Inside Harris County’s EOC

When disaster strikes, Harris County’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management springs into action.

Although the public may recognize them best for pushing hurricane preparedness kits and catchy slogans like “turn around, don’t drown” on, the office does much more.

The team of 44, led by Mark Sloan, the emergency management coordinator, plans and organizes responses for disasters like chemical spills, droughts, floods, hurricanes, and pandemics.

“My role is to make sure the appropriate partners for the event are brought together so they can put their operational plan together to react, respond, and recover,” said Sloan. “So if it’s a flood, hurricane, fire, hazmat incident, terrorist incident, pandemic — it’s all the same structure. The partners just may change.”

During disasters, partners from across the region report to Harris County’s Office of Emergency Management to operate as one unit under an incident commander, the person leading the response. The helpers – which may include private companies, nonprofits, first responders, law enforcement, and government employees at all levels of government – provide whatever the incident commander needs.

Organizations like Harris County Precinct 4 may offer equipment and staff to clear roadways of debris after a windstorm or flood. Other partners like the Harris County Flood Control District may provide information about the local waterways during floods.

“When law enforcement comes in, they are tactics, so they are in the field dealing with an incident,” said Sloan. “It could be traffic management. It could be perimeter control or other law enforcement duties. For fire, it’s the same thing. Our county commissioners’ offices play a role in operations. When we have a flood event, we may call them for barricades or sand trucks if we have a HazMat incident.”

The structure goes back to 1968, when a lack of coordination and planning led to worsening wildfires in California and Arizona. After proving useful in the field, the system was eventually incorporated into the National Incident Management System and adopted by the Department of Homeland Security in 2004 and by Harris County in 2005.

Harris County’s emergency management team now responds to dozens of incidents per year, some of which require hundreds of partners.

Much of this work takes place inside a state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at Houston TranStar, a 30,000-square foot multiagency facility in Houston. Redesigned in 2014, the center spans 4,400 square feet, with seating for 98.

“We have one of the most advanced and unique emergency operations centers in the country,” said Sloan. “FEMA has been here. NASA looked at our design and took some of our ideas when they rebuilt part of NASA.”

The redesign came after operations staff outgrew their old facility. While designing the facility, Sloan took a tour of operations centers across the country and borrowed some of the top features. He also made some notable changes.

“We went throughout the country and asked people not what they did for their emergency operations center but what they would not do again,” said Sloan. “What we found out is that people would try to save money and build an EOC with a 10-year lifecycle, but just because of technology advancements and use, it had a five-year lifecycle.”

Sloan invested in better seating, lighting, and equipment. The operations center still works like new six years in, he said.

Most importantly, the redesigned center gave partners more space. As the third-largest county in the country, Harris County often faces disasters requiring 500 or more partners in one room.

Francisco Sanchez, the deputy emergency management coordinator, helped lead responses for the past five significant disasters. Those incidents solidified his belief that having the right people in the operations center is the key to success.

“The most critical thing about the EOC is the people who are in it,” said Sanchez. “If someone is going to sit in that chair, they need the capability to make decisions on behalf of their organization. Disasters move at a quick pace, so we need people there who can make decisions. They’re collaborative, and they understand the bigger picture. Despite everything we do, that’s what’s most important for the success of our organization.”