Using Departmental Operations Centers for Incident Management Success

Increasingly, government agencies and departments are identifying the benefits of establishing and activating departmental operations centers (DOCs) to help manage their responses to incidents.  At the Vermont Vigilant Guard 2016 exercise, which concluded last week, I had some opportunity to discuss the benefits of DOCs, particularly with an agency who used theirs for the first time in this exercise.

For most agencies, a DOC can relieve agency representatives in an EOC from also having to manage and track their agency’s response activity.  In an EOC, an agency representative is largely a conduit for communication and they provide knowledge of their agency and their agency’s capabilities as they contribute to the greater discussions within the EOC.  According to NIMS/ICS, an agency representative should have some decision-making capability for their agency, although political and practical realities often dictate otherwise.  The overall scope of activity for an agency representative in an EOC largely precludes them from also managing the details of their agency’s response, particularly if that response is even moderately complex.

A DOC is the ideal location from which an agency can oversee and coordinate their own response to an incident.  They can deploy and track resources, address internal logistics matters, and coordinate external logistics matters back through their agency representative at the EOC.  DOCs are also an excellent application for large agencies, which may have a variety of technical functions organized throughout, such as a health department or transportation department.  Pulling together representatives from each organizational element within the agency to collectively troubleshoot, problem solve, and share resources, is excellent use of a DOC.  In a way, this application of a DOC could be considered similar to a multi-agency coordination center (MACC).

Does a DOC need to mirror NIMS/ICS (or the new Center Management System) standards?  While there is no set standard for organizing and managing a DOC, there are a lot of applications of ICS that can certainly be applied.  If you look at the main activities of your DOC, you will see where opportunities for integration of ICS principles exist.  Consider that a DOC should have and maintain good situational awareness.  While much of this can be provided by the EOC, the EOC may (should) be looking for some specific information from your agency.  A situation unit within your DOC would certainly be helpful.  Likewise, DOCs often address tactical or near-tactical application, by deploying and directing resources from throughout their agency.  Having a resource unit within your DOC will help tremendously in the tracking of these resources.  Depending on the size and scope, it may be prudent for your DOC to establish an incident action plan (IAP) of its own.

Logistics, mentioned earlier, may be another need within a DOC.  Certainly an element of finance is important for the approval of procurements and tracking of costs within the agency related to the incident.  If resources are being deployed, someone should be in charge of operations.  Lastly, any organization needs to maintain someone in charge.  A DOC Manager would be the ideal generic term for this position.

What are the draw backs of establishing a DOC?  First of all, it’s an additional layer of incident management.  While possibly necessary based on factors discussed earlier, adding layers of incident management can make incident management more complex, especially if roles of each layer and function are not well defined.  The best way to address this is pre-planning!  Staffing can also be a significant concern.  Many agencies may be too small to warrant, much less have staff available, for a DOC.  If such is the case, just as in other applications of ICS, you should be able to collapse down to a manageable size.

An often seen pitfall of DOCs is that they can quickly devolve into a management by committee type of structure; particularly with larger agencies where senior staff, who are used to regular meetings with each other, are now representing their functional interests within the DOC.  I’ve seen this result in what is essentially one endless meeting, interrupted by phone calls and emails which introduce new problems and perpetuate more discussion.  Strong leadership is absolutely required to ensure that a group such as this stays focused and on task, resolving issues on a timely basis.

Overall, the use of Departmental Operations Centers is a smart practice.  Work internally to plan their use, scoping out when and how it will be applied, where it will be located, the organization to be used, and how it is integrated into the overall incident management effort.  Once plans are developed and appropriate training is performed, exercise the plan to identify areas for improvement, turning those into corrective actions, and implementing them for continued success.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC – Your Partner in Preparedness

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