When the H1N1 virus broke out in the U.S. five years ago, the University of Oregon started using cloud-based technology to manage potential outbreaks. Since then, more universities have looked to technology to help them deal with incidents quickly across agencies.
On a software platform, the University of Oregon pulled together 139 people from departments including student affairs, housing and athletics into a virtual emergency operations center (EOC). Through this center, the incident management team of 25 people set up reporting systems in case large numbers of students and employees called in sick. Everyone involved also shared resources, continuity data and situation reports on the platform via email, text and voice.
Now the University of Oregon invites local Eugene city agencies, the fire department, school districts and community colleges to collaborate on incidents like the two unusual ice storms this winter.
"We quickly found out that that was a critical tool in our toolbox for incident management on campus, and since then now it is our primary resource when dealing with incidents or even large events," said André Le Duc, executive director of enterprise risk services for the University of Oregon, as well as chair of the Universities and Colleges Caucus of the International Association of Emergency Managers
A few years ago, one or two universities used a virtual EOC in addition to the more traditional in-person gathering — but now, it's starting to take off, Le Duc said. University, city and fire department leaders gave five reasons why emergency management is headed toward the use of virtual EOCs.
1. Most events can be handled virtually.
Before Jason York became an emergency manager for Eugene in 2013, he filled the same role for five years in Washington, where the state managed incidents virtually all the time. He doesn't remember ever being part of a physical EOC while he was there. "I'm a strong believer that the majority of incidents can be handled virtually and you don't have to take people away from what they may normally do and put them all into the traditional EOC," York said.
Moving forward, he plans to use a virtual platform, called Basecamp, three-quarters of the time either by itself or in tandem with a physical EOC.
The University of Oregon only uses its physical EOC twice a year compared to about 12 times per year for its virtual EOC. The virtual version works well for event management, coordination and communication, Le Duc said. Large events — like Oregon Ducks football games, visits from the Dalai Lama and the U.S. Olympic track and field trials — help people become comfortable with the system so they're ready when a power failure or storm hits.
2. Everyone in the area is on the same page.
Two storms hit Eugene this past winter, and through the University of Oregon's platform, the city's key emergency management staff in different organizations were able to share information so they could get a better picture of the situation.
"It's a partnership in the area," York said. "It really has us all on the same page, which makes more sense to me than us both going direct and trying to figure out what the other person's doing when we can do it all on the same platform."
3. Multiagency collaboration happens quickly.
One of the major problems during those storms was that the road conditions were so bad that critical health personnel couldn't get to the local hospital to take care of patients. The hospital asked the city for help, and the city used chained buses from its Recreation Services department to transport them. But that could only happen for one operational period. So a hospital emergency management staff member posted a transportation request through the virtual EOC, and both the University of Oregon and Springfield Public Schools were able to help.
"I think that ultimately they're going to be the way that emergency management goes as far as directing or providing that coordination and the ability of folks to get together," York said.
4. A smaller staff can work more efficiently.
Getting together in person is especially tough for agencies with limited staffing. For example, the Springfield and Eugene fire departments have been merging for the last four years (it will be finalized July 1). The merger consolidates administrative positions across both departments and could save up to $1.5 million annually, according to The Register-Guard.
While it's a sound move economically, it leaves fewer managers, including high-level commanders, who normally would go to a physical EOC, said Joe Zaludek, deputy chief of special operations for Eugene Springfield Fire. If all the managers were at the EOC, then no one would be available to brief the crews coming on or the shift that's trying to make staffing or operations decisions. And a physical EOC for each sister city would double the staffing requirements, which doesn't meet the goals of the merger.
"This is something we've been worrying about: How are we going to staff both EOCs?" Zaludek said. "Well, we kind of did it by phone or by Internet."
During the storms this past winter, 300 to 400 power lines were down, and they didn't know which ones were still energized. The fire department deployed staff to secure the lines until the utility company could get there, and one unit was trapped between two downed power lines.
Zaludek listened and triaged calls in the communications center, worked on the virtual EOC for a briefing and then provided crews with information, including when relief might be arrive, the status of the power companies and priorities for the utility crew's next stop.
"Having the virtual EOC allowed us to minimize our staffing in the EOC environment, apply the resource where it could be applied as needed, and then still be flexible or have the availability to support field operations when needed," he said.
While it's difficult to replace face-to-face interaction, jurisdictions can use the technology they already have to help respond to emergencies, York said. The virtual EOC maximizes people resources so they can share crucial information without having to step away from their job.
"Especially for jurisdictions that have one- or two-person shops like myself, it's really the most effective way to go," York said.
5. Information sharing is easier and uses fewer resources.
Even with a larger team like the University of Oregon has, it's not always as effective to pull people together in a physical room, Le Duc said. Because communication is critical to incident management, it's important to find a way to communicate quickly in a manner that works for everyone.
A virtual EOC doesn't take many resources to start and allows people to track who's responsible for what, when they expect to have something completed, and what the next decision point is, Le Duc said.
"The physical aspect of bringing people together is often difficult, and I know that especially in the higher ed environment, it's extremely difficult," Le Duc said. "What we've found is by utilizing a virtual environment, we get more people to be at our virtual table faster and work with us. Therefore when we do have incidents where we physically need people to come to the EOC, they're much more likely to and they're also a lot more comfortable because they've interacted with us in kind of a virtual world."