It was May 2003 when Canada announced its first case of BSE, or mad cow disease, and the U.S. immediately shut its border to Canadian beef and cattle, a huge blow to the industry and a potential threat to Canada’s reputation as having one of the safest food supplies in the world.
The news triggered the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to quickly activate its emergency operations centre (commonly called an EOC) at its headquarters, its regional operations centre and its site response centre, to manage the crisis. I was a new Communications Officer at the time, and this was my first time participating in this type of working structure. With my boss on vacation, this was a trial by fire.
Since then, I’ve had many opportunities to be part of an EOC. While the BSE response was one example of when an EOC is activated, there are many situations when such a tool is needed – floods, wildfires, earthquakes and public health emergencies are just some of the scenarios where quick response and effective management will help save lives and property, and help maintain the credibility of an organization to handle it.
Fast forward to early 2020, and many PR and communications professionals including myself, were thrust into helping their organizations or clients manage the impacts of a worldwide pandemic and were asked to participate in an EOC. If not, do not fear. Your time will come when you will be tapped on the shoulder to take the Public Information Officer seat, which is an essential role in this formal working structure.
To help you learn what I had to first figure out on the fly, here is some useful information that will help you perform at your best when the time comes.
What is an Emergency Operations Centre?
An EOC is a central command and control facility set up to manage an emergency or a crisis, like a natural disaster or public health emergency.
What do they look like?
EOCs typically have five functions including management, operations, planning, logistics and finance. The Public Information Officer, which is typically a PR manager in an organization, falls under the management section and reports to the director or deputy. While EOCs are typically in-person and housed in a physical location, like an office boardroom, they can also be mobile or virtual in today’s “new normal” of physical distancing.
As the information officer, you will be responsible for media relations, coordinating information for public release, setting up news conferences, liaising with other PIOs, preparing material for the public and developing key messages, activities you’re likely already doing in your day-to-day job, but this will be related specifically to the incident at hand. Today’s information officers are also increasingly monitoring and responding on social media and ensuring key internal stakeholders are also aware of what’s going on.
When are EOCs activated?
On a government level, an EOC must be activated when a state of emergency is declared, but it can also be activated without one. Large corporations may also activate EOCs to deal with an emergency that significantly impacts its operations or customers.
EOCs are strategic in nature, offering direction and making operational decisions. They gather information, communicate, coordinate resources and make decisions to protect people and property.
Who staffs the EOC?
The people who end up in the EOC are usually from roles that are pre-selected. The public information officer is most often a public relations/communications manager, and because EOCs often need to operate 24/7, there would likely be more than one person designated to staff various roles and would work in shifts.
How can I prepare?
It’s not that organizations plan to fail; they sometimes fail to plan. One of the central tenets of emergency management is pre-planning. This includes ensuring your organization has a crisis communications plan and an outline for business resumption in the event of a major incident. Many organizations set up table-top exercises, which are formal or informal discussions around roles during a crisis and what a response might look like. A plan is only as good as the paper it’s written on, so regularly reviewing the plan can go a long way in being prepared. As your organization’s communications specialist, you should regularly participate in this planning.
Where can I learn more about EOCs?
The Justice Institute of B.C.’s Emergency Management Division, in partnership with Emergency Management British Columbia, offers a number of programs, courses and webinars on emergency management. Other sources include Public Safety Canada and B.C. Public Safety and Emergency Management division.
Jeff Meerman, APR (jeffmeerman.com) is a member of the Canadian Public Relations Society (Vancouver) Senior Leaders Network. Currently an independent consultant, Jeff has helped the country’s largest organizations tell their stories and protect their reputations. He’s advised leaders and built cross-functional teams with accountability for communications, public affairs, marketing, media relations and community relations. Throughout his career, he’s mitigated reputational risk and managed crisis situations that threatened lives, health and corporate reputations. Jeff is an active contributor to the public relations profession and is a director of the Canadian Public Relations Foundation and a member of the CPRS National Accreditation Committee. He is also a Program Advisor for Kwantlen Polytechnic University School of Business.