Virtual Incident Command Post – beyond the horizon

We have seen the use of virtual tools in real-time incident response and exercises and drills grow exponentially. 
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By Christopher James
Director, Response Operations, Witt O’Brien’s

The last several years have forced us to change how we do business and how we interact on both a professional and personal level. From seeing family and friends via Zoom so we can stay connected and share special occasions to conducting staff meetings with our co-workers, technology has provided an electronic bridge to span great divides.

We have seen the use of virtual tools in real-time incident response and exercises and drills grow exponentially.  This has allowed us to stretch across the globe and increase participation and interaction, adding to our ability to quickly and concisely address incidents in real-time.

Technology has matured beyond just sharing our words via text or Instant Messenger: from simple video conferencing with multiple participants in different locations, to real-time collaboration on documents and projects.

Here at Witt O’Brien’s, we have leveraged Microsoft Teams to host a virtual command post, conducting meetings between Federal and State representatives, our Incident Command team, and owners and operators’ representatives in some of the largest response operations in the United States in the last year. We have been able to scale up both our electronic footprint and our on-scene personnel to a size that is appropriate for the stage and scale of the incident.

From a pipeline discharge in California to the refloating of a containership in Maryland, Witt O’Brien’s has used Teams to different degrees as appropriate.

We were able to disestablish a physical command post and move to a virtual meeting schedule for the Command and General Staff that allowed us to protect the health of responders and reduce the logistical overhead several months before successfully completing response operations.  By supporting these larger virtual meetings with both physical and virtual section meetings, we were able to address the Unified Command’s objectives, generate Incident Action Plans, and carry out safe operations.

Additionally, it was quick and easy to host impromptu meetings with participants spread around the State and across the country to address immediate concerns as they became apparent.  These quick singular item meetings were easier and more productive than waiting to gather the Unified Command in one physical location.  These virtual command posts also became information repositories where each section of the response had its own channel to store documentation, photographs, decision memos, and tasking for all authorized users to access and improve the flow of information between responders and decision-makers.

There are still issues that may limit our ability to use the full potential of our virtual platform – such as bandwidth or connectivity issues, or an internal policy that limits the information or permission for staff to access an externally hosted site.  Acceptance of a virtual option due to the newness of the experience has been a hurdle, but once skeptics have had a chance to see and use the virtual command post firsthand, they have accepted that option.  If you get the chance to see a virtual command post in operation, imagine how you could use this technology for your own drill, exercise, or in an actual response.



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