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Helpful Pointers from Experience: EOC Details You Don't Want to Miss

Are You Ready For A Long-Term Outage?
Logistical Issues To Consider During A Sustained Operations

By Regina Phelps

Many organizations are prepared for a short-term event…an outage that lasts several hours or possibly a day or two. But what about the event that keeps you out of your building for days, weeks, months, or possibly forever? Your organization and staff will be challenged in every possible way. The very core of their beings and your business will be rattled. Knowing this and preparing for it in advance is essential.

First of all, what is a sustained operation? It depends on who you speak to! In the public sector it is often defined as an event that goes beyond one shift, one day or a situation that requires mutual aid. In the private sector the answer is often found within the Business Impact Analysis (BIA). How long can you be out before it impacts your business in a significant way? Some common definitions include an event that exceeds a 24-hour period, an event that closes a mission critical building for a period of time or an event that affects a mission critical department.

More than likely you will activate your companies Emergency Operations Center (EOC) or Command Center within the first few hours of a major event. This article explores the many issues your company will likely face with the facility and staff as well as general administrative issues that can be planned for in well in advance.

Safety First
Once your EOC is operational it is always advisable to nominate someone to act as the Safety Officer (SO) of the EOC. This person is given the responsibility and authority to make changes in the EOC based on safety concerns. EOC's often have many small hazards that may add up to big accidents. Blocked fire exits, dangling cords, and trip hazards are just some of the common dangers. Use this article as a safety checklist.

Facility Issues
Your first challenge will be facility issues. If these are not resolved quickly the problems will escalate to become personnel issues!

FEMA recommends at least 50-75 square feet per person in an EOC. This will vary depending on the amount of equipment in any work area. Big computer monitors will take up more counter space. Laptops may save you precious "real estate." Also consider the amount of writing space or counter surface a worker will need to accommodate binders, reports, documents and writing. The more cramped the staff, the more emotional worn they become as the hours and days go by.

Noise is a very significant issue. Noise from phones, unnecessary conversations, crowded conditions or poor acoustics will start to undermine people's abilities and their mental health. Be aware of this and make adjustments before you begin and then once you activate. The SO should monitor noise levels and intervene as necessary. To minimize noise in advance:

• Keep phones at the lowest volume and install lights on phone sets to act as a ring notifer if possible.
• Use carpet (on floors and wall surfaces) and soft surfaces to absorb sound.
• Keep unnecessary conversations outside the EOC.
• When possible have a conference room adjacent to the EOC for meetings and briefings.

Break room space
It is important to have break room space adjacent to the EOC, so workers can take a stretch, get some food or take a mental rest. If it is close by, they can be retrieved if there is a crisis but otherwise will get a chance to relax. Have comfortable chairs, a TV/VCR with a selection of movies and games for down time.

Food rules and non-spill cups only
Establish a no eating rule in the EOC. If eating is allowed it will likely be a "pig pen" in just a matter of hours, resulting in smells, crumbs and other unpleasantness. Allow only commuter cups (cups with pre-fitted, snug lids) in the EOC to prevent spills, potential catastrophes and housekeeping nightmare. It will only take one cup of coffee spilling into a laptop to ruin someone's day!

Frequent housekeeping service inside the EOC, restrooms, and break areas is essential. Most offices have janitorial services once a day. It will more than likely be required at least every six hours.

Air quality
Stuffy rooms will produce fatigue, dull minds, headaches and many worker complaints.

• Be aware of ventilation. As a contingency, have some standing fans for use in crowded rooms to circulate air.
• Use only "low fume" white board markers.
• Don't allow any spraying of aerosols in the EOC. This would include hairsprays, perfumes, fixatives and room fresheners.
• You may also want to consider a ban on perfumes and colognes as they disagree with so many, especially in tight quarters.

Soft overhead lighting, indirect lighting sources and natural light will reduce eye fatigue and tend to make workers more comfortable.

• Avoid placing computers near windows to avoid glare on the screen or the eyes from having to accommodate window light.
• Consider glare screens if glare is a problem. Share simple exercises to minimize eye fatigue.
• Stare at a fixed object for about 60 seconds at least 50 feet away every 30 minutes to cause eye muscles to refocus.
• Close eyes, cover eyes with palms of hands and rest head in hands for 60 seconds, taking a few deep breaths. A great stress reducer!

