COVID-19, aka the coronavirus, pandemic is grabbing a lot of attention right now, partly because we don’t see global pandemics in the United States very often, certainly not one of this gravity. But we do see other significant events on a fairly regular basis— e.g., wildfires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, hazardous materials spills, network outages—that can disrupt or halt public safety operations.
To avoid having to answer the question, “why weren’t we ready for this,” every public-safety agency needs to have a continuity-of-operations plan in place, which includes a disaster-recovery plan.
Here’s why. Let’s say that a Category 5 hurricane makes landfall, and the subsequent storm surge creates flooding that wipes out all access roads to the 911 center that serves the area. Or felled trees have the same effect. Or worse, a tornado spawned by the hurricane flattens the facility. No matter how it occurs, when a 911 center becomes inaccessible, uninhabitable or inoperable, citizens are unable to get the emergency services they so desperately need—and that’s a very big problem.
There are all sorts of potential scenarios like this one that can befall a public-safety agency—they are limited only by one’s imagination. In such circumstances, public-safety officials will ask a very natural question: what are we going to do? But the time to ask that question is not in the immediate aftermath of such an event—it is months before, during the development of a continuity-of-operations plan (COOP) and its sub-element, the disaster-recovery plan.
Disasters, no matter what form they take, represent tremendous dilemmas for public-safety officials. While it is virtually impossible to prevent them, or even predict when they will occur, all can be more quickly and effectively mitigated if a COOP and DR plan are in place.
A COOP is the overarching plan that ensures that the operations of a public-safety organization—any municipal or county organization, really—can be sustained. A DR plan specifically addresses the organization’s information technology (IT) assets and is intended to keep them secure and operational.
What Should be Included COOP and Some Best Practices
A public-safety agency’s COOP should consider all of the risks and threats that were identified when its emergency operations plan was created. A COOP should be customized based on the jurisdiction’s unique characteristics, resources and capabilities—off-the-shelf, fill-in-the-blank plans are completely ineffective. All departments—internal and external to the agency—should be consulted during COOP development.
All staff should be trained on the COOP and DR plans once they are developed. The plans do absolutely no good if no one knows how to act on their elements, or worse, have no idea what is in them. Tabletop and discussion-based exercises are excellent for this purpose and should be conducted at least annually. Also beneficial are operational exercises—for instance, if you’re going to relocate your 911 center’s operations to a backup facility, it’s an excellent idea to try it before needing to do it for real.
After a COOP/DR plan is activated, an after-action report should be developed that highlights each plan’s shortfalls, so that they can be living, breathing documents.
We may not see another global pandemic for a while, but COVID-19 serves as a powerful wake-up call—disasters are going to keep happening, and public-safety agencies need to ensure the continuity of their operations when they occur. We have helped many agencies develop COOP and DR plans over the years, and would welcome the opportunity to help you create yours—please reach out.
Richard Gaston is a senior consultant for Mission Critical Partners. He can be emailed at RichardGaston@MissionCriticalPartners.com.