Episode 2: EOC Operations and the Planning Process

This is the second podcast in our series of real-time discussions centering around the COVID-19 response in jurisdictions throughout the United States. In this session, Assistant Chief Tom Clemo and Retired Deputy Chief Joe Castro share the lessons learned, best practices and unique struggles of the pandemic response in the greater Los Angeles area. The wide-ranging interview will impart valuable information from the EOC operations perspective with a focus on the planning process and how it is unfolding in “real time.” This discussion highlights the importance of preparation and the role of the Enhanced All-Hazards Incident Management / Unified Command (MGT314) course.


Narrator: Welcome to the Disaster Management Podcast series. Each episode features subject matter professionals discussing strategies and techniques for emergency managers and policy makers to consider as they prepare for respond to and recover from disasters. This series is brought to you by  Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service and the National Emergency Response and Recovery Training Center.

Heather Crites : Hello and welcome to the second podcast and of our COVID-19 response series. Today’s podcast is hosted by Kris Murphy and Heather Crites. My name isHeather Crites. I am a training specialist with the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service am primarily responsible for our Enhanced Incident Management Unified Command course, also known as MGT 314.

Kris Murphy: And I’m Kris Murphy. Many of you out there may recognize me from the MGT 314 as well. I am a project coordinator with the program. I’ve been with the program for about eight years now. I’ve interacted with many of you that are listening while you were here in College Station. Also joining us today on the phone we have Chief Tom Clemo with the Santa Monica Fire Department and Chief Joe Castro who is a retired legend with the Los Angeles Fire Department. Now before we have you gentlemen introduce yourselves, I just want to take a second to give the listeners an idea of what our goal is today we ask Chief Clemo to share with us what’s happening in his EOC and probably around EOC’s all over the country. Tom is our plans guru so we will be picking his brain in terms of a planning process and how it is unfolding in real time during this response. We will ask Chief Castro to kind of bridge what Tom is experiencing in his EOC and how that fits into the big picture of a response. So gentlemen why don’t you introduce yourselves to everybody, Tom why don’t you go first.

Chief Clemo: Good afternoon Tom Clements and Monica Fire Department. I’m the current Deputy Chief. Since March 13th have been assigned to our Emergency Operations Center as our planning section chief and I bounce between that and our EOC director. As many of you know I would assume those listening on this call, former classmates and current instructors of TEEX, that you find ourselves an Emergency Operations Center right now and have been for the past several weeks and probably will for the next several weeks. So we look forward to having conversations with you in the future and we look forward to providing any information and best practices that we might have coming out of our EOC.

Chief Castro: And hello everybody my name is Joe Castro I am a retired Chief Deputy for Los Angeles City Fire Department which I worked for about 38 half years. I have been retired almost three years. My final position was the Commander of Urgency Operations, where I oversaw the daily emergency line functions of the department. Currently under the California needed to stay at home in my house in Redondo Beach. Here with my wife and we play a game every day and this is kind of a unique game and it’s called why are you doing it that way? It’s a question we ask each other many times a day and I’m here to tell you it’s a game that has no winners at all.

Heather Crites: Thank you both for taking some time with us today. Chief Clemo as you mentioned you’re currently working the response to COVID-19. When I checked in with you about a week ago, you mentioned, and I quote, I was hoping to end my career before the big earthquake, that would have been easier to manage than this thing.  So what are some of the challenges you are experiencing with this?

Chief Clemo: Well I think I had always thought my career you know even after being through a both a Loma Prieta quake and 89 in Santa Cruz and then the 92 quake in Northridge, I’d hopefully get out of here before that occurred and hadn’t even given thought to the scope and complexity of this pandemic. And what I mean by that is an earthquake is typically very geographical and we can get help from the outside fairly easy. It may take a few days but we know that the Calvary is coming. Also it’s pretty easy to get your arms around the size and scope of that event within you know 48 to 72 hours. We have been so far in a five-week slow motion mass casualty incident with no necessary end in sight and an inability to get the kind of either equipment or assistance that might need moving forward since we’re all in it right now. And that has presented a number of different complexities that frankly we haven’t necessarily thought about or really paid attention to. And what I mean by that is for years we’ve written city disaster operations plans, we have a pandemic plan, but how many people really opened it and looked at it and thought about the reality of shutting an entire jurisdiction down and the kind of complexities and challenges that come with that. And it’s been an ongoing learning experience I think for all of us and any of us listening to this podcast right now who are sitting in the EOC’s probably can certainly understand and agree with that.