Ergonomics - workstations, headsets
Workstation design is critical. Poor ergonomics will result in worker fatigue, discomfort, pain and the inability to work long shifts. Well designed ergonomic chairs with adjustable height, tilt, lumbar support and arms are essential. Ideally computers keyboards will be on adjustable surfaces to accommodate many different workers. If using lap tops, use "regular mice" to avoid wrist strain and remember to have mouse pads. Whenever possible use phone headsets to ease neck and shoulder discomfort, they also help with noise control.

Nap or Rest Areas
If possible have a rest area or lounge that staff can go to and take a quick "cat nap" if things are slow. Furnish with cots, floor mats or couches. This is especially helpful on the night shift.

First aid supplies
Basic first aid supplies including some over-the-counter remedies are essential. The drugs should include: aspirin, non-aspirin, ibuophren, cough medication, vitamin C, cold medication and cough drops.

Office Supplies
Have enough of everything for at least the first three days in case there are problems in getting equipment. This includes all types of office supplies and any items your team will need. Items you are likely to use "lots of" include toner, paper, markers, flip charts, masking tape and general office supplies.

Parking and Transportation
If workers are driving to the EOC, provide secured parking. Due to worker fatigue encourage workers to drive only if they live close to the EOC. Provide transportation to workers who work over 12-hours to reduce chance of fatigue caused accidents. Fatigue may result in accidents. Consider a shuttle van to provide employee transit.

EOC Security
Security is essential is the EOC, with badge access only. Post Security staff at the entrance to the EOC with a list of all "allowed persons." No one that is not on the list is let in unless there is management approval. Monitor news regarding any reports of civil unrest and safety issues and act accordingly for staff protection.

Staff Issues
It may sound silly but really good food is critical...people working long hours look forward to meals to break up the shift and pass the time. Pick foods with the following tips in mind:

• Minimize sugars and caffeine- The sugar creates a yo-yo blood sugar and causes more fatigue. Excessive caffeine can result in sleep problems.
• Always serve complex carbohydrates along with simple ones (i.e. whole wheat muffin with fruit), keeps blood sugars more even.
• Choose lower fat diet which are easier to digest so people feel less sluggish and tired.
• Avoid really heavy meals which can cause more fatigue and sluggishness. Grazing is a far better way to eat, small meals every 2-3 hours.
• Discourage alcohol on off-hours. It interferes with deep sleep, often causing the person to waken after only a few hours of sleep, unable to sleep soundly after that.
• Have lots of healthy food choices: fruit, veggies, whole wheat, low-fat and less sugar.
• If you allow food in the EOC have simple, easy to eat, "safe" food such as granola or energy bars.
• Find out if workers have any food allergies or preferences such as vegetarian.
• Secure a very good caterer, have a backup. People can do amazing work on a happy full stomach! Make meals good and healthy!

Mental Health
If you have a company Employee Assistance Program (EAP), ask an EAP counselor to be assigned to each shift. Instruct them to come in each shift mid-way and walk around talking to staff and taking a mental health temperature of the group. They will be aware of problems often before they become obvious and they have the training to help the group or individual deal with it. If you don't have an EAP for this role, assign someone to perform the task. A Human Resources person with some training may fit the role well.

Don't allow problems to get out-of-hand. Resolve issues quickly between workers or groups. People will be working in a close space, in stressful conditions and during a potentially difficult time. Be aware of this and do training to help people recognize signs of stress in themselves and others and what to do about it.

Once the initial excitement wears off and the activation and work becomes routine, therefore watch for signs of complacency. This is when mistakes tend to happen. When boredom sets in review procedures with team, re-engage them in the process. Maybe do some job rotation or re-assign to other tasks.

Neck and shoulder massage
In order to ease stress and make workers more comfortable, head and neck massage therapists are quite a regular activity in many EOC's. A short 10-15 minute neck and shoulder massage will release tension and keep workers comfortable and working.

Childcare, Eldercare, Petcare
What do you do if one of your most critical staff has children and no childcare, or has an elder parent who needs medication at certain times or dogs that need to be walked? Childcare, eldercare and petcare may evolve to be a business issue if critical employees cannot find help with these personal issues. Many companies never thought they would ever have to deal with these concerns but during large regional events such as earthquakes, flooding or hurricanes it became a significant business issue. Be prepared for it. Develop resources and referral networks and include them in your plans.

