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‘Digitally fit’ city agency makes smooth transition during pandemic

When the pandemic sent most of the Denver Emergency Operations Center’s (EOC) 150 employees home last year, they rushed to digitize their largely paper-based processes -- and accomplished it in a single weekend.

“Before the pandemic, we executed the Emergency Operations Center activations and exercises almost exclusively with paper forms,” Loa Esquilín-García, public information officer for the city and county of Denver’s Office of Emergency Management, wrote in an email to GCN. “In March 2020, we had to virtualize operations, which meant putting forms online and creating an online space that could mimic the conversations and meetings essential to handling a crisis.”

The EOC was already planning to digitize forms, Esquilín-García said, but the pandemic accelerated those plans.

Denver tapped process management and automation company Nintex for help, in part because it had worked with the firm’s tools before the health crisis began, Chelsea Warren, marketing and communications coordinator with Denver’s Technology Services Department, said in an email to GCN. “With such a short timeline, it was easiest to use tools already at our disposal,” she wrote.

The Technology Services Department took advantage of another solution already in its toolbelt -- Microsoft Teams -- to set up an online EOC in which workers could communicate and collaborate. But paper-based workflows – some of which took up to seven steps to complete – had to be digitized for the center to optimize online operations.

In one weekend last year, Technology Services staff digitized 20 forms with Nintex Forms, a Microsoft SharePoint tool primarily used for collecting and validating user input into SharePoint lists and Nintex Workflows. The technology lets users customize the forms by dragging controls onto the canvas rather than by coding.

Within three months, they had digitized 65 forms, and that number now sits around 100, said Steve Witt, director of Nintex’s public-sector unit.

“Everything is accessible from anywhere. It is amazing we can run the entire operation virtually,” Esquilín-García wrote.

The paper-based processes were easy when the EOC staff, who worked in the basement of a city building, could walk documents around the corner to obtain a signature. But “it’s a little bit different when everyone’s working from home, and now you have a skeleton crew in the emergency operations center,” Witt said. “The thing about the pandemic is it introduced a lot of new problems that I like to say didn’t exist in January 2020. All of a sudden, in March and April 2020, you’re trying to solve these problems.”

Denver was well-positioned to make the changes, he said, likening it to being “digitally fit.” That fitness – or the work the Technology Services and EOC staff did pre-pandemic – made them flexible and agile enough to react quickly when the crisis hit.

“When you’re dealing with something like this, speed is the most important thing -- being able to act quickly, solve the problem and then continue to improve upon it as time goes by,” Witt said.

Denver’s cybersecurity and data protection teams helped with the virtualization project to ensure workflows were secure and personally identifiable information was protected. “We worked on additional training around cyber and data protection for those working remotely and [on] strengthening the infrastructure that supports operations,” Warren said.

Because the future of work is now hybrid, rather that office-based, this modernization has positioned Denver to be able to better respond to other crises as they emerge.

Digitizing these processes has increased safety and resulted in more focused emergency response, Esquilín-García said. “Our reporting and tracking have also improved tremendously with this process, which is helping us use our time more efficiently and effectively.” 

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.


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