Kris Murphy: How do you possibly plan for something like closing down your jurisdiction and how do you how do you find enough resources to cover everything you need to cover? Chief Clemo: It’s like we  teach you at TEEX, when you don’t have a clear understanding of what’s going on your first step is try to gain as much situational awareness as you can. And in this case that’s come from multiple sources. One being the CDC and the other being our Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. And we’ve really relied heavily on their guidance and have grounded that guidance in emergency orders that have resulted in the closing of nearly every business, every restaurant, every bar, the closing of our beaches in all of LA County, the closing of our bike paths, our parks, closures of the schools. That guidance has really pushed us to make those decisions. In our opinion the way that you arrive at good solid decision making is to use the planning process which we’ve done every day and to take the discretionary time that we do have with this slow rolling incident to make good decisions as a city. For us initially when we got started, it took about a week to get our policy group situated and formalized with how they function and what their role is, as well as our EOC and are 15 DOC that we have stood up within the city and how they all fit into the larger organization and what their roles are. And when we got all those people in those different boxes and then put process behind it which again following the planning P it’s resulted in some pretty solid daily incident action plans moving forward. So that’s kind of how we’ve attacked this. I’d also note – and I’m sure is that some chief Castro could jump in on is the relationship that we have with fire departments in Southern California specifically region one and our LA area partners. We’ve leaned heavily on them we all have and have stood up a coordinated MAC for the LA region to help with sharing what we’ve learned, what’s working what’s not working. Literally have a live website for that, that we can access and then weekly conference calls and in some cases daily conference calls with our area A partners to assure that we’re sharing good information and we’re very consistent In the application of the emergency orders. And more importantly how we’re taking care of our public safety personnel in the event they get sick or just need a place to stay for the night cause they don’t want to take anything home to their families.

Kris Murphy: So Chief Castro try and give us the big picture of what Tom and his team are doing in the trenches, how is that impacting decisions that are happening at the City Hall level. I mean you’ve been in Tom’sposition and you’ve been at the City Hall position, tie it all kind of together how it’s working

Chief Castro: Well a couple things, one is that Tom brought up a very good point. In the all-risk Emergency Management environment, the challenges of how we handle any given it are usually based upon, he called it the size and scope, we also talked about the complexity the duration of an incident to the entire global community. And in reality it’s not nearly the sucker punch that a lot of people are playing it up to be. I’m gonna refer to a document a couple of different times, it’s called the pandemic influenza primer that was developed by the Governors Association of the country. It’s a national organization that aligns all the governors of the various states. And they have a summary of this document which is it’s called a pandemic influenza primer, they have a statement in the summary and it I’ll read it. It says once a pandemic happens we will divide forever the progress of our nation as pre-pandemic and post pandemic. When a pandemic occurs the impact of the disease will join the lexicon of nation changing incidents on a scale of the attacks of 9/11 and the 2005 hurricane season. That document is 14 years old. It’s available from the CDC website Any body can download it. It’s a 14-year document that if you were to download it read it today, you would accuse the composure of writing it yesterday. Meaning it is so eerily reminiscent of exactly what’s happening. And Tom brings up another super important point in that they have pandemic plans in Santa Monica. We built pandemic plans for the city of Los Angeles years ago but how many people review them how many people filled in the gaps? You know when we build these plans,  first of all they are hypotheses that they’re gonna work until it actually occurs. And one of the ways we run that hypothesis to ground is through full scale and training exercises, things like that, where we identify gaps. Frequently the gaps are equipment gaps, resource gaps, in this case mass sanitation things. We have cognitive operation plans that deal with employee absenteeism all of these things. And what happens and if I were to agree that we were sucker-punch to a certain extent, and I agree we are it’s because we’ve had practice sessions, we’ve had practice sessions with the avian flu, the swine flu, things like that which didn’t hit what they call the perfect storm for a pandemic event. And that basically is there’s really three things that have to occur and in varying degrees. One is obviously it has to be some type of human to human transmission. The pathogen has to be to a level that makes people sick some, of them don’t. And then thirdly it has to be something that’s easily transmitted by coughs, handshakes, sneezes like that. We have the perfect storm here and that we had all these occur. And now all sudden some of the gaps in each individual city state and a national level are occurring, and that we had plans in place but maybe we hadn’t run those plans to ground. Not an indictment. I’m saying that we weren’t neglectful because we all have. I guarantee if you were to look on Chief Clemon’s desk right now, there’s whole set of plans and threats that he had that keep him up every night. And there’s always that concern about how we’re going to spend our limited resources and our limited money that we have for planning and practicing on any given of a dozen significant threats. That’s a decision that each jurisdiction has to make on their own. So it’s really a tough problem and I think it’s made even certainly more complicated by the fact that it’s not something like Tom said it’s not an earthquake or a wildfire that we can segregate to a specific area of geography, this is a global pandemic. Everyone is kind of in the same dilemma, and therefore we can’t just reach over to a neighboring jurisdiction and get all the resources and stuff to help us out because they’re fighting the same fight. So it’s kind of a big complex issue that I agree completely with that quote that I mad that at the end of it we’re going to define our Emergency Management as how we were as a nation pre pandemic and post-pandemic. Now one of the things and getting back to your question Kris, at the at the City Hall level, it requires the absolute communication cooperation from the response people to the Emergency Management people all the way to the senior government officials. Namely in the form of public messaging and public outreach. We always have in any emergent crisis the need to inform the public as to what’s happening what the government is doing and what they can do to help us. And that’s third one, what they can do to help us is the critical part because it’s no longer the message just stay away from the incident and let us do our job, we are asking and requiring the public to embark on several specific mitigation processes and procedures that help flatten the curve and stop the spread of his disease and therefore the challenge on that cooperation balancing of the politics and the operations is absolutely critical to shelter.