Family preparedness
If wide-spread disaster occurs in your area and your staff has not prepared their family for an emergency, workers will not stay on the job or come in to work. Encourage home preparedness. Get everyone in the family involved. Check the American Red Cross web site (www.redcross.org) for excellent brochures that can be downloaded and reproduced. Have safety fairs at work and provide educational training on the natural hazards that could affect your area.

Shift Schedules
When working long shifts and numerous days in a row, it is important to consider staffing schedules well in advance. An ideal schedule is three days on, two days off when working a 12-hour shift (used by many Police Departments and first responders). A good rule is to stay on one shift rather than rotate to other shifts to allow the body some time to adjust, especially in an EOC of relatively short duration (1-2 weeks). It is possible to work more days in a row, if the physical nature of the job is less and the "life and death critical decisions" are less.

Working 12 hour shifts results in little time for rest, sleep and relaxation. If workers are housed, fed and their personal issues are minimized they will be able perform better with an aggressive schedule. This is particularly important in regional disasters (earthquake, hurricane) when their own homes may be damaged or transit in the area is difficult.

Do you provide incentives for those who work during a sustained operation? How will you motivate workers as the disaster continues for days or weeks? Develop bonus plans in advance. Incentives could include cash bonus, a trip, formal commendation, additional vacation time or two days off for every one worked.

The health of the workers is very important. Prior to each flu season, suggest EOC workers to consider a annual flu vaccination. During an EOC activation encourage staff to stay well hydrated, maintain good nutrition, and take frequent rest breaks to combat illness and reduce stress.

Stress Reduction
Encourage stress reduction techniques such as deep breathing, stretching, and meditation to help staff stay calm in the event of a crisis. Give a mini-workshop on stress reduction techniques including exercises and give printed materials for staff to read. Check with your EAP's to see if they do stress reduction training.

If possible, provide opportunities for workers to exercise on off time. Check into nearby health clubs or the hotel. This would be very helpful for stress reduction. Some EOC's have yoga, stretching or relaxation sessions at the end of a shift.

Family Issues
Family preparedness training and education are critical for an employee to do well in an EOC. This includes educating employee's families on shift work and its effects, the event and the importance of their family member participating in this effort. If there were family issues and problems before the EOC activation, they may get exacerbated by the long hours and work. Be aware of this and involve your EAP when possible.

Keep Everyone Informed: Staff Briefings
Periodic briefings should be given to the entire EOC. Briefings should be just that- short, concise, to the point, lasting no more than 5 minutes. Post a written version as well. Briefing frequency depends on the event and what is going on. Most EOC's have them at least every six hours. The goal of these briefings is to update and involve staff, review problems and strategic plans for resolution. They also have to bring the group together, reduce rumors and create a team.

Administrative Issues
Cash on Hand
Cash may be necessary to purchase supplies, equipment, and food or to give as an advance to employees. Should you have some cash on hand? If so, how much do you need? How do you safeguard it? Who will disperse the funds?

Emergency Purchase Orders
Who has authority to produce emergency purchase orders? If a large regional event equipment and supplies may need to be purchased or obtained. Who can facilitate that?

Employee Communication
Do you have a pre-established employee communication phone number? A 800 number can provide employees with critical information on the status of the company and your facility and answers questions such as when do I go to work? It will reduce rumor and keep everyone informed on the companies status. Your company web site should also be used for employee and customer communication.

Do you have emergency contact information for your key vendors? Do you have other vendors selected as a backup? Speak to your vendors about their business continuity plans. Do they have other clients who might drain resources? For example a cafeteria vendor may also have contracts with hospitals and primary responders who will get their services first.

Medical - First Aid Skills
Trained staff with basic first aid skills and CPR is important. If transportation is effected or medical response is hampered in any way, the EOC may have to deal with medical problems longer than they would normally.

Now What?
A sustained operation is likely to take a big toll on your business and people unless you have organized and planned for it in advance. Take time now to review your company's emergency plans. Your advance preparation will result in a more responsive staff and faster restoration of your business.

About the Author
Regina Phelps is an internationally recognized expert in the field of emergency management and contingency planning. With over 20 years of experience, she has provided consultation and speaking services to clients on four continents. reginaemss@aol.com

©2002 EMS Solutions 260 Whitney Street SF CA 94131 (415) 643-4300 www.ems-solutionsinc.com

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