Cordillera support to Emergency Operations Center coordination in the Hampton Roads region, Virginia

by Alex Case

Case Study:  Cordillera support to Emergency Operating Center coordination in the Hampton Roads region, Virginia

In 2017 select cities within Hampton Roads decided to approach Public Safety from a Regional perspective and chose Cordillera Applications Group to assist them. The Hampton Roads region is the biggest population center in Virginia, at 1.25 million people. Although the region functions as a single urban area, it is governed through multiple jurisdictions whose borders, in many cases, have become little more than lines on a map across which people, traffic, business services and city services flow and operate, due to population growth and urbanization. To add to this myriad of jurisdictions it boasts a considerable military presence, including the largest naval base in the world, an international commercial port, a unique coastal location resulting in multiple bridge-tunnels and extensive inland waterways and inlets.  Faced with a host of potential region-wide emergencies, such as extreme cold-weather events, flooding, and hurricanes, city leaders realized that what affects one city or jurisdiction will probably affect another in the same manner. A Regional effort to coordinate emergency operations was therefore sought to assist in tackling a region-wide event.

Historically each city or jurisdiction’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was designed to provide emergency management for that city’s population only, and the communications and IT network reflected this past set of arrangements.  Each City or jurisdiction had routine communications among EOCs but they were heavily reliant upon individuals and cell phone communication, both of which could be jeopardized during an emergency event. One EOC manager noted that “I feel comfortable knowing what is going on in my city in pretty quick time when the EOC is stood up, but I have to fight for information beyond the boundaries of my city and I have to do that with each neighboring city.  That takes time and occurs just when you haven’t got time to spare.” Multiple cell phone calls and the manual logging of information imposed a drain on key personnel at a vital time.

At the request of a group of city leaders, Cordillera designed an analysis and implementation program that first assessed the fundamental issues for inter-EOC communication, then designed an implementation process tailored to the region’s unique needs. The foundation was an increased level of technical communication capabilities and information architecture, which then enabled practical scenario-based problem-solving events.  The eventual solutions were less technology-heavy, and more focused on culture and trust-building to create a region-wide community of emergency management professionals.   Key outcomes included an acceptance that events in one city or jurisdiction would impact its neighbors and the recognition that, while city-specific EOC business would always be needed upon activation, there needed to be immediate outreach and information-sharing to establish transparency and coordinate efforts to mitigate region-wide risks.

To assist in this effort, the Hampton Roads Regional Common Operating Picture (COP) was developed.  The COP graphically depicts the Essential Elements of Information (EEI) on a web based ArcGIS-enabled site that allows cities and jurisdictions to update or amend their status at any time and thereby directly inform other jurisdictions of changes in real time. The platform was built with ‘in-house’ resources from the cities participating in the project and will either be a stepping stone towards a commercial COP or will prove sufficient to serve the Region.  To enable use of the COP Cordillera helped design and facilitate a monthly Communications Check to enable EOCs to conduct an inter-EOC check of verbal, video and data exchange systems. This is critical since many of these systems rely on operator familiarity and therefore require regular updates and checks.  This monthly communications check has improved inter-EOC communication and coordination systems, and helped build a region-wide culture that treats communications as a  routine and continuous process, rather than a one-time event draining key staff resources during an emergency.

During this process Cordillera has provided the project management and facilitation services required to bring 17 jurisdictions together, navigate the myriad of legacy systems and inculcate a cultural shift towards Public Safety being a Regional consideration.  This cultural shift has already delivered considerable benefits including a Region-wide approach to the planning and conduct of Public Safety operations for the 2020 national elections, an increased awareness of potential resource sharing for weather emergencies and the operational use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) in support of other jurisdictions.

This project is continuing to build much needed connective tissue between our jurisdictions. The approach taken by Cordillera is enabling more rapid decision making as we are not chasing information through informal networks. This allows us to have more substantial conversations around matching capacities to needs across jurisdictional boundaries, making us more efficient in addressing resident needs. Cities are judged just as much on disaster response as they are on economic prosperity. It is vital that we hone these skills to save lives and property.” Deputy City Manager for Public Safety, Hampton Roads