A Proven Method for Public-Private Virtual Collaboration

During a disaster, private sector companies may not have access to valuable public sector resources and information. Some government agencies, though, are building online portals that provide businesses with situational awareness, such as real-time weather forecasts, road closures, and emergency alerts, as well as a chat room to increase public-private collaboration and private sector resilience.

The ability of businesses to prepare for, maintain operations during, and recover from disasters and emergencies is vital to the safety and well being of the public. Private sector preparedness also is fundamentally aligned with the mission of many emergency management agencies: to help ensure community members have access to resources and services during incidents and to collaborate and build preparedness with stakeholder groups, including those outside government. Emergency management agencies can accomplish this in many ways. The Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) focuses on providing training, hosting regular meetings, issuing alerts, and building relationships with the private sector. Many of the aforementioned activities contribute to the goal of including businesses in emergency management and are similar to tactics used to engage government agencies outside the homeland security and emergency management discipline.

Still, risk managers and continuity experts in the private sector may not have much time to commit to traditional, scheduled meetings and conference calls, especially during crises that distress their companies. For this reason, MEMA has developed an asynchronous platform using commercially available technology to create a virtual business operations center (VBOC). Members of MEMA’s Private Sector Integration Program (PSIP), who are private sector employees with responsibility for their business’ emergency preparedness, can access the VBOC at any time during a disaster for situational awareness, incident-specific documents, and access to government officials staffing the state emergency operations center (SEOC).

Engaging & Integrating Businesses MEMA started PSIP to engage and collaborate with companies operating in Maryland. The mission of PSIP is to increase communication between government and business sectors during normal operations, and leverage these established partnerships to increase information exchange during emergencies and disasters. PSIP is a continuous effort and the program includes ongoing engagement with members and specific operations during emergency activations. During such activations, PSIP uses three components to integrate businesses into state emergency operations: (1) the Business Operations Center (BOC), which includes the VBOC; (2) Operational and Situational Preparedness for Responding to an Emergency (OSPREY) Business, a geographic information system tool that maps business locations and their operating status; and (3) the BOC representative program, which allows vetted PSIP members to assist in the staffing of the BOC desk in the SEOC.

The BOC is responsible for providing businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and trade associations with situational awareness and for coordinating government agencies to help solve issues affecting these stakeholders during emergencies. The goal is to provide PSIP members with information appropriate to the private sector in order to assist them in making decisions regarding business operations and continuity. The BOC is a physical location within Maryland’s SEOC.

One of the key factors contributing to the success of PSIP ‚Äď and likely an important characteristic for any emergency management program that incorporates the private sector ‚Äď is that the majority of situational awareness products, information, and interaction are accessed asynchronously. PSIP members can log into the VBOC at any time, as opposed to establishing set times to distribute information or convene conference calls.

Emergency management, homeland security, and related agencies that would like to establish an effective private sector preparedness program may want to consider developing an online or virtual method for collaborating with and providing information to businesses during disaster or emergency operations. MEMA has accomplished this by establishing the VBOC and operationalizing this system during emergency operations center activations for threats or hazards that could potentially impact businesses throughout the state.

Components of a Virtual Business Operations Center The MEMA VBOC is hosted on the Homeland Security Information Network Adobe Connect platform and is a trusted method for sharing sensitive but unified information with PSIP members. The purpose of activating the VBOC is to give businesses the ability to pull real-time information during an emergency so they can make informed decisions related to business operations and continuity. Much of the information provided, such as situation reports, live traffic cameras, and real-time radar, are sources typically used by government response agencies, and that may not be easily accessible to private companies. All members of PSIP have access to the interactive, online VBOC as soon as it is activated by MEMA.

MEMA’s collaborative virtual operations center for the private sector includes a variety of information, components, and screens that are useful to businesses, including the following:

  • File-sharing database. A database that can store important documents issued by government is useful because it allows businesses to enter the VBOC and download the files at their convenience. Such documents have included situational reports, weather forecasts, and press releases. In addition to files from the SEOC, private sector members are able to post information to the database.

  • Chat room. A chat feature is important to an asynchronous operation because it allows businesses to post questions, concerns, or feedback at any time without necessitating that the user wait for a response. Posts and answers are saved in the chat room so that other users entering the VBOC later may see previous posts, questions, and answers.

  • Live traffic maps, highway cameras, and collision reports. One advantage to the Maryland VBOC, which uses multiple data sources and screens, is that it becomes a single site with pertinent information for businesses‚Äô decision making. Though traffic congestion maps may be readily accessible, these maps, in conjunction with live-streaming traffic cameras and collision reports, provide an easy way for businesses toentify transportation issues that could impact their business operations.

  • Weather radar. Direct access to National Weather Service or other trusted weather agency forecasts and live radars provide important information to the private sector from the same source that government agencies use to make operational and emergency response decisions.

  • Emergency operations center webcam. The Maryland SEOC uses a live-streaming webcam of the activated emergency operations center, which is made available to businesses through the VBOC. Though this may have less direct benefit than other information streams in the VBOC, it also may augment engagement. Some businesses yearn to be part of the emergency management process and this partnership is advantageous to both government agencies and private sector partners.

Regular collaboration between government agencies involved in incident response and private sector businesses is an essential component of whole-community emergency management. However, this partnership cannot be effectively established by traditional methods. Private sector employees may not be able to shift work schedules and obligations around meetings, conference calls, and even emails. A solution to these issues is to develop an online virtual business operations center that can be accessed intermittently and includes all of the information that businesses need to make informed decisions during emergencies. MEMA’s PSIP and the Maryland VBOC enhance the important partnership between government and the private sector, which is critical to the successful resolution of emergencies and disasters.

Significant contributions to this article were made by Brendan McCluskey, the director of preparedness at the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA). His portfolio includes the Adaptive Planning, Active Learning and Exercising, and External Outreach Branches and the Mitigation Unit at MEMA. Prior to joining the agency, he was the executive director of the Office of Emergency Management and Occupational Health and Safety at the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey. He received a Juris Doctor degree from the Rutgers University School of Law.

The Maryland Emergency Management Agency’s Virtual Business Operations Center provides businesses access to situational awareness documents and tools, such as real-time information from the National Weather Service, road closures, and emergency alerts, and a chat function, among other features.

Christina Fabac

Christina Fabac joined the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) as a National Capital Region planner and the private sector liaison. As the private sector liaison, she manages the Private Sector Integration Program, which communicates and collaborates with private sector partners and coordinates the Maryland business operations center. Prior to joining MEMA, she worked in the private sector practicing law in Prince George’s County, Maryland. She received a Juris Doctor from University of Baltimore School of Law.

Chas Eby

Chas Eby is the deputy executive director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), where he oversees all operations, administration, and programs at the Agency. Previously, he held the positions of director of disaster risk reduction and external outreach branch manager at MEMA. These roles included developing strategy and overseeing disaster recovery, public information and outreach, individual assistance, hazard mitigation, and community and private sector preparedness. Prior to joining MEMA, he was the chief planner for emergency preparedness at the Maryland Department of Health. He received a Master of Arts degree in Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School. He previously graduated from Boston College. He has completed the National Emergency Management Executive Academy and is an adjunct professor teaching both public health preparedness and homeland security planning and policy at Towson University. Follow him on Twitter @chas_eby.

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