Emergency Operations Centers
The Emergency Operation Center becomes the primary site of decision-making during a disaster: “Everyone from elected and appointed officials to field operations managers coalesces into a new environment to have all of the needed leadership and subject-matter expertise in one place at one time” (Huder, 2012, p. 79). According to Huder (2012), the key functions of EOCs are command, operations, planning, logistics, and administration. Another function that can be added to the list is protection: EOCs are designed to survive the disaster and to protect the people inside from severe conditions (Huder, 2012). The operations division of the EOC controls the actions of the personnel involved with active disaster management, such as firefighters, law enforcement, urban search and rescue, workers in hazardous materials management, and public workers (Huder, 2012).
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The operations division controls the response of these teams to the disaster and distributes the needed personnel around the area to maximize the effectiveness of disaster management. The logistics division, on the other hand, is responsible for a range of tasks. For instance, it manages mass care by providing shelter, medical services, and resources to the survivors (Huder, 2012). It is also responsible for the distribution of food and water, as well as for energy sourcing of the center and the shelters (Huder, 2012). Finally, a very important responsibility of this division is the management of information systems and communication; during a disaster, the Logistics division is the one connecting the affected population with the outside world, gathering and distributing information about the progress of the team (Huder, 2012). One problem that might arise when staffing the EOC is that it is unclear whether the people appointed initially will be able to participate in the response process. The disasters may be predictable in some cases, but whether or not they will affect certain people is hard to predict. As a result, some of the people appointed may not be able to respond and perform their functions. In this case, it might be of help to have a back-up appointed in advance or to employ members of the people that are available. However, they are unlikely to have the necessary level of expertise and training to participate in the response process effectively.
Emergency Operations Plans
Planning is one of the most important stages of emergency management. Even though unpredictable circumstances may well occur in case of a disaster, having an initial framework of action can help to distribute the resources and action teams to provide prompt response where it is most needed. Managers need to have ready emergency operations plans to manage their teams effectively, but also to compare the anticipated effect to the real data and make any suitable changes to the plan (Huder, 2012). Response teams, on the other hand, need a plan to understand the general framework of action in advance of the disaster to improve coordination and efficiency: for instance, it can provide an understanding of the demographics of the population, thus indicating who might need aid first (FEMA, 2010). As opposed to specialized plans that are only planning for one type of hazard, a basic plan “provides an overview of a jurisdiction’s ability to prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from emergencies” (FEMA, 2010, p. 3-8).
In the traditional format, the basic plan is supplemented with functional annexes and hazard-specific annexes for a specialized response (FEMA, 2010). The key components of the basic plan are introductory material, a section on the purpose, scope, situation overview, and planning assumptions, a concept of operations, an overview of the organization and assignment of responsibilities, general plans for direction, control, and coordination, a section on information management, communication overview, and an administration, finance, and logistics overview (FEMA, 2010, p. 35). The final two sections of the plan outline its development and maintenance, as well as the authorities and references included (FEMA, 2010). Functional annexes focus on specific operational functions and the personnel involved in carrying these out (FEMA, 2010). They “clearly describe the policies, processes, roles, and responsibilities that agencies and departments carry out before, during, and after an emergency” (FEMA, 2010, p. 42). Support annexes, on the other hand, describe the framework used for the coordination and management of the work of various organizations involved in the response process, including NGOs, government officials, and the private sector companies (FEMA, 2010). Finally, hazard-specific annexes outline the policies, actions, and CONOPS for particular hazards (FEMA, 2010).
Preparing the Populace
Communication with the public is a crucial step in every disaster management process, as it allows to save more lives and minimize health consequences for the people (Huder, 2012). Preparing the public for disasters, on the other hand, is not an easy task. Huder (2012) outlines that some people may be reluctant to participate in independent training and to read the materials provided by the government as they believe that a disaster would never happen to them. Both the Are You Ready? Guide (FEMA, 2004) and the Safer, Stronger, Protected Homes & Communities page (FEMA, 2016) are materials for independent learning; this means only people who are thinking about disaster preparedness will look for them and read them, which is one of the weaknesses of this type of communication. Another weakness is that they frequently contain lengthy and outdated information, which limits the reader’s interest (Huder, 2012).
For instance, the Are You Ready? The guide was last updated in 2004, which means that some of the information in it is outdated. Using recent disasters as examples could motivate people to boost their preparedness. However, there are also some benefits of these types of communication. First, there are more possibilities for the distribution of information over the Internet. For example, the Safer, Stronger, Protected Homes & Communities page (FEMA, 2016) has the option to sign up for a newsletter, which makes accessing information regularly a lot easier. Another strength is that the guides can feature all the necessary information; it is also possible to save them on the computer or to print them out to re-read in the future. Nevertheless, I believe that a more effective method of communication would be distributing the printed guides around the community for free. It would also be useful to translate the materials into other languages besides English and Spanish to increase their coverage of the population.