Heather Crites: Chief Clemo, I think it’s safe to say that the LA County and Santa Monica are resource-rich. What guidance do you have first for some of those jurisdictions that aren’t quite as resource-rich. Chief Clemo: Well it’s interesting that you say that because despite being you know in a location in the United States that within 30 minutes we can just put an army of resources on the scene that because, and to Joe’s point about everybody’s in the same fight, we’ve all kind of put our arms around our resources and unless it’s a really critical incident we’re not going to loan them out. Some of the  discussions we’ve been having relative to that as we approach fire season and specifically in Northern California when we head that direction, what is mutual aid  going to look like when we’re reluctan tto send anybody out. One we don’t want to send them out to go get sick in a camp somewhere on an incident. Two we don’t want to send them out because of what if we start getting sick here and we move into an alternative staffing pattern that we’ve developed. But we haven’t had to exercise mutual aid system yet and that is a larger concern that we have. To those organizations and agencies and I’m sure we’ve all had opportunities where folks have reached out looking for some, help if you find yourself resource poor it doesn’t mean that your knowledge poor. There’s a tremendous amount of information plans and resources guidance available online today, that you know even 40, 50 years ago we didn’t have access to. And I think you could put yourself in a really good position with a limited team to try to put some thought into what would we do if. And that what would we do if includes, at least in our books, two major emergencies that we’re trying to manage at the same time. Number one is the COVID crisis cause we all know it, and number two is the ongoing and for many organizations catastrophic financial impact that will be felt regardless of location in this country. We’re seeing that right now fairly dramatic in our current circumstance and it’s created almost two separate incident management teams to not only manage COVID but to manage the financial impacts of COVID and what a city services look like with the type of financial crisis that we’re finding ourselves in. And I don’t think this is germane to anyone out there. I think it’s just hit some cities faster than others but it is a substantial reality that is going to kind of take us a few years to kind of figure all of this out and recover from that.

Kris Murphy: I was talking to a commander today in South Florida. He was a participant in the MGT 314 class back in February and he said kind of to your point Tom what they’re struggling with now they’re going through this crisis while they’re getting ready for hurricane season.

Chief Clemo: Yeah it’s funny enough it’s come up today as we watched video of some tornadoes that hit our country last night yesterday is, OK what are we going to do if we now have that earthquake we’ve been talking about or the wind driven brush fire although thank God we’re not in that exact window for Southern California right now, but what does incident management, complex incident management look like during a pandemic? There’s discussions at the federal level in fact three of the area command teams are now activated and they are working on that exact question. If we have to stand up a three thousand, four thousand person camp somewhere for that campaign wildfire that we traditionally have a few times a year,how can we keep everybody from getting sick in an environment that is really created to breed illness. If you think about it that close proximity of camp, the way that we set camps up the way that we work on incidents. It’s almost impossible to socially distance. How is incident management going to look like post COVID as post pandemic as Joe alluded to. It’s pretty interesting because it’s not going to be oh what if it’s really a win at this point.

