Apr 16 2024

State and Local Emergency Managers Explain the Importance of Continuity of Operations Planning

Government officials spotlight critical elements of COOP and why it matters.

The world can be dangerous and unpredictable. For state and local governments, the difference between weathering a crisis or succumbing to a cascading disaster lies in continuity of operations plans.

COOPs are decidedly not sexy. They stay quietly unheralded until an emergency, large or small, makes them essential. This kind of thinking is best handled by people who don’t mind contemplating catastrophes.

“I’m the crazy person on the sidewalk with the sandwich board that says the end of the world is coming,” says Maija Reed, plans section chief for the Idaho Office of Emergency Management.

Luckily, she’s not alone.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has taken the lead on COOP policy for more than a decade. It provides templates, workshops and advice to federal, state and local bureaus on how to fortify their agencies against potential disruptions.

Click the banner below to review data center backup as part of COOP planning.


What Is Continuity of Operations?

A government agency is only as good as its ability to deliver services. In many cases, that expectation is 24/7. Clearly, police, fire and rescue can’t take a holiday. But even the operations of quotidian government offices, such as the department of motor vehicles or a state Medicaid program, are under pressure to deliver consistently, day in and day out.

How do agencies keep everything running if the sky falls? Welcome to what keeps continuity of operations planners up at night.

Says FEMA: “Without the planning, provisioning, and implementation of continuity principles, our organizations, communities and government may be unable to provide services to help fellow citizens when they need it the most. People may die, elected officials may be unable to carry out statutory authorities, organizations may be unable to respond, and communities may be unable to recover.”

“We plan for the worst day and hope for the best one,” says Traci Naile, response section manager for the Oregon Department of Emergency Management.

On her worry list is wildfire season (1.2 million acres burned in 2020), winter flooding, cyber events, drought and public health emergencies. Topping the list of a potentially horrendous day is movement of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which could lead to earthquakes and tsunamis. Adding to that terrible parade, the Yellowstone supervolcano lurks and could threaten communities as far west as Portland. (The last major eruption was 640,000 years ago. It blanketed the region in up to 660 feet of volcanic ash.)

READ MORE: What is an emergency operations center?

What Are Key Components of COOP for Government?

A continuity of operations plan should include the following, per FEMA:

  • Orders of Succession: Who is in charge? Who takes over if a designated official is unable to perform their duties?
  • Delegations of Authority: Which positions legally have capabilities to make policy determinations at headquarters, in the field and across the organization?
  • Continuity Facilities: What locations will host essential functions outside of headquarters, particularly when a disaster threatens continuity?
  • Continuity Communications: How will personnel remain in touch with each other to understand and complete "essential functions" as well as coordinate with other agencies?
  • Vital Records Management: Which electronic and print documents and other materiel are necessary to support essential functions?
  • Human Capital: Which personnel respond to fulfill specific duties in the event of a disaster?
  • Tests, Training and Exercises: How do agencies ensure their COOP operations will achieve their objectives? How will officials test and train command and control elements in executing their plans?
  • Devolution of Control and Direction: How will officials transfer authorities and responsibilities for essential functions from primary staff to other personnel — or even other agencies — if necessary?
  • Reconstitution: How will agency personnel resume normal operations when a disaster is over?

Many states have passed laws requiring the creation and updating of COOPs. Texas has one of the most well-established plans, largely following the above criteria. Statewide Continuity Coordinator Heather Hernandez points up a vital distinction when it comes to lines of authority.

“Orders of Succession is about always making sure people can be in place in key roles, and is similar to Delegations of Authority, but different, in that it’s mostly about having the authority to make decisions” if leaders further up the chain are not available, Hernandez says.

Traci Naile
We plan for the worst day and hope for the best one.”

Traci Naile Response Section Manager, Oregon Department of Emergency Management

What Is the Government IT Department’s Role in COOP?

Not surprisingly, the IT department is central to continuity planning. Here, basic disaster recovery rules should be followed — but the job is much bigger.

“An IT department’s role in continuity is critical during the entire

continuity planning process,” says Hernandez. “Technology expertise is vital in creating proper plans for essential records that are often located in the cloud or on servers, ensuring critical systems can be re-established or protected, establishing disaster recovery procedures should there be a technological issue, and providing assistance with communications before, during, and after continuity activation.”

That includes identifying suitable alternative locations to support technological needs, such as Wi-Fi speeds, phone outlets, VoIP setups or fax capabilities, Hernandez adds.

Not every agency can set up easy connections to files in an emergency. Sometimes the technology in question is decidedly old school, says Robert Christensen, chief of training, exercises and development for the New Hampshire Department of Safety’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“If not online access, then how do you do it?” he asks. “Perhaps microfiche, and maybe those rolls live in a library.”

LEARN MORE: Here are some thoughts on ensuring continuity during an emergency.

What Makes for Effective COOP for State and Local Government?

FEMA is clear that COOP shouldn’t be done in a vacuum. It’s a group exercise that requires an employee team consisting of members from IT (communications, critical systems and data), human resources, facilities management, the comptroller’s office, security, legal and the workers’ union, if applicable.

Oregon’s Naile agrees that continuity planning can’t be achieved in a bubble: “One person trying to ID another section’s key functions is no good.” In her state of Oregon, each agency is different — from shops with 5,000 employees to a commission of two.

The goal is to end up with a plan that isn’t too complex. “A COOP is supposed to be a document you can grab and get back up and running,” says Alazandria Cruze, emergency management planner for Miami Dade County. “We don’t want it to be information overload.  Anybody should be able to get them back online.”

Most of the county’s COOPs are 70 to 200 pages, maximum.  Cruze tracks 41 hazards that could lead to disruptions — everything from the obvious hurricane to sink holes, meteorites, food-borne illnesses and an electromagnetic pulse. (EMPs can be naturally generated — for instance, by lightning or solar activity — or they can be delivered as weapons.)

Planners say COOPs are not all-or-nothing propositions. Often, a single state agency can be sidetracked by something small, such as a power outage, and fall under the protocol. Cruze’s own office experienced a sewer leak in a second-floor bathroom that understandably required telework. A few years back, the New Hampshire court system call center had a snow load that threatened a roof collapse. Workers followed the COOP plan and relocated to the state’s operations center for 10 days.

Last — but certainly not least — everyone agrees that COOPs must be tested regularly to be useful in a crisis. “A COOP that is not validated with a tabletop exercise is near worthless,” says Christensen.

Hispanolistic/Getty Images

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