‘This is Our Playbook; We Solve Problems’: Walmart’s Emergency Operations Center Manages a Once-in-a-Century Pandemic
‘This is Our Playbook; We Solve Problems’: Walmart’s Emergency Operations Center Manages a Once-in-a-Century Pandemic
July 27, 2020
By Kane Webb, Walmart Corporate Affairs
If this whole collective out-of-body experience were a movie, the opening scene might take place here in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at the Home Office in Bentonville, Arkansas, camera scanning along a bank of television monitors on the wall, data flooding the screens, associates deciphering it instantly. You can almost see the minds at work, digesting information, separating the good from the bad, the bad from the potentially catastrophic.
Then a phone might ring. Or several phones at once. Someone like veteran emergency management director Lucas McDonald might start to receive queries from anxious supervisors as a world we all knew as normal just weeks ago begins to take the shape of anything but.
On a typical day at the EOC, if there is such a thing, associates will get about 250 calls, ranging from questions about HR protocols to associate health concerns to anticipated weather issues. But this isn’t a typical day. These aren’t typical days. Typical now for the EOC is a more virtual world, with associates like Lucas and others who would be at the EOC nerve center at the Home Office now scattered to their very own home offices.
But over a long weekend in March, word arrived that an associate in Cynthiana, Kentucky, had contracted COVID-19, and the calls started to spike. That’s when things really ramped up.
On this morning, just 10 days into the new normal, Lucas runs what has become a daily 8 o’clock EOC Coordination Call. He plays the role of moderator, interviewer and a bit of air-traffic controller for some 200-plus associates Zoom-ing in to hear the rundown from company operations all over the world.
There are nine people physically in the EOC. Ordinarily, there’d be 10 times that. But, like the rest of the world, the work has left the building. Most associates take care of business remotely, which is an EOC first. So far, so very good.
Lucas handles roll call:
Risk Intelligence – 2 U.S. congressmen have tested positive; Chile has declared a state of emergency; the UK closed all schools until further notice.
Health and Wellness – Dr. Tom shares a story from the Walmart Health center in Dallas, Georgia. A supply of masks had been delivered for all the doctors and medical personnel to use.
We hear updates from Walmart U.S., Sam’s Club and International, Finance and Treasury, Supply Chain, Ops Comms and Corporate Affairs and Government Relations and on and on, the size and scale of Walmart evidenced by the information overload. The daily reports come in competent bursts of just-the-facts details. They’re organized. The voices experienced, professional, assuring in their competence. Even as the crisis ramps up outside, the calm continues from within. You feel better just being around these folks, hearing them handle things one task at a time.
“The Emergency Management team has done a fantastic job supporting the business during an incredibly difficult and unprecedented time,” said Rachel Brand, executive vice president of global governance, chief legal officer and corporate secretary, who oversees the EOC. “From the first-ever move to a virtual Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to handling store reports and queries, the EOC team has ensured our business is strong, operational and working seamlessly during the crisis.”
Running the call, Lucas digresses to a weather update. One of the EOC’s ubiquitous TV sets blasts a blob of green and red on an updating radar map of the United States. “Mother Nature didn’t get the memo about isolating,” Lucas quips. “Weather is a threat today.”
The day before, a sizable earthquake shook the Salt Lake City area. The impact to stores, clubs, customers and associates required a response from disaster recovery, to operations to People. It’s a stark reminder that the COVID-19 crisis is an add-on, not an only, for those in the EOC.
Lucas joined the company in 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina and Walmart’s response in providing needed aid, but he’s seen plenty of man-made events and natural disasters come and go, including Hurricanes Harvey and Maria in 2017. The difference here is that the event is ongoing, with no real end yet in sight.
“Associates from across the company would typically fill the EOC just minutes after a major event to coordinate a response,” Lucas said. “The response is as much about recovery and supporting the community. This feels much more like we are on offense, trying to anticipate and prevent something.”
Back on the call, a voice notes that approximately 250 customers waited in lines for stores and clubs to open the previous day in New York and Michigan. This trend will spread across the nation as the virus does too.
Near the end of the daily rundown, Andrea Davis, a senior director in Global Security and Aviation, lightens the mood by announcing that the “EOC now has coffee available 24/7.” That gets a round of applause. Shortly thereafter, Lucas ends the call: “Amazing work everybody. It’s a proud time to be a Walmart associate. Thank you all.”
Andrea nods in agreement. She’s been a Walmart associate since January 6. Of this year. Or about a week after the first cases of severe pneumonia were reported in China – and one day before the disease was officially identified as COVID-19, as a result of the coronavirus. Andrea joined Walmart from the Walt Disney Co., where she worked for more than seven years as head of Global Crisis Management. Before that, she worked for FEMA in New Orleans; yes, in the aftermath of the BP oil spill off the Gulf Coast. And before that, Andrea worked for the U.S. attorney’s office. She started just before the events of 9/11.
