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An emergency operation centre (EOC) should enable people to respond to and plan the recovery from an emergency as effectively as possible. This is true of a brick and mortar EOC, a virtual EOC and of a hybrid model. While there are many solutions, it is critical to begin with the right question. The question should be, “What do we need to achieve?”

This question is generally answered through a process commonly described as a needs assessment and is a critical first step to help ensure that the solution meets the needs of the end user. Once the needs are understood, they should be described in concrete terms. Defining the needs, objectives and expectations of the user contributes to the overarching concept of operations (CONOPS).

The CONOPS provides a shared understanding of the operational needs and objectives, and how they are related to each other as well as the larger organizational structure, mission and goals. This framework helps to make certain that the concepts are incorporated into all further technical and design decisions. This foundational document can help ensure that the solution chosen is tailored to the actual and expected future needs of the EOC and should guide brick and mortar and virtual EOC technical requirements.

While the specific needs may vary from one organization to another, ultimately the EOC should enable effective information sharing and facilitate any collaboration necessary for decision making. When deciding what is necessary within an EOC, virtual or otherwise, decisions should be guided by how the EOC will support these key functions. Just as you can build a beautiful workspace that, while visually appealing, is inefficient because it wasn’t considered from the perspective of the person working within it, a complex and powerful virtual EOC option is only effective if it meets the needs of the actual users.

The nature of when and how an EOC is used amplifies the importance of a human-centric design process based on the needs of the organization. An EOC is generally activated during a high consequence, low frequency event. This increases the potential of the users being unfamiliar with the layout and systems within the EOC and increases the probability of stress related errors. These issues can be mitigated several ways.

The first is to leverage the principles of human-centric design both in workspace and technology. By considering how the end user will interact with the interface, and anticipating their needs, the design of physical spaces and technology interfaces can appear intuitive and easy for the user to navigate. This improves the experience, simplifies the workload and creates an environment that helps instead of hinders the EOC objectives.

Secondly, where it is not possible or practical to use a design solution that is intuitive, the EOC should either be familiar or have cognitive aids built into it. Familiarity is built using experts from within the organization whose normal job functions align with the roles and responsibilities of their expected EOC position. Examples of this include leveraging the skills of an administration assistant in the documentation unit or a manager of recreation facilities in the logistics section. This familiarity can be expanded by using technology that is already used by those working within an EOC or by providing frequent training or exercise opportunities to ensure that the users are exposed to the EOC with a higher frequency than what would naturally occur through activations. Cognitive aids can include floor maps at appropriate locations, facility signage, checklists, decision trees and flow charts. These cognitive aids should also be designed with a human-centric design to ensure a simple and effective user experience.

COVID-19 has caused many organizations to look for a virtual solution while also actively managing a public health related crisis. This complicated situation has resulted in many organizations transitioning to a virtual EOC environment without the luxury of a normal program development process. Thankfully, the needs assessment and CONOPS for a brick and mortar EOC will be the same as a virtual one. By using the CONOPS as the foundation that guides a human-centric approach to the EOC design, the resulting solution will empower the people using it and help them achieve their objectives.