The Press, Friend or Foe?
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Huder (2012) explains that the press can either be one of the most important allies of disaster management or one of its worst nightmares. For instance, the press can facilitate the distribution of lifesaving information; however, it can also leak information that might cause panic or uproar among the public. In my local area, the initial role of the press is neutral. The role of the press in disaster management, on the other hand, can be both positive or adverse, depending on the situation and the hazard. For instance, in the case of man-made disasters, our press is more likely to leak valuable or even classified information to get the attention of the public. Nevertheless, in the case of a serious natural disaster, the press will probably take the emergency management’s site and help with spreading the information that could potentially save lives.
One of the main steps in involving the media in emergency management is providing the information to the press as soon as it is available, making no off-record comments, and only giving the information that can help the cause (Huder, 2012). In this way, it is highly unlikely that the press will be able to twist the information to sell it to the readers or viewers, which means that the media will also be more likely to cooperate. Another way of winning the media is being prepared for anything during press conferences and interviews (Huder, 2012). For instance, preparing answers to questions in advance is less effective than thinking through the overall direction of the answers and then determining the responses based on the exact questions asked. Overall, I think that the press can’t give entirely true information. However, if the press cooperates with emergency management, people can still rely on it for updates and directions.
In the video, Johal (2012) explains how the process of decision-making during a high-risk situation can take two forms based on the people’s perception of that risk. If the risk was communicated in advance and highly rehearsed, the brain process follows a normal pattern with cognitive features involved in weighing the options and making a decision (Johal, 2012). However, in high-risk or unexpected situations, people act upon their emotions, without thinking properly about the outcomes of their actions (Johal, 2012). Risk communication is the process of distributing information to the public during a hazard or in high-risk circumstances with the primary intention of alarming and protecting the people. Risk communication is aimed at giving people valuable information to promote effective decision-making, while at the same time avoiding spreading the fear and panic, as it can trigger unwanted responses and actions of the people (Johal, 2012).
Other outcomes of proper risk communication are increased concentration, effective problem solving, proper task performance, and cooperation (Johal, 2012). Messages passed by risk communication are often acute, simple, concrete, and credible (Johal, 2012). Another vital factor is the consistency of the messages: since frequent updates are usually provided, it is important to avoid confusing messages (Johal, 2012). The person delivering the message should be trustworthy and possess a good leadership image (Johal, 2012). One type of people that can be used to deliver emergency messages for hazard adjustment are emergency personnel or medical personnel: Johal (2012) notes that these people are perceived as most reliable. Timing is crucial for the message to be successful. In order not to trigger fear and panic in the citizens, emergency management should aim to distribute messages about the upcoming disaster as soon as they are available, thus allowing people to prepare emergency scenarios and overcome the panic.
Training and Preparedness Exercises
Huder (2012) outlines different types of exercises that can be used to test people’s readiness for a disaster. Exercises can be either discussion-based or operations-based. Discussion-based exercises do not involve any active actions. A popular example of this form of exercise is a tabletop discussion, where people have to verbally walk through their actions in a chosen disaster scenario (Huder, 2012). Two popular types of functional exercises are a drill and full functional exercises (Huder, 2012). A drill is an unexpected training practice that involves an imitation of an emergency process, such as evacuation from the building, under direct supervision. Finally, a fully functional exercise is the most costly type of exercise, which aims to evaluate the functioning of the entire emergency plan under emergency circumstances by presenting complex problems set in a realistic environment (Huder, 2012).
I think that the effectiveness of these exercises depends on how unexpected and realistic they are. In a real emergency, people will have to make decisions quickly and under severe stress, which means that the best training exercises should be done under stressful circumstances and within a limited period. I believe that drills are the most cost-effective exercises to test and improve the organization’s preparedness, but only as long as they are unexpected and realistic. The emergency personnel, on the other hand, is more confident working under stress. Moreover, to assess the individual input of every team member, it is good to be working in an organized environment. Therefore, a table-top discussion can be used to determine if the emergency personnel is familiar with the plan and will take the necessary steps to alleviate the situation. Full functional training, on the other hand, is required for complete testing of EOCs and equipment.
Huder, R. C. (2012). Disaster operations and decision making (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). (2010). Comprehensive preparedness guide (CPG) 101: Developing and maintaining emergency operations plans (Version 2) [PDF file]. Web.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). (2004). Are you ready? An in-depth guide to citizen preparedness [PDF file]. Web.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). (2016). Safer, stronger, protected homes & communities. Web.
Johal, S. (2012). Risk communication [Video file]. Web.