Palo Alto activates Emergency Operations Center to control COVID-19. What does it do?

Rebecca Williamson

Brandon Wu, Staff Writer

In response to the outbreak of COVID-19, Palo Alto, among many other cities around the United States, has opened its Emergency Operations Center, located in a basement below its Police Department Headquarters.

An EOC acts as a control facility responsible for emergency preparedness and management. Representatives from diverse organizations are brought together in the EOC to share ideas and analyze critical information in order to provide situational awareness for citizens.

According to Palo Alto’s Emergency Operations Plan, “The City of Palo Alto EOC provides a centralized location where emergency management coordination and decision making can be supported during a critical incident, major emergency, or disaster. When activated, the EOC provides support for a number of critical tasks related to communications, coordination, resource management, and executive leadership.”

The plan has the capability to correlate the responses between a broad range of internal and external stakeholders, consisting of field personnel, incident commanders, department operation centers, response partners, infrastructure and key resources, and outside agencies, and aims to fulfill the 15 emergency support functions during a disaster.

These are:

  • transportation
  • communications
  • public works and engineering
  • firefighting
  • emergency management
  • mass care, housing and human services
  • resource support
  • public health and medical services
  • urban search and rescue
  • oil and hazardous materials response
  • agriculture and natural resources
  • energy
  • public safety and security
  • long-term community recovery
  • external affairs

Although activation for Palo Alto has just opened, the city has already begun following county orders for sheltering and social distancing in preparation for the coming weeks. Additionally, citizens will have access to a community support call center to request assistance and receive answers during the lockdown.

“These new actions seek to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our community, enhance customer service and maintain essential services,” said Palo Alto’s city manager Ed Shikada in a statement. “Activating our emergency operations center will focus coordination with community and business strategic partners, help our staff teams continue to provide essential services, and continue our coordinated public safety response because of the heightened public health emergency we are all facing.”

For Palo Alto, there are three levels of activation.

In Level One, there is minimum activation, and EOC members would only monitor certain events or incidents. Warnings and observation for terrorism and natural disasters are part of this category.

In Level Two, a partial activation would require certain EOC positions to handle the situation effectively. Local emergencies such as oil spills and land fires classify in Level Two.

In Level Three, a wide-range emergency would require full activation of all EOC positions. These include major public safety incidents such as catastrophic natural disasters and widespread diseases.

A county, state, and the national government also each operate their own EOC, each utilizing its own activation rules. For example, the national EOC ranks the severity in reverse, from three to one.

Since Palo Alto has only recently announced activation, its current level has not yet been specified. However, COVID-19 is a pandemic, so should it be Level One at national level activation?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national EOC has activated only four level-ones to date in response to the crises caused by: Hurricane Katrina, the H1N1 influenza outbreak, the Ebola outbreak, and the Zika virus.

Professor Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, makes a case for COVID-19 to join the list. 

“This is much, much worse than Ebola. Ebola requires very close contact for transmission,” Piot said in a Sky News interview.  “It’s very infectious because there’s so much virus in your throat. So this is literally something you can catch by talking to somebody, which is not the case with other viruses.”

While COVID-19 is likely to become the fifth Level One activation of the EOC at a national level, some leaders have already recognized the issue, taking action to significant measures. Entire states such as Wisconsin, Florida and Washington, have activated their highest level in response, leading the way for disease containment before it becomes absolutely necessary in the future.