Anne Arundel County’s Emergency Operations Center Works In The Shadows


At an undisclosed location in Anne Arundel County, a group of individuals is working to plan for emergencies and disasters of any type and to ensure the county is prepared to respond and recover.

Although September is National Preparedness Month, the crew that comprises the county’s Emergency Operations Center, or EOC, have the topic on their minds around-the-clock, and they’re ready and available to react during that same time frame.

“We are working in the background, in the shadows, to help prepare our county,” said Kasey Thomas, public information officer for the Anne Arundel County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and coordinator of the Joint Information Center, or JIC in government parlance, when the EOC is activated.

On any given day at the county’s EOC — whether it’s planning for a possible situation, coordinating and participating in exercises that simulate emergencies, or actively monitoring or responding to an ongoing situation or event — there might be a mix of civilian clothes, medical garb, police and fire uniforms, and camouflage sitting amongst the rows of the center, whose layout is designed to optimize coordination and communication amongst the various local, state and federal officials who might be on hand at any given time.

Video screens to display news feeds, street cameras and information from various entities line the walls of the windowless EOC, and ham radios are ready for use in an adjoining room. In the event of the main EOC becoming inoperable, two predetermined alternate locations are set to welcome the EOC at a moment’s notice.

The county’s OEM coordinates the response to emergencies and disasters in the area, and that office, in turn, has the option to activate the EOC to facilitate a multi-agency response to emergencies and planned events.

“We’re able to have a very quick turnaround,” Thomas said.

Once it’s determined that the EOC is being activated, whether by the director of OEM, the county executive or by a state-level coordinated response, the center uses an internal mass notification system to alert identified representatives from agencies that might be involved.

“Whether it’s in the middle of the night or on a random Tuesday night, they’ll get the message with instructions,” Thomas said.

Captain Jenny Macallair is a Severna Park resident who serves as the communications director with the Anne Arundel County Fire Department’s Office of Public Information. Macallair also serves with the EOC, usually in the information realm, but she pointed out that several members of her department also staff the emergency center during critical events.

“The EOC allows us to collaborate and train with many of our surrounding agencies ahead of time to reduce and minimize complications during emergency events,” said Macallair, whose experience reads like somebody tailored for her position — communications degree, FBI National Academy graduate and participant of Federal Emergency Management Agency training on critical incident communications. “The ability to bring us together gives each of us the ability to look at best practices in critical events and collaborate on the objectives and needs of all agencies to mitigate an emergency incident with the best outcome for our communities and our residents. Preplanning the primary and secondary agencies prior to the critical event allows for a better understanding and flow of the mission during the event. We all have the same mission to protect and mitigate the risks to life, property and the environment. However, we all play different roles depending on the incident.”

Debbie Saylor is a nurse who works as a program manager at the Anne Arundel County Department of Health’s Office of Emergency Preparedness and Response. She’s also tapped to serve as a Department of Health EOC liaison during either a county EOC activation, or one from Annapolis, a city that maintains its own EOC.

“The EOC allows for rapid and efficient communication, resource coordination and allocation, and an overall common operating picture for all agencies and organizations involved in an emergency response,” Saylor said. “Without it, agencies may operate in a vacuum — which could be a threat to responder and public safety, response redundancy and lack of information sharing.”

Thomas pointed out the criticality of the information piece and ensuring that messaging — whether it’s road closures or risks during severe weather, shelter locations for displaced persons, updates during acts of terror or guidance during a pandemic — is in sync and the right expert is chosen to articulate that messaging. The JIC must consider what audience they are communicating with and the best way to get information to them. She pointed out it may vary from event to event as different disasters can affect ways the public receives updates.

It's the latter example of messaging that first drew Thomas into her current role. In January 2020, Thomas was serving as a planner for the JIC and working on new standards for the EOC. Shortly after, she was thrust into the heart of COVID-19 and her elevated role at the JIC.

“With COVID, one of the strengths that was brought out was our ability to do hybrid or virtual activations,” Thomas said. “So, even if we aren’t able to get everybody in person within 30 minutes, every single one of them can be on a call within that time frame as we’re sending people physically to meet here.”

With COVID, Thomas knew the EOC activation would happen. It was just a matter of how soon. The county’s EOC was activated before the first case hit Anne Arundel.

“As soon as we knew there was a case in Maryland and then a case in Anne Arundel, we were able to start gearing up a lot faster because we were already ready to jump in and respond,” Thomas said. “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst, and that’s what we did with COVID.”

Thomas pointed out that it’s not just disasters or emergencies that would cause the EOC to be activated, citing large festivals, an influx of travelers to the region or things such as elections and inaugurations. She said they receive intel on any credible threats. During the most recent presidential inauguration, the EOC was manned.

“Across the [Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia] area, everyone was kind of on a little bit more of a high alert,” Thomas noted.

There’s also a new permitting process in place that allows the EOC to assist large events before they take place by advising on things such as having enough water stations and bathrooms.

“That way we don’t get to a point where there’s a festival that goes wrong, and we’ve seen that happen all over the place, so we’re just trying to prevent anything like that happening in Anne Arundel if we can.”

While training and responding are crucial, prevention plays a big part, something Thomas tries to get ahead of by engaging with the community.

“When we go into the schools, we know that whatever we’re feeding to them, they’re going back and telling their parents, so they’ve become our little community advocates,” Thomas said.

The Anne Arundel native noted visits to businesses and houses of worship, sometimes in partnership with the FBI, as other examples of helping to prepare before something happens as emergency responses aren’t a one-size-fits-all for everybody.

Macallair praised the county’s emergency services.

“As a member of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department and a county resident, I am proud of the preparation and work that goes into keeping our county safe,” she said.


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