MCP Insights

Planning for the Unthinkable Is Good Thinking

Posted on March 16, 2021 by David F. Jones

More and more public-safety agencies are beginning to understand the importance of continuity-of-operations (COOP) planning, which includes disaster recovery—this element focuses specifically on the agency’s information technology (IT) assets—and crisis communications, both to internal and external stakeholders.

When developing COOP plans, agencies tend to think solely about events that are likely to occur that could have a profound effect on their operations. These typically include weather events such as hurricanes, floods and tornados. Also on the list are natural disasters, such as wildfires and earthquakes, and human-induced catastrophes like hazardous-material spills and, increasingly, cyberattacks.

Recent history has shown, however, that limiting such planning to events that commonly occur is a big mistake. In the last year, two cataclysmic events occurred that bring this point into sharp focus.

The first is the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, such an event probably wasn’t on the radar screen of the vast majority of agencies—in fact, it is safe to say that only a very few COOP plans contemplated such a pandemic. On a high level, this is understandable. After all, the last time a pandemic affected the United States was more than a century ago, in 1918 when the Spanish Flu struck. So, the question begs—does an agency really need to spend time thinking about, and planning for, something that only happens once every hundred years?

The short answer to that question is, yes they do.

COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the public-safety community, largely because it created situations that never had been encountered before. Seemingly in the blink of an eye, agency officials were dealing with staffing shortages because their personnel had taken ill or couldn’t go to work because of state-mandated shelter-in-place orders.

For those personnel who could get to the facility, special precautions had to be put into place, from sanitizing workstations, to reconfiguring the facility to achieve the proper amount of social-distancing, to temporarily housing and feeding personnel who couldn’t leave, either because the facility was woefully understaffed, or they wouldn’t be allowed to return because of the shelter-in-place requirements.

Regarding personnel who could not get to the facility, some agencies decided to let them work remotely. This took a tremendous leap of faith, especially in the context of 911 operations—prior to the pandemic, it would have been unthinkable for telecommunicators to handle emergency calls and dispatch emergency response outside the confines of the 911 center. It also took some technological wizardry.

For instance, agencies needed to ensure that their remote telecommunicators had enough bandwidth to do their jobs properly—which wasn’t a given because internet service providers vary greatly from area to area in terms of the amount of bandwidth they can provide. Moreover, any laptop or other device connected to the agency’s communications networks and systems outside of the facility’s confines represented a potential breach point. So, cybersecurity protections had to be ramped up quickly.

The Great Texas Freeze

Recently, another event occurred that underscored the importance of planning for the unthinkable. An incredible cold snap struck the southern U.S. The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, where I live, experienced subzero temperatures—to give you an idea of the impact of this, just a couple of years ago winter temperatures never dropped below freezing. In Houston, 250 miles to the south, bitterly cold temperatures also were experienced, and it snowed in Austin. This was another “it’ll never happen” event—but happen it did, and the impacts were significant. To give you an idea of the unprecedented and crippling nature of this event, for the first time in history all 254 counties in the state simultaneously were under a winter-storm warning.

The power grid failed in many places, and because of a lack of resiliency and redundancy, citizens and businesses were without electrical power for days. This is a huge problem for everyone, but especially for public-safety agencies, because mission-critical communications systems cannot operate unless they are connected to a viable power source. This in turn could have hampered emergency response significantly. Water pipes froze and then burst in numerous homes and businesses—while we have not heard of any public-safety agencies affected by this issue, if any had been their facilities easily could have been rendered inoperable or uninhabitable. Finally, due to numerous failures of the water-distribution system because of the unprecedented cold weather, more than half of the city of Austin was without water for several days, and then was under a boil order for several more. Again, we are not aware of any public-safety agency being significantly impacted by this situation, but it is easy to imagine how their operations and personnel could have been affected.

Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

Generally, the decisions made by public-safety officials, especially those made in the earliest stages of the pandemic, paid huge dividends. (Click here to watch an MCP-hosted webinar on this topic.) However, many, if not most, of these decisions were made on the fly—which is the absolute worst way to go about it—because very few agencies had included a pandemic in their COOP plan.

According to the old adage, it’s prudent to hope for the best but plan for the worst—I’d like to amend that by adding that it’s also a good idea to plan for the imaginable. While it will be impossible to plan for every contingency, public-safety agencies would do well to think beyond the disasters that they typically contemplate.

We can help you do this. This month we are hosting two webinars on crisis-preparedness planning—the first is scheduled for this Thursday, March 18 from 1:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. Eastern while the second is scheduled for March 24 from 2:00 – 2:45 Eastern. Click here to get more information and to register for these important events.

In the meantime, many of the 150-plus consultants at MCP are adept at COOP planning, and would welcome the opportunity to help you further refine your current plan, or get you started on a new one—so please reach out.

David F. Jones is an MCP cofounder and senior vice president of strategic accounts, and a past president of the National Emergency Number Association. He can be emailed at DavidJones@MissionCriticalPartners.com.

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