EOC Mission Planning

I’ve been wrong. I used to teach and otherwise espouse that emergency operations centers didn’t actually do operations. I was bought in to the traditional perspective that EOCs ONLY provided resource support and information coordination. I’m not sure how or why I bought into this when on incidents I was actually involved in planning and directing certain operations. This mentality goes back, for me, about 15 years. It’s important to break this myth and acknowledge the role that EOCs can and should play in incident management.  

EOCs being involved in directing field operations is certainly nothing new. If you don’t want to take my word for it, it’s also doctrinal. Check out the EOC section of the NIMS document. “EOC staff may share the load with on-scene incident personnel by managing certain operations, such as emergency shelters or points of distribution. When on-scene incident command is not established, such as in a snow emergency, staff in EOCs may direct tactical operations.”

This post has been in the works for a while. Several months ago, I was developing structured guidance on EOC mission planning for a client and realized it would be a good topic to write about. I recently made some social media posts on the topic, with responses encouraging me to write more. So, it was clearly time to do so.

As I had posted on social media, if you don’t think an EOC actually does operations, I’d suggest that the EOCs you are familiar with either haven’t had the opportunity to properly apply mission support or they are doing something wrong. Certainly not every incident will require an EOC to provide mission support, but EOCs should be ready to do so.

EOC missions are typically initiated one of three ways:

  1. A request by incident command to handle a matter which is outside their present area of responsibility or capability,
  2. EOC personnel recognize an operational need that isn’t being addressed, or
  3. The EOC is directed to take certain action from an executive level.

As the NIMS doctrine states, operations that are prime candidates for EOC-directed missions could be emergency shelters or points of distribution. Other operations, such as debris management, or (something recently experienced by many jurisdictions) isolation and quarantine operations are also often EOC-directed.

What makes these EOC-directed missions? Typically, they are planned, executed, and managed by an EOC. This could be a multi-agency EOC or a departmental operations center. Of course, there are ‘field’ personnel involved to execute the missions, but unlike tactical activity under the command of an Incident Commander, the chain of command for EOC-directed missions goes to the EOC (typically the EOC’s Operations Section or equivalent).

Ideally, jurisdictions or agencies should be developing deliberate plans for EOC-directed missions. Many do, yet still don’t realize that execution of the plans is managed from the EOC. These are often functional or specifically emergency support function (ESF) plans or components of those plans. For context, consider a debris management plan. As with many deliberate plans, those plans typically need to be operationalized, meaning that the specific circumstances of the incident they are being applied to must be accounted for, typically through what I refer to as a mission plan. In developing a mission plan, with or without the existence of a deliberate plan, I encourage EOCs to use the 6-step planning process outlined in CPG-101. As a refresher:

  1. Form a planning team
  2. Understand the situation and intent of the plan
  3. Determine goals and objectives of the plan
  4. Develop the plan
  5. Plan review and approval
  6. Plan implementation

The planning team for an EOC-driven mission should consist, at the very least, of personnel in the EOC with responsibility for planning and operations. If several mission plans are expected to be developed, the EOC’s Planning Section may consider developing a ‘Mission Planning Unit’ or something similar. Depending on the technical aspects of the mission, technical specialists may be brought into the planning team, and it’s likely that personnel with responsibility for logistics, finance, and safety, may need to be consulted as well.

If a deliberate plan is already in place, that plan should help support the intent, goals, and objectives of the mission plan, with a need to apply specific situational information and context to develop the mission plan.

Developing the plan must be comprehensive to account for all personnel, facilities, resources, operational parameters, safety, support, reporting, documentation, and chain of command. These may need to be highly detailed to support implementation. The mission may be organized at whatever organizational level is appropriate to the incident. This is likely to be a group within EOC Operations (or equivalent). Obviously having a deliberate plan in place can help address a fair amount of this proactively. Outlining processes and position descriptions, and providing job aids will support implementation considerably.

Plan review often seems an easy thing to do, but this needs to be more than an editorial review. The review should be comprehensive, considering the operations from every possible perspective. Consider various scenarios, notionally walking through processes, and even using a red team concept to validate the plan. While this is likely going into immediate implementation, it’s best to spend some time validating it in the review stages instead of having it fail in implementation. Approval will come at whatever level is appropriate within your organization.

Plan implementation should certainly include an operational briefing for the staff executing the plan, and it should ideally be supported through an incident action plan (IAP) or EOC action plan, or a part thereof. As with any implementation, it needs to be properly managed, meaning that progress must be monitored and feedback provided to ensure that the mission is being executed according to plan and that the plan itself is effective. Understand that complex missions, especially those of longer duration, may need to be adjusted as lessons are learned during implementation.

As is typically said in ICS courses, we should begin demobilization planning as early as possible. Missions may have a completion in whole, where the entire mission is demobilized at once, or there may be a phased demobilization. Many EOCs aren’t used to developing tactical-level demobilization plans, so they need to be prepared for this.

As with any operation, identifying and documenting lessons learned is important. Deliberate plans should be updated to reflect lessons learned (and even a copy of the mission plan as a template or sample), or if a deliberate plan didn’t exist prior to the mission, one should be developed based upon the implementation.

EOCs can, in fact, run operations. I’m sure a lot of you have seen this if you have been involved in responses such as the current Coronavirus pandemic, a hurricane response, and more. Sometimes in emergency management we aren’t good at actually acknowledging what’s going on, for better or for worse. We get stuck with old definitions and don’t realize that we need to evolve, or even already have evolved; or we don’t recognize that current ways of doing things simply don’t work as intended. We seem, sometimes, to be our own worst enemy.

How does your EOC execute mission planning?

© 2020 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

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