Lucas, Andrea and Joe Pennington run the daily calls, sometimes these days from their kitchen tables. “Normally there’s a hundred people in this room,” Andrea said. “It’s a very personal environment. Everybody is used to seeing each other. Now it’s remote, it’s a virtual EOC. But it’s really worked once we got in this groove. We still facilitate and coordinate to solve the matter at hand. Each of us is representing an emergency support function. For example, if we have an associate test positive, then HR and Compliance teams go to work.”
“To me, this is our playbook, solving problems,” Andrea adds. “As a company, we’ve been doing this for years. I saw firsthand what Walmart did when those trucks rolled into New Orleans, and I was applauding. And now I’m here. It’s my dream.”
We’re talking in a small conference room, adjacent to another where a meeting immediately following the morning call is held to produce an executive briefing and a situation report. Both go out ASAP.
If the purpose of the EOC could be summarized in four words, they would be: connect, coordinate, organize, respond. In other words, the indispensable stuff. “The emergency management team acts as the quarterbacks for our response efforts,” said Brian Murphy, who serves as vice president of Walmart’s Global Security & Aviation division. “I am very proud of the significant contributions of each of the associates on this team during this extraordinary time.”
The EOC area itself calls to mind a small newsroom, the combination of humanity and technology creating a buzz of controlled urgency and calculated, but quick, response. A table full of snacks hugs one wall, the ever-present coffee against another. A big-screen, digital map of the U.S. on another wall is speckled with blue dots and bar graphs. Spikes on the graphs aren’t good. There was a big one a week earlier, big one the day before. Today, unfortunately, is off to a strong start.
Bess Henry is one of the crisis managers working remotely. She came to the EOC in summer 2018. Prior to that, she worked as a manager in the field, working two years at a distribution center and two years as an assistant store manager at stores in Conway, Arkansas.
“This activation is completely different from any others that I have experienced,” she said. “In the two years that I have worked here, I’ve seen multiple activations for different reasons: hurricanes, floods, wildfires in California, the romaine lettuce recall...
“As crisis managers, the biggest change we have seen for our team is in our call volume. For most store-related concerns, we are management’s first call. As crisis managers, we primarily deal with store management. What we are seeing with COVID-19 is a new set of challenges nationwide from managers, associates and customers. This crisis is encompassing for Walmart on a global scale. Calls from regional managers, market teams, associates and even customers highlight the concerns of everyone right now.”
Bess returned from maternity leave the day the news broke about the first case of COVID-19 in the United States. That was January 21, and the case was in Everett, Washington, just north of Seattle. For many Americans, that was when the virus first seemed truly threatening on our shores. But the EOC team had been tracking the situation as it unfolded in China much earlier. And when great swaths of America went on lockdown in mid-March, the team was prepared.
Still, the volume of reaction was sudden, and stunning. “We averaged something like 33 calls per hour one day,” Bess said. “Each of these calls represent a set of problems to solve, questions to answer. Prior to COVID-19 becoming a main concern in America, the EOC averaged 10 calls per hour. Thankfully, call volume has slightly decreased, as we are all finding a semblance of routine during this crisis. Still, no one knows what tomorrow will bring.”
A few days later, Joe Pennington is running the call from the EOC office. Like Andrea, Joe is relatively new to the company, having left a CBS affiliate in Northwest Arkansas to join Walmart on the emergency management team six months earlier. So, what’s that been like?
He laughs. He has a ready answer. “It’s like trying to drink water out of a fire hose while standing under an avalanche,” he said. “It’s a lot. Every single day now, with every new announcement, the business is affected. Stimulus checks. Bonuses. Every new announcement – internally and externally – affects workflow. You’ll notice that in every room we have a TV turned to cable news because everything affects us.”
And, the unspoken understanding in the EOC and throughout the company, is that Walmart affects everything too.
“People are looking to Walmart to solve problems,” Joe said. “You’re seeing that people are turning to Walmart for the answers.”
As if on cue, Andrea interrupts, “Sorry,” she said. “Joe, can I borrow you for one second?”
It’s early April, and Lucas is running the Coordination Call. By the calendar, it’s been just three weeks since Americans began to self-quarantine. But time is marked differently during a crisis.
An hour becomes a day. A day, a week. A society with sports and games and daily routines at the office seems long ago and somewhat quaint. We’re coping, individually through necessity and together through the power of the human spirit. We’ve even learned to laugh again.
At one point, Lucas calls on someone from Bonobos for an update, prefacing with a personal note that he put on his Bonobos jeans this morning and they were a little tight. A few moments later, a voice from merchandising sympathizes: “We’re eating our feelings as well.”
Then, finally, from Bare Necessities, comes this pitch: “For all you folks at home eating your feelings, we have a lot of loungewear on our site!”
Laughter fills the EOC, at the office and remotely. It’s good to hear. Normal.
A few minutes later, it’s back to the business of being there, always being there. Ready.
We’ve heard it a lot of late. All heroes don’t wear capes. Some wear vests. Some wear a dozen hats at once. They’re the ones who respond first, last and always. Perhaps their superpower is the power of presence when we need it most.