In early 2019, FEI’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) involved a room that had been identified specifically for emergency or incident response teams to report to if a crisis occurred. When activated, the room was filled with people addressing an incident with urgency and purpose. They were seated at tables with critical information posted around them. Some teams were using computers that live-streamed data, while others still relied on paper and markers. Whatever the case, the team members worked in close proximately to each other.

Following an initial briefing on the situation, various teams and members were assigned specific tasks and the EOC director scheduled the teams to report back on assignment updates. This coordinated response not only allowed for planning discussions to occur but also for team members to provide quick check-ins on their stress.

When the COVID-19 pandemic was initially identified as a crisis, our emergency and incident response teams were functioning in their usual brick-and-mortal locations. They incorporated CDC guidelines for social distancing within the EOC and hand sanitizer became a prominent fixture. To prevent the virus from spreading, work areas were sanitized between shift changes and team members were advised to monitor their health. If they noticed a fever, cough, sore throat, or other related symptoms, they were not allowed into the EOC. For some, this health advisement became an additional stress.

In March 2020, many emergency and incident response teams faced mandatory stay-at-home orders. In the past, when planning tabletop exercises and full-scale drills with emergency response teams, I would pose the following questions: Do you have an alternate site for the EOC if the current one becomes unusable? How would you communicate with the team members if you could not be in the same location? These questions were usually brought up in a shelter-in-place scenario. For some teams, this was a concept they had not given must thought to; it was usually an after-action item from the exercise. Now it was a reality and although some teams had identified alternate locations, the communication piece had not been addressed.

One of the most critical aspects of the shared EOC space is the ability to check on team members’ levels of stress. Team members are usually very familiar with each other and how they operate during stressful situations. If they notice changes in usual behavioral patterns that indicate increased stress, they can help each other by sharing assignments or providing emotional and psychological support. Once the EOCs went remote and meetings became virtual, providing this aspect of critical support became difficult.

Virtual team meetings became just that: meetings. They focused on task assignments, updates, planning, and hopefully a general check-in on team members. But unless there was an obvious change in someone’s physical appearance or how they exhibited emotions, it was difficult to identify team members who were struggling. And if they were, it was highly unlikely that they would express their struggles in a virtual meeting.

The COVID-19 response involved two additional factors not typically included in an emergency or incident response. First, team members were not just dealing with an external crisis; the pandemic also impacted them personally, whether it was their own health or that of their families, friends, or colleagues. As a result, many team members reported this as an additional stressor in the hotwashes following the deactivation.

Second, the COVID-19 pandemic required a lengthy response. Most crises have a defined timeframe that follows a linear path: The incident occurs; they identify the impact on people, property, and reputation; and they provide resources to resolve these issues. The COVID-19 pandemic did not ascribe to this.

In the United States, many emergency response teams have been activated for 18 months. Throughout this response, we have experienced multiple waves. Just when we thought we might be turning the corner, a new variant has come along and extended the need for our emergency response teams to stay alert to threats.

As a result of the ongoing COVID-19 response and the lessons learned, we’ve incorporated various changes into our emergency response plans to better support our teams. For example:

  • Virtual or hybrid EOCs are here to stay
  • Your Emergency Response Plan (ERP) needs to be updated to include a remote response
  • Clear escalation procedures need to be established, including a pivot point to move to remote operations
  • Early assessment of the response and its potential duration need to be scheduled, including rotating team members to avoid burnout
  • Identify supply chain disruptions and additional resources
  • Outline technology requirements to support remote operations
  • Allow incident management systems to provide real-time data reporting to identify and address new challenges
  • Provide hand sanitizer and other personal protective equipment to maintain the health of team members in the EOC
  • Team leaders need to check in daily with team members to identify issues before they become critical
  • Provide support resources to manage stressors for team members

An institution’s ability to survive a crisis depends on the capabilities of the emergency or incident response team to function at a peak level for the duration of the response. The COVID-19 response has allowed us to identify many issues that can negatively impact a team’s peak performance. The response cannot be supported if the team members are not supported physically, emotionally, and psychologically.

When planning to support a team, it’s important to include training, personnel, technology, and personal support. Leaders in the EOC should ensure that each team member is equipped with the necessary support to function at their peak level throughout the response. This will result in a more resilient team that is ready to take on the next crisis.

The best time to prepare for a crisis is before it occurs. Are you prepared? To learn more about FEI’s crisis management services, click here.