns responsibilities and resolves issues, and the IAP shares internal agency objectives and plans.

Art Botterell: I agree that used properly ICS can handle very complex situations but I do think the notion of an "incident" "command" system does come with some conceptual baggage that may sometimes make it harder for people to understand the need for tradeoffs, negotiation and collaboration; it’s not a fault of the system, but a hazard of the nomenclature, maybe.

Gary Holland: Amy, all I can say about Question #9 is that we have to use common sense. Single shots or scatter gun actions do not work effectively. However, focused solutions derived from analyses and situational assessment should drive the planning effort.

Kent Schod: I would agree with Lu and Gary here. I have used ICS in the emergency services and traditional business worlds with great success. ICS, just as any other tool, is not all about its primary design, but how you can multitask that tool into a variety of environments and situations that make the tool functional.

Question 10. How do your local officials participate or interact with the EOC?

Lucien Canton: It varies. One of the advantages of the ICS planning process is that you come out of the planning meeting with a list of issues and planned resolutions. This makes it really easy to brief your senior officials on problem areas and what you're planning to do about them. Ultimately, they need to be able to accept that the EOC personnel know what is going on and have the crisis relatively under control. If you can establish a level of confidence, it's easier for the local officials to focus on other activities. I would argue that they really shouldn't need more than a daily briefing on the tactical situation and should be devoting their time to managing the overall crisis, e.g. gauging economic impact, handling political issues, encouraging business resumption, etc. I also believe in fairies.

Russell Coile: Local officials were not allowed in the EOC. They were kept fully briefed in their own room.

Gary Holland: Can you keep them away?!!

Amy Sebring: Our City Manager plays an important role in terms of serving as a "sanity check" and establishing policies. Unfortunately he has to do it on the fly, because we have no good mechanism for setting these policies in advance.

Lucien Canton: The issue of keeping officials away is one of those that we use a lot, like keeping the media away. In actual practice, we need to define what it is they need to do and direct them in that way and understand that no matter what we would like we work for them and have to take their personalities into account.


Amy Sebring: Let's wrap it up for today. Great discussion! Thank you very much Lucien for an excellent job and thanks to all our participants today. Please stand by a moment while we make a couple of quick announcements.

Again, the formatted transcript will be available later today. If you are not on our mailing list and would like to get notices of future sessions and availability of transcripts, just go to our home page to subscribe.

We are pleased to announce two new partners today:

MyStateUSA.com http://www.mystateusa.net; POC: Claudia Bitner, President;

and The Center for Mind-Body Medicine URL: http://www.cmbm.org ; POC: Klára Royal, Professional Education Coordinator. If your organization is interested in becoming an EIIP Partner, please see the link on our homepage.

Thanks to everyone for participating today in a lively discussion. For first-timers, we hope you enjoyed the program and will come again. We stand adjourned but before you go, please help me show our appreciation to Lucien for a fine job.