By contrast, dealing with an emergency like a fire or a flood seems almost simple. Those are one-time events, well-defined in space and time. Once tamed, they’re over and done with.
Not so a global pandemic.
“COVID-19 is a weird one, a slow-burning emergency,” says Fabrice Labeau, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning), and planning chief for McGill’s Emergency Operations Centre (EOC). “It’s a crisis that touches absolutely everybody at the University, every area, domain, every place in the University.”
Since January, Labeau and his EOC colleagues have been planning constantly for an ever-evolving situation that has no detailed playbook to follow. While no one had seen a crisis quite like the coronavirus pandemic, McGill’s scalable emergency management framework – of which the EOC is a key component – has proven admirably adaptable to and resilient within the current context.
Incident Command System
“Small e” emergencies regularly happen at any university the size of McGill. Incidents such as burst washroom pipes or small chemical spills in a lab are generally easily isolated and controlled by Facilities, or Campus Public Safety, through standard procedures.
It is when an emergency scales up, or shows the potential to, that the Incident Command System (ICS) is activated. McGill adheres to the ICS framework to manage its response. This applies to elements such as organization at the site of the incident, evaluation and planning, and recovery activities and works by combining the operations of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures, and communications within a common, agile organizational structure. Originally inspired by U.S. Navy management practices and developed for response to catastrophic wildfires in the 1970s, ICS is used today around the world by governments, universities, fire departments, police departments, and countless large organizations.
Three distinct groups are activated in big emergencies: Incident Command (IC), Policy Group (PG) and the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC).
The IC team provides tactical interventions on the scene of an incident. During the McIntyre Medical Building fire in July 2018, the IC team was on site, coordinating with first responders, securing the area and wrangling media. In the current pandemic response, IC has operationalized essential developments such as safe teaching and study hubs, new signage across campus, and new building access categories.
On the other end of the emergency management spectrum, the Policy Group (PG), comprising members of McGill’s most senior administration, is tasked with making the high-impact decisions relating to the emergency, such as the cancellation of classes.
Critical middle player
The crucial middle player between Incident Command and the Policy Group is the EOC.
In traditional emergencies, EOC refers not so much to the participants, but to the physical gathering location for coordination. EOC receives ground reports from Incident Command, and in turn, takes action to procure all the necessary resources for the on-site team, whether it’s protective gear, equipment or personnel.
The EOC also provides strategic direction for the response, enacts Policy Group’s decisions, and coordinates communications. This can take the form of the updates from EOC planning chief Prof. Labeau that the McGill community has come to expect as well as coordination work with a wide range of stakeholders and working groups.
“So, the EOC is plugged there, right in the middle, typically one of the most active parts of the emergency system,” says Labeau.
The EOC across time
Before campus lockdown required most meetings to go virtual, a typical activation would see all members assemble in designated spots around the EOC table, each wearing a coloured vest symbolizing their functional roles within the EOC and area of expertise:
- Green: EOC Director
- Red: Information Officer & Social Media Officer (i.e. Communications), as well as Risk/Legal Officer
- Orange: Operations Section
- Blue: Planning Section
- Yellow: Logistics Section
- White: All Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)
- Black: EOC Coordination
EOC members are selected based on area of expertise, together with the applicable knowledge, skills and abilities they possess that are needed for the emergency at hand. For example, as Director of Campus Public Safety, Pierre Barbarie’s extensive experience in emergency response gives him the necessary skills and experience to serve as EOC Director for this Covid-19 response. Labeau serves as Planning Chief drawing on his breadth of experience as an academic and administrator, which equip him for planning.
Today, Labeau, and Barbarie, are joined at the virtual table by representatives from key units across the University. Subject matter experts are brought in as needed, including from services such as Human Resources, IT, Teaching and Learning Services or Student Housing and Hospitality, or from the academic faculties.
Other EOC members have come and gone over the years, as their roles and emergency requirements have changed. All core ICS responders receive regular training and, additionally, dozens of employees across the University have been trained over the years since McGill adoped the system, to bolster emergency readiness.
A mobilization like no other
There is no set time for how long an EOC mobilization will last. When high winds forced the evacuation of the Convocation tent in 2014, the EOC was activated for a few hours. During the 2018 McIntyre fire, mobilization lasted for three weeks as crews wrestled with extensive water and smoke damage.
Currently clocking in at over seven months, EOC’s COVID activation is by far the longest. For weeks, EOC members spent 12-hour days nailing down every aspect necessary to protect the community and preserve the University’s mission. As of mid-September, the EOC had convened well over 130 times, almost daily since the initial lockdown.
“This is very different,” reflects Sarah Delisle, McGill’s Senior Advisor, Emergency Management & Preparedness and EOC Coordinator. “This didn’t start with an outbreak on campus, but we ended up dealing with an emergency situation that has impacted all areas of university activity.” Delisle brings to the table a wealth of experience in disaster response and planning for public institutions, including as Recovery Coordinator following 2016’s devastating wildfires in Fort McMurray.
A team effort
Through floods and fires, ice storms and pandemics, when offices empty and the lights go off, the EOC stands watch, working behind the scenes to keep our community safe.
While providing critical leadership, it is part of a much larger University-wide effort that relies upon the entire community for its success.
“There are so many people beyond the EOC structure that make this and all major emergency responses at McGill possible. From partners in the faculties, to colleagues in administrative units, and our boots-on-the-ground Incident Command folks in Facilities and Campus Public Safety, this really is a team effort,” says Delisle. They deserve recognition “for everything they have done and continue to do.”
I had a few experiences working on EOC before I retired and I can say that it is an effective system in getting the right people involved. IMHO, if the EOC approach was used by governments to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic we might be in a better position than we are now.