Is your agency prepared to continue providing essential operations in the event of an emergency?

Teresa Scott, P.E.
Public Works Director
City of Gainesville, Florida
Member, APWA Emergency Management Committee

Here's another acronym to add to our vocabulary: COOP—not as in chicken COOP but as in Continuity Of Operations Plan. COOP is defined as "an effort within individual departments and agencies to ensure the continued performance of minimum essential functions during a wide range of potential emergencies. This is accomplished through the development of plans, comprehensive procedures, and provisions for alternate facilities, personnel, resources, interoperable communications, and vital records/databases." A COOP addresses emergencies from an all-hazards approach.

I was first introduced to the term in a training session conducted by the Florida Department of Community Affairs' Division of Emergency Management at our County Emergency Management Office in December 2002. By fall 2003, the County had retained a consultant to assist all critical service agencies in development of our plans. Our plan was completed in February 2004.

Our COOP establishes policy and guidance to ensure we are prepared to execute the mission-essential functions of our agency in the event that an emergency threatens or incapacitates all or a portion of our operations. It establishes the protocol for relocation of selected personnel and the functions of any essential facilities within our agency that may be required in order to continue operations.

The City of Gainesville's Public Works COOP states that its purpose is designed to:

  • "Ensure that Public Works is prepared to respond to emergencies, recover from them, and mitigate against their impacts.

  • Ensure that Public Works is prepared to provide critical services in an environment that is threatened, diminished, or incapacitated.

  • Provide a means of information coordination to the City of Gainesville government to ensure uninterrupted communications within the internal organization of the City and externally to all identified critical customers.

  • Provide timely direction, control, and coordination to the City of Gainesville leadership and other critical customers before, during, and after an event or upon notification of a credible threat.

  • Establish and enact time-phased implementation procedures to activate various components of the "Plan" to provide sufficient operational capabilities relative to the event or threat thereof to the City of Gainesville.

  • Facilitate the return to normal operating conditions as soon as practical, based on circumstances and the threat environment.

  • Ensure that the City of Gainesville Public Works COOP Plan is viable and operational, and is compliant with all guidance documents.

  • Ensure that the Public Works COOP Plan is fully capable of addressing all types of emergencies or "all hazards" and that mission-essential functions are able to continue with minimal or no disruption during all types of emergencies."

The State of Florida guidance states that for a COOP to be considered viable it:

  • "Must be maintained at a high-level of readiness.
  • Must be capable of implementation, both with and without warning.
  • Must be operational no later than 12 hours after activation.
  • Must maintain sustained operations for up to 30 days.
  • Should take maximum advantage of existing local, state or federal government infrastructures."

The first task that we undertook was putting together a COOP Planning Team to identify our mission-essential functions. We had to identify those functions that must be performed given 1) disruption of one day; 2) disruption of greater than one day but less than one week; and 3) disruption of greater than one week but less than one month. This was the most difficult task of the entire planning effort because we had to continuously distinguish what services we provide in response to an emergency such as a hurricane, versus what services are essential to continue operations in spite of the emergency functions that may be underