I typically refrain from writing about disasters in the midst of those disasters. It’s very easy to be critical of things as they are happening, without an appreciation for the circumstances and information that decision-makers are in. There are also often plenty of critics out there between the media, politicians, and social media. There is one thing, however, that has jumped out at me in this Coronavirus/COVID19 incident that is so egregious that it absolutely needs to be addressed, and that is the traditional convening of face-to-face EOCs by many jurisdictions, agencies, and organizations. Much of the messaging we have seen in this incident promotes social distancing, yet so many are not practicing this.
It’s one thing to have a handful of people physically in your EOC. While I acknowledge there are absolutely advantages to operating an EOC face-to-face, by doing so in the event of a pandemic, we are endangering these critical staff, other co-workers, and their families. At this point, I have serious concerns with the leadership of any agency or organization that is substantially staffing an EOC in-person in the midst of this incident. I’m tremendously disappointed in this. Is it hubris? Ignorance? I don’t know what the cause is, but I do know that it’s simply irresponsible to endanger people and your operations, and it’s pretty much against everything we work for.
A virtual EOC is the answer to this. Hopefully you have a plan for implementing one, though we know that many do not. Web-based EOC management platforms, of which there are many (and of varying capability and quality) can support facilitation of this, but aren’t necessary. Through use of other technology, most of it free or potentially already owned by your agency or organization, you can still accomplish the things you need to. Preparation obviously plays off, but you can make this happen on the fly, if needed, but it will still take some work to set up.
What’s needed? In all likelihood, most people will be working from home. As such, reliable internet and a computer are essential, as are a phone, even if you are planning on doing most of your audio (and even video) through your computer. We have a lot of collaboration tools available to us. Below are a few (non endorsed) collaboration apps that, depending on the app, cover a range of capability from document sharing and live collaboration, chat, voice, video, project management, and more. Some are practically full service, while others specialize in one or a few features. Many of them integrate with each other for even more benefits. They do have varying security capability, so be sure to read up on that if security is a concern (it should be to at least some extent):
- Microsoft Teams – broad capability (available free from Microsoft)
- Crisis Communications (this is an add-on to Microsoft Teams, also currently free from Microsoft)
- Skype/Skype for Business – voice and video, some document sharing (available free from Microsoft)
- OneDrive/SharePoint – document sharing (pay for more storage)
- OneNote – document collaboration (Microsoft)
- Dropbox – document sharing (free for limited data storage, pay for more)
- Google Drive/Docs/Calendar/Hangouts – broad capability (free for limited data storage, pay for more)
- Slack – broad capability, especially with add on apps (free for smaller-scale use)
- Discord – broad capability, especially with add on apps (free)
- WebEx – voice and audio, some document sharing (basic is free, pay for more capability)
- HipChat – broad capability (basic is free, there is a cost for additional capability)
- Zoom – voice and video, some document sharing (basic is free, pay for additional capability)
- Yammer – broad capability (free with Office 365, pay for additional capability)
Working remotely may not be as convenient as face-to-face interaction, but it’s certainly possible and better for the safety of your staff and your own operational continuity. Through use of these tools, we can still conduct all the necessary activities in an EOC. We can communicate with people as a group or one-on-one. We can conduct collaborative meetings. We can develop documents, share drafts, and even work collectively on the same document in real time. We can view videos, take calls, write reports, manage information, and track resources.
Aside from EOC operations, I’d suggest that organizations look to these or similar tools to support remote work for their staff where possible. I have some recent tips on continuity here. For those of you in government, I suggest looking into what needs to be done to conduct public meetings in a virtual environment as well, while still ensuring they are open and accessible to the public. Tools like Skype, WebEx, or Zoom can help support this. States have varying requirements for public meetings, so these of course should be examined before making any changes. I’d also encourage courts, especially lower ones such as traffic court, to consider postponing their proceedings or looking to alternate means of conducting their proceedings that don’t require individuals to be there in person. I obviously appreciate that these are complex matters with a lot of legality, and as such may not have ideal solutions in the near-term, but good solutions absolutely need to be considered for future implementation.
The bottom line here is that social distancing applies to you, whether you like it or not. Some professions, such as public health and hospitals, first responders, and others have no choice but to continue engaging face-to-face and hands-on with people. They are provided with PPE and safety procedures to minimize their exposures while they continue providing these critical services. In emergency management, however, we do not need to be face-to-face. It’s an unnecessary risk to take and there is plenty of availability of technology tools to help us do what we need to do.
What collaboration tools do you use to support remote/virtual operations?
Be smart, be safe, be well.
© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP