Jan 23 2013

The State of Arkansas Shares the Keys to Success in Disaster Recovery

Take these steps to improve continuity of operations planning.

When the Arkansas Continuity of Operations Program (ACOOP) was initiated for state agencies in 2004, no one could have predicted that it would become the most robust program in the nation.

The "Natural State" has seen its fair share of natural disasters, including devastating tornados, crippling ice storms and record flooding. Over the past eight years, the Arkansas Department of Information Systems has identified areas in the COOP and disaster recovery process that are key to our success. These are the top three.

Look for Leaders

Good plans can only be successfully executed with executive support. With more than 1,200 planners maintaining more than 2,000 plans they hope to never use, it's critical for leadership to fully support the process, to understand the plan and understand their role in the process. In addition to the 2004 governor's letter requiring all state organizations to create a continuity plan, the Arkansas Department of Education requires all K–12 schools to create a COOP plan, and the Administrative Office of the Courts requires the court systems to create and maintain a plan.

The ACOOP team and the Arkansas Division of Legislative Audit inspects each plan and its elements to ensure the requirements are met. Using an evaluation criteria we created based on our standards and those of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, we score in the low range, midrange, upper range or completion (perfect score).

Once a plan is reviewed, senior leaders are able to compare plan scores from year to year to see the level of improvement.

Offer Ample Training and Technology

Most of Arkansas' 1,200 COOP planners are not full-time continuity professionals. This responsibility simply falls under "other duties as assigned." Because working one on one with the large group of planners wasn't feasible, the state needed a technology solution that offered guidance while also being user friendly.

In 2011, ACOOP launched SuperCOOP, a custom web-based solution that walks users through creating a COOP plan from start to finish. The system stores and prints plans and manages ­additional documents. It also provides tutorial ­videos to assist throughout the planning process and offers an ever-expanding knowledge base filled with examples and frequently asked questions.

Utilizing Microsoft SharePoint, users can easily manage their planning content, while also integrating with existing systems of record for state and K–12 workers. With this more simplistic approach, planners no longer need to manage and update multiple documents or struggle with technology to create a viable plan. Before the implementation of SuperCOOP, planners were required to attend a four- to six-hour workshop on how to use the software effectively while focusing very little on the concept of COOP.

The timeframe for the creation of a plan by an average state organization has been reduced from approximately 500 hours to 80 hours. Now, optional training focuses on the concept of COOP and disaster recovery and includes a short demo of the SuperCOOP system Don't let the technology become a ­barrier — make it work effectively for the organization.

Conduct Training and Exercises

Testing is the most vital element in continuity planning to ensure that a plan will be effective. Without this crucial step, it's guaranteed that functions will not be restored in an optimal timeframe following a disaster. Plans on paper are great, but how do they really come to life? ACOOP organizations must test plans twice yearly to answer this question.

Simple tests such as tabletop exercises can be conducted in a low-stress environment while discussing the response to a hypothetical situation. For example, one of the most important functions of an organization may revolve around financial transactions. Some of our biggest lessons learned come from tests that conduct payroll processes from an alternative or backup site. Without identifying the necessary resources to carry out this function before an event occurs, organizations could be unable to compensate employees. Employers could create an image of being unprepared — or worse, unreliable.

Over the years, Arkansas has conducted hundreds of tabletop exercises testing multiple functions. Commonly, there are issues that have not been addressed with senior leadership, or aspects of the COOP plan that have never been shared with employees. Testing prepares staff for the real event that may never happen, but it's never a waste of time. Cross-training provides a more diverse staff and presents the potential for employees to learn new skills. Procedure documentation could be the difference between being called on vacation or enjoying time away from work.

It doesn't matter how complicated the test is as long as the workforce is being engaged in the process.

Essential Elements

The state of Arkansas addresses these elements when planning continuity of operations for all state agencies, board commissions, school districts, cities and counties:

  • Essential functions (Administration, IT, Human Resources)
  • Orders of succession
  • Delegations of authority
  • Interoperable communications
  • Vital records
  • Human capital
  • Alternative locations
  • Devolution planning
  • Reconstitution
  • Testing, training and exercises
<p>Steven Puetzer/Getty Images</p>