Kris Murphy: Chief Castro I see a new case study in your future perhaps

Chief Castro: Well this one would be a big one just because it’s not it’s not one jurisdiction it’s fighting it. So there’s even though there is the attempt to kind of correlate response and strategies.Because one of the things if you think about it you know we mentioned the landscape style challenge of this incident, meaning it see it’s throughout the country in the world for all that matter, but another part of it is that if the strategies aren’t aligned with your neighbors then that has a negative effect on your ability to handle it. Meaning if we have implemented social distancing but the neighboring County or the  neighboring state doesn’t employ those same tactics to flatten the curve, obviously we have open borders with state to state then that brings people that are infected into your neighborhood and I think that’s what you’re going to start seeing. In fact recently I don’t know Tom if you’ve seen it yet but I heard there’s a document that is at least implementing some type of Western State philosophy so that collected decisions are made about, as we move hopefully within the next several weeks into a post pandemic phase in the recovery phase of making decisions that are at least complimentary to the neighboring jurisdictions and how important that is.

Kris Murphy: So both of you gentlemen are part of our instructor cadre here at the EOTC. You’re both two of our rock stars in the MGT 314 program. Give us some of your thoughts on how that training and the thousands literally of first responders from around the country who have participated in it, how it has prepared them for this moment

Chief Clemo: Great question Chris and appreciate the Compliment. Really we find ourselves amongst rock stars when we’re out there teaching and we often say we learn as much from the class as we teach from it. You know our jurisdiction has been very fortunate to place several individuals through that program. To have it be real and then to fall back on the basics that we teach you at TEEX and then implement it, I’ve had multiple people that have been through the program come up to me over the past five weeks just say hey thanks for getting me into that class thanks for sharing that. We’re plugged into it thanks to Kris and Heather and the team out there because it really has mattered and it’s made a substantial impact in what we’re doing here today. And at the same time once this thing is all over I think there’s going to be some really good lessons learned. For example we’ve altered the planning process to kind of fit within some of the city process and what I mean by that is just the timing of it not the sequence but just the timing and that’s completely appropriate based on kind of the slow roll of this pandemic. A wind-driven brushfire we’re at 12 our operational periods are 24 our operational periods our active shooter events we’re at 4 our operational periods this one where as a seven-day operational  period but moving through the planning process five days a week for two reasons. One to assure the objectives we established are validated and we’re executing and resourcing appropriately daily and two, frankly you’re working so many people so many hours we’re trying to give them a break on the  weekends if possible and move to a duty officer status and I’ve seen several EOTC’s do that around here. There’s going to be some stuff that comes out of this that will be helpful at the national level in terms of how we manage long term national incident of this sort.

Chief  Castro:I couldn’t agree more with Tom there in than that from the people that are out there managing the day-to-day tactics certainly the process that they learned in 314, is a tried-and-true process that’s going to allow them to ultimately come to the best informed decisions in this case those decisions can have a direct impact on saving lives. The other thing is that I think the challenge of this is it’s taking that incident management process that we teach in 314 and how does that overlay with all of the other emergency management concepts meeting. You know for years that hey yeah go ahead and use this 314 processes incident management planning process to help you but now how are you going to be able to do that and how is it going to affect your decisions when you’re dealing with profound absenteeism. In this case all bets are off as far as the old way of doing business and you have to understand the necessity correlating multiple plans and multiple stakeholders it’s not so much only driven now by by the life safety filter and our decision process the, political will comes in huge at this time. But again the process of staying true to the incident objective you’ve established after developing situational awareness is something that I was in everybody is using with great benefit right now.

Kris Murphy:  I’ve heard from several of our participants and their cities or counties have instituted virtual EOCs where people are at their homes and they’re trying to operate the EOC from different locations what are your thoughts on that?

Chief Clemo: I think that’s a great question. It is been difficult to do when you’re not face-to-face around the table at command a general staff or the planning meeting or and you’re relying on conference calls or video conferences has been very challenging. But it can be done. The consequences are too dire to not try it. So if you know one of us was sick or brought something into that EOC and you took out that team that would have enormous consequences for our city. For folks that are going through this to think about is one developed two or three teams you have the best training opportunity in the world right now bringing somebody into an EOC with a daily planning process for one week is the best training that they’re going to get next to TEEX. Tf they’re going through the process and develop teams and rotate your teams you’ve just developed much more bench strength moving forward you’ve developed a plan B and maybe a plan C in the event somebody does get sick. It’s better for your community in the long run from a resiliency perspective because now you have a pretty good team that’s been through it and knows what’s expected of them and what they need to do should should the bell go off again.

