Responding to All Hazards: The work of the State Emergency Response Team

Building with statue in front of it at dusk
Friday, July 31, 2020 - 7:55am

Tucked away off Blue Ridge Road in Raleigh in the same secure facility as the NC National Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters is the North Carolina State Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Many members of the NC Emergency Management (NCEM) team work here daily, but in times of emergency or during disasters, this building is transformed into an operational war center of state and federal agencies, nonprofit relief organizations, faith-based organizations and some private sector companies. Known as the State Emergency Response Team (SERT), these partners work to protect the people of North Carolina under the command of the SERT leader, NCEM Director Mike Sprayberry. 

The State EOC is partially or fully activated to one of five activation levels depending on the magnitude of an event. Level 1, the highest, requires a full activation within 24 hours and continued involvement of all SERT members after the event. At Level 5, staff is conducting normal jobs and day-to-day activities. Throughout the spring and summer of 2020, the State EOC has been activated at a Level 3 for the COVID-19 pandemic response.

The only glimpse inside the State EOC that the people of North Carolina routinely see is the shot of the media room podium during press briefings. This blog will take you behind the scenes of North Carolina’s emergency operations center.

Operations

This section coordinates all emergency services teams within North Carolina as well as those who may be assisting during an emergency from other states (28 other states sent help during Hurricane Florence). The Human Services group within this section works with counties to set up shelters and develop feeding plans to address the needs of residents. Disasters can affect the infrastructure of the state, so team members also monitor natural hazards that affect power, transportation and communications and work with partners to find a resolution. 

Logistics

Emergencies create the need for operational necessities and even life-saving supplies. The Logistics team is responsible for getting the people and resources necessary for a targeted or statewide emergency response. Hundreds of resource requests can come in during an emergency and the logistics team fulfills them through warehouse operations, or by purchasing necessities through state-approved vendors. Experienced procurement specialists work to fill urgent needs for specific requests like oxygen tanks, generators or, especially this year, personal protective equipment. 

“Every response comes with its challenges,” said NC Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry. “During a hurricane we pull in swift water as well as search and rescue teams and provide shelter and food to feed those in affected areas.”

The COVID-19 response has involved procuring, delivering and stockpiling PPE for everyone from hospital staff to long-term care facilities, schools staff and students, farmworkers and elections workers. 
 
“We recognized early on that this was going to be an incredible challenge, but were able to develop a plan to pivot and push out supplies as soon as they were delivered,” said Sprayberry. “This has been a team effort by everyone including our DHHS, National Guard and Civil Air Patrol partners.” 

During past emergencies, staging areas were set up to make it easier to store commodities and move them quickly to those in need. The logistics team supports staff in the field by helping them find lodging, (meals?) and transportation to make their jobs easier. 

Information and Planning

The Planning Section is responsible for collecting, formatting, archiving and distributing emergency and disaster information. This section documents SERT activities daily in situation reports and executive summaries and is responsible for short-term (24-hour) planning of statewide SERT activities during emergencies and disasters. Various teams within this section collect, analyze, format, distribute and archive data that advise the SERT Leader and support SERT operations throughout and even after activation. The meteorologists assigned to this section provide timely, tailored weather support to inform decision making.

Joint Information Center

Not only do members of the SERT receive and compile information on emergencies from across the state, but part of the team must distribute important emergency information to the public and news media. Joint Information Center staff share information via posting to social media, publishing news releases, updating web pages, supporting press briefings and responding to media calls in order to make sure information is shared quickly and, most important, accurately. 

During COVID-19 much of this work is being done virtually and is supported with daily conference calls. Press briefings are being conducted virtually as well using a dial-in conference line and a pool camera that feeds the broadcast live to television and radio stations across the state, and online and via social media to the public. 

Risk Management

North Carolina is subject to numerous natural hazards that pose risks to public health and safety, the environment, property and the economy. It is vital that the Risk Management Division provide preparedness planning and tools to help individuals, organizations and local governments be ready if disaster strikes. Each risk management plan focuses on specific tools to identify hazards and vulnerabilities, analyze consequences and develop risk management strategies for facilities. 

Flooding tools that are housed under the Risk Management section include floodplain mapping and management, the Flood Risk Information System (FRIS) and the NC Flood Inundation Mapping and Alert Network (FIMAN) that allow users to access important data about potential flood risks. This section also houses the NC Geodetic Survey and the State Emergency Response Application (SERA). The Geodetic Survey aids land surveyors, engineers, planners, instructors and students by using computer-based projections to calculate the impact of rising water on structures. SERA, a statewide initiative between NCEM, the NC Center for Safer Schools and the Department of Public Instruction, provides data, tools and applications to assist school officials, law enforcement officers, first responders and emergency managers in preparing for and responding to hazards and threats at North Carolina schools. 

Business EOC

The mission of the Business EOC (BEOC) is to provide situational awareness and information-sharing to the private sector during times of disaster. Private sector partners are incorporated into the SERT and capitalize on shared information in the response, recovery, preparation and mitigation phases of state emergency management. The BEOC has grown from 200 to more than 800 private sector partners since its establishment in 2014, which range across 10 sectors of business and industry. After a disaster, the BEOC’s primary interest is to support the speedy resumption of normal business operations so that state communities can stabilize, recover and thrive. 

“What we have is a true partnership,” said BEOC Coordinator Persia Payne-Hurley. “During emergencies we receive valuable insights from our association partners and collaborate with them to find solutions for urgent needs. For the COVID-19 pandemic, private partners have supported NC Food Banks with donated or borrowed refrigeration trailers for cold food storage and state operations with dry trailer storage for med supplies.”

Fun Fact: The NC BEOC is the first and only operational Business EOC in the nation that directly supports counties through resource requests coordinated through the private sector. FEMA has named the BEOC a national model.

Federal Partners

Recovering from disasters takes time and resources and sometimes federal assistance is needed to support response and recovery efforts. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can provide recovery specialists that assist local and state departments with navigating the road to recovery. 

Depending on the type of disaster, the governor can activate members of the NC National Guard to assist with a variety of duties. These can range from rescue missions to commodity distribution to supporting life-sustaining community work. The Always Ready, Ready Team of the North Carolina National Guard is prepared to face whatever challenge lies ahead.

No matter what emergency or disaster happens upon the state of North Carolina, the SERT is prepared to meet the challenge.

Effective disaster response and recovery, take a team effort and true partnerships. Director Mike Sprayberry has a saying that is spoken often within the EOC that rings true: “One team, one mission.” No matter what emergency happens or what state agencies are working within the walls of the EOC, the mission to protect the people of North Carolina never waivers.
 

Author: 
Kirsten Barber
Brian Haines