The OSOCC: Coordination in Sudden Onset Emergencies

Overwhelming humanitarian needs, competing priorities, destroyed infrastructure coupled with a rapid influx of aid providers, and strained government resources require coordinated structures and activities to allow for time-critical emergency response.

Whilst the national government has the primary responsibility to provide for and coordinate humanitarian assistance on its territory, it might request assistance if the scale of a disaster exceeds the response capacity. Supporting emergency management authorities, therefore, intends to optimize all available resources for response. National authorities often use a variation of a command and control (C2) model to coordinate actors and mobilize resources in emergencies with coordination centers at different levels, including the local level. OCHA generally, and UNDAC specifically, is supporting national governments with on-site coordination of response actors in the life-saving phase of emergencies, particularly when in country coordination systems are overwhelmed or not fully functional. The On-Site Operations and Coordination Centre (OSOCC) was conceived to facilitate this process.


Purpose of the OSOCC

In many respects, an OSOCC may resemble the national emergency operations centres and incident command posts in which structures and procedures for incident management are hierarchical and clearly defined. However, the purpose of the OSOCC is to work in close liaison with the Local Emergency Management Authority (LEMA) to facilitate lateral cooperation with, and coordination of, international humanitarian assistance, rather than functioning in a traditional ‘command’ capacity,. As both a platform and methodology, the OSOCC has two primary objectives:

  • Rapidly support on-site cooperation, coordination and information management between international responders and the Government of the affected country in the absence of an alternate coordination system.
  • Establish a physical space to serve incoming response teams, notably in the case of a sudden-onset disaster where the coordination of many international response teams is needed to optimize rescue efforts.

The OSOCC concept was originally conceived in the early ‘90s to assist Member States in coordinating Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) efforts in the aftermath of an earthquake. It has since evolved to support a variety of responders in sudden onset disasters and rapid changes in complex emergencies, where a functioning coordination system is overwhelmed or does not exist. The OSOCC system is comprised of four components:

  • the OSOCC itself
  • the Reception and Departure Centre (RDC)
  • the Virtual OSOCC (VO)
  • and Sub-OSOCC/s (there can be more than one Sub-OSOCC)

Collectively, these components represent a system intended to serve as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for fluid, real-time information exchange and service provision for the response community.

The OSOCC, through its coordination and information management services, is intended to support rapid decision-making both for the national authorities and the global networks active in disaster response operations, including USAR teams, Foreign Medical Teams (FMTs), the military, humanitarian organizations and clusters, environmental organizations and technical organizations. Many of these networks are those that Emergency Services Branch (ESB) works with on a daily basis to strengthen disaster preparedness and response.

The approach of bringing together a multitude of organizations in a shared coordination platform is utilized in other aspects of the humanitarian system closely linked to the OSOCC. For example, in disasters with a large military presence, a Humanitarian-Military Operations Coordination Centre (HuMOCC) may be set up, as was done in the Nepal earthquake. The HuMOCC aims to provide a predictable humanitarian-military coordination platform in large-scale natural disasters for Member States. Information and collaboration between the OSOCC and the HuMOCC is maintained through the use of liaison functions to ensure a coordinated approach to the response.

Similar to any coordination platform, the success of the OSOCC concept depends on strong engagement by the networks and organizations responding to a disaster. Engagement is in turn, dependent on awareness of the mechanism, as well as believing in its added value. OCHA has progressively raised awareness of the OSOCC concept including by providing international relief teams and humanitarian organizations arriving to support a sudden on-set disaster by adopting a service-oriented approach, ranging from providing practical resources and information updates as well as just offering a cup of coffee.

The OSOCC one-stop-shop service has contributed to its success as a sudden-onset coordination platform. More organizations are engaging and increased service requirements. The capacity of the OSOCC has grown to meet his demand in part through the development of a network of technical partners with the capacity to deploy expertise and equipment to support the work of the OSOCC system. Organizations such as ACAPS, DHL, the International Humanitarian Partnership (IHP), MapAction, Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF), etc. have enabled the OSOCC to expand both its capacity to serve and services provided to the national authorities and the humanitarian community.


The OSOCC: Today and Tomorrow

To support the continued development of the OSOCC approach, lessons learned and best practices from past responses have been systematically captured in the OSOCC Guidelines. First published in 2002, the Guidelines were most recently revised in 2014 to reflect developments in the humanitarian context, evolutions in the function of operational teams (USAR teams, FMTs etc.) as well as changes in the needs and expectations of stakeholders. Today, understanding the OSOCC methodology is key to prepare international relief teams as well as for national disaster management authorities and regional emergency response networks. This is also reflected in the way the international community uses the “virtual” component of the OSOCC concept. The number of subscribers to the Virtual OSOCC (VO) has grown to more than 20,000 subscribers. The VOSOCC is now widely used to exchange information and to coordinate field-level response in the life-saving phase of emergencies. It also serves as a platform for training disaster managers from Member States and regional organizations.

To allow the OSOCC to function in highly dynamic contexts, it was designed as a fluid platform and methodology with ‘living’ Guidelines. In order to maintain relevance and added-value, the OSOCC needs to continue to adapt to the changes in the humanitarian environment. Lessons learnt from recent emergencies are being incorporated into ongoing developments and refinements of the OSOCC. To this end, in August 2015, the Field Coordination Support Section (FCSS) of OCHA Emergency Service Branch (EBS) hosted the OSOCC Concept Workshop which brought together key technical partners. Over 50 attendees from 24 partner organizations participated in a lively discussion aimed at identifying challenges to the OSOCC and developing actionable plans for future projects.


Workshop discussions highlighted that, as components of the OSOCC grew, it becomes increasingly difficult for all of the functions to remain under one tent in a large-scale emergency. This is the case when different Coordination Cells are required to coordinate USAR teams, FMT and the HuMOCC in locations outside of the main OSOCC, when geographical closeness is needed with the international teams they are serving and/or the national authorities with which they are closely tied. With this expanded physical reach of the OSOCC, it will become increasingly important to strengthen the internal coordination system to ensure it maintains its cohesiveness and its ability to provide a common operating picture.

The challenges of transitioning the OSOCC as a short-term coordination tool to longer-term national structures (government, Humanitarian Country Teams, Inter-clusters) were also discussed. Actions needed to improving this transition include: mapping the OSOCC functions against the organizations that will perform the functions in the longer –term; incorporating processes and methods within OSOCC functions that align with those of the longer-term organizations, and building capacity and knowledge on the OSOCC system within the longer-term organizations to facilitate stronger connections.

ESB, as steward of the OSOCC concept, maintains the methodology including guidelines and training; however the OSOCC’s success lies in a shared ownership and ability to bring actors with different motivations and mandates together in the right place at the right time and to provide a platform for these actors to coordinate their response efforts. This coordination can only be successful if the various organizations take collective ownership over strengthening the OSOCC by actively contributing to and promoting participation in the system.


Photos credited: UNDAC team

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