Hether Crites: You’re currently working in an emergency operation center and we’ve referred to the planning process quite a bit throughout this call can you tell us how those processes are similar at the EOC and the ICP. Chief Clemo : Really the process is the same and right up to you know defining the tactical actions that are going in the field. I know commonly when EOC’s are stood up they’re managing often multiple ICPs that are either in a fixed facility or out of the back of a suburban somewhere and in this case you’re standing up an EOC with business as usual to some extent that’s in the field we don’t have buildings that are falling over or freeway overpasses that have collapsed, but we’re managing a ton of information. And that information is translating into tactical action in the Field. And it’s still appropriate for that EOC to manage some of that tactical action to a point. And we have established trigger points of when that tactical action gets managed out of an incident command post and then we just support that give an incident. Right now we’re in a really good space. I’ll give you an example. Our hospitals we monitor electronically their bed status we know when there being hit with influxes of patients and we anticipate a wave to land on our beach at some point fairly soon and as that starts to occur we know that we’re going to shift tactical focus to those hospitals to support them better and that might be managed off-site in an incident command post yet supported by the EOC. Because there are many of the other things that are coming up that we need to support. So for today if you looked at our planning process and our meeting schedule it is right out of a normal 24 hour operational period, it’s the way it’s built and we go right through the planning P and have been in that cycle since the 13th. Where that might change again as if our tactical needs started to grow and we had to decentralized and move it into ICP then supported by the EOC.

Chief Castro:  It was kind of ironic about that tom is that our ECS have served as a support function for the ICP, but here what we don’t have that a clearly defined impact point of an incident. A lot of the rest of the country’s EOCs often function almost in a hybrid sense of a little bit of EOC as far as the information gathering but a little bit of an ICP as far as the tactical deployment of resources also it kind of sounds like that’s what you’re doing right now.

Chief Clemo: It is it’s a little odd because for years we haven’t really taught that because many of the incidents the EOCs are opened for our geographic points on a map not necessarily the entire map and because of the speed of it even though it may seem that it’s gone fast we’ve had plenty of discretionary time to kind of work through some of the tactical challenges and maintain them in our shop under operations, but fully prepared that if we needed to we could separate that out and manage it like we would in that landscape type event that we’ve all trained for the earthquakes the hurricanes the fires and the floods that we see nationally.

Kris Murphy: Alright guys what are a couple finalwords of wisdom you have for people out there?

Chief Clemo: I’ll throw out a thought and Joe’s probably got some real wisdom to this but I know just ersonally taking some time to really think about the bigger picture and the impact and trying to get ahead of it and plan for that and finding a core group of people that you trust whether they work in your organization or outside of your organization where you can pick up the phone and bounce some  questions off of them. Because there might be a pandemic plan but may have failed to mention there’s just some of the enormous human resource complexity associated with not only the stress of closing everything down but now the job stress and the threats that are out there in the next three six nine months from now and what that might look like. I know my career I haven’t had to deal with that’s something that requires a lot of thought it requires a lot of planning and requires this you know almost an ability to look in the crystal ball and try to make really good decisions now knowing that they’re going to have tremendous impacts several years from now.

Chief Castro: And I’ll chime right in on that and kind of focus on the aftermath. I think one of the only benefits we’ve had in terms of this particular pathogen is that it’s not extremely deadly when the final numbers end up vetting out you know we may be dealing with the 2% mortality rate of people to catch disease the Bird flue had about a 50% fatality and I think we all could agree it would be a drastically different incident if this particular pandemic a higher level of mortality. I think he would see widespread lawlessness we would see a variety of things that were not dealing with right now because it’s this is bad but it’s not it’s not crazy bad in terms of the mortality rate. I think when you’re gonna evaluate their response nationally it will require kind of an honest analysis of what we need to do and utilize this case that is a practice because I really think our lifetime it’s not going to be the last time we have to deal with this and to honestly  as nation responders you know acknowledge the novelty of this and then determine plans and methods to deal with it in the future. And that that’s what Emergency Response is all about.

Chief Clemo: You know to that point Joe there’s been quite a bit of conversation on some of the conference calls regionally about assuring that if you haven’t yet stand up a group within your EOC and I’m sure there’s plenty of folks out there that have got a few notes scribbled down of some things I’d like to see done a little bit differently or better and the sooner you can do that sooner you can get somebody behind it they can start putting that together I think the outcome of that is the death of Joe speaks to which is showing that next generation of leaders hey if this should happen in your tenure here are some things that you need to do to get you know to get it done well.

Heather Crites: I want to thank you both for taking the time to be with us today we appreciate you sharing your experiences and wisdom with us I also would like to thank all of the first responders for their dedication and countless hours to the response of the COVID-19 pandemic and to find all of TEEX online courses visit TEEX.ORG Thank you for listening to the disaster management podcast series brought to you by Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service and the National Emergency Response and recovery Training Center. If you have any questions or ideas for future episodes please contact [email protected]  Or visit, TEEX.ORG for information about training near you.