The fire service role in local emergency management

Understanding the role of the EOP, COG, COOP and other key documents to keep your agency operational


AP Photo/Butch Dill

For several years, FEMA has urged all citizens to take steps to prepare themselves and their families to be self-sufficient for the first 72 hours after a disaster, whether a tornado, snowstorm, wildfire or similar incident. As part of a good community risk reduction (CRR) program, the fire service has echoed this call for individual preparedness.

Now it is the fire service’s turn to plan and practice a higher degree of involvement in emergency management by preparing ourselves and our local government to be self-sufficient for that same 72 hours and beyond.

“Why us?,” you may ask.

First and foremost, the fire service is most familiar with some form of Incident Command System (ICS), dating back to the inception of FIRESCOPE, the National Incident Management System (NIMS), Blue Card or whatever you use every day on every call. We are the logical choice to apply that wealth of experience to disaster planning.

Prioritizing continuity of government

Over the past 18 months, our fire department has been working on several pieces that fit into an overall Continuity of Government (COG) Plan for our jurisdiction, not just for our department, but covering all the essential services. This process clearly puts the emergency management function into the purview of the fire service locally.

Our process has taken longer than expected, due in part to the interruptions that occurred while dealing with COVID-19, yet some of our pandemic experience has helped shape the eventual final drafts of these essential plans.

In late 2019, we started to review and revise our Township’s existing Emergency Operations Plan (EOP), which dated back nearly a decade. That was before the more recent trend by FEMA through local county emergency management agencies (EMA) to request that jurisdictions develop a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP). If you are starting from scratch, I would suggest starting with the COOP, as it serves as an easier entry point.

Drafting a COOP

You may think the differences are subtle between a COOP and an EOP, but the COOP concentrates on the needs of continuing essential services and the personnel, usually three-deep at the key positions, by prioritizing those services utilizing the existing resources and personnel within your jurisdiction.

For example, in the case of a fire department, those services (fire suppression, EMS and rescue) would undoubtedly be labeled “Immediate,” that is, an essential function that must be continued without interruption during the first 12 hours of an incident.

The damage assessment to the community may become a function of the fire department and other agencies, such as Public Works, but could be deemed “Necessary,” that is, a function that can be initiated with the first 12-72-hour time period from the inception of the incident, depending on the demand for essential service and the resources available.

Training or CRR programs may be relegated to “Postponed,” to be resumed within the next 30 days or so when hopefully the locale is somewhat back to normal.

In addition to identifying essential service priorities, the COOP also addresses who, by either name or position (i.e., fire chief) has the primary responsibility to implement or defer these service deliveries. Each critical personnel position, such as the city manager, finance director or fire chief is suggested to be “three-deep,” that is, to have a primary responsible person and at least two others (i.e., an assistant chief or other fire officer).

Finally, the COOP addresses where an alternative seat of government would reside should the Administration Building or City Hall be damaged to the point of needing to be unoccupied or perhaps left without power. That alternative seat of government could be designated as a school, community center or fire station, etc., but needs to be identified ahead of time.

Devising an EOP

The EOP is a much more detailed plan that outlines additional responsibilities for a department, such as what resources are needed to do a mass evacuation of any area (i.e., the notification to the public, transportation, a designated site with adequate space for sleeping, eating, restrooms and showers), as well as the predetermined Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreements with each of those entities, schools, bus service, alerting systems, etc., that can initiate the service need as a priority and without hesitation.

The EOP details the roles and responsibilities of each department or division of government – plus backups. One example: Following a weather-related disaster, debris removal might fall to the Public Works department but overtax their other responsibilities, such as keeping roadways safe for passage. In that case, an agreement with a local heavy equipment dealer for both dump trucks and crews might be necessary to have in place.

Locating the Emergency Operations Center

To match the service requests, it is almost a necessity to have some form of an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) within a community. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Ours is located in a training room at the Administration Building. It is both secured and transportable to another location if the Administration Building is damaged. For example, we use the existing desks in the training room but rearrange them into a more functional use of the space for the EOC. This facility also gives us access to a small kitchen area and restrooms.

This EOC is designed around the functions and equipment needed to sustain local government operations for a set period of time, especially if our county EMA is overwhelmed by a more widespread disaster in the first 72 hours.

The equipment consists of additional radios for fire, police and public works communications; reliable internet and cell phone access; as well as computers and printers, pre-loaded with the appropriate FEMA forms for the functions of Command, Operations, Planning, Logistics, Finance, Public Information Officer, and a Liaison for coordination with other local and state agencies.

Based on our experience with COVID-19 that brought about work-from-home opportunities as a way to alleviate interactions among key government personnel, several functions of government can also work remotely assisting with the needs of the EOC if travel were to become an issue.

Before you believe this is an extravagance you can’t afford, we’ve invested less than $ 20,000 in this concept primarily because we designed it to fit into an easily convertible space.

Underscoring the all-hazards nature of the job

If you take the summation of the COOP, the more detailed EOP and an EOC, you have the components for the continuity of government within your local government.

In these uncertain times, the reassurance this brings to your first responders, local government officials, and to your citizens is one that says the fire department is truly an all-hazards response team in difficult times.

Stay safe!

Editor’s note: What questions do you have about developing a continuity plan? Share in the comments below.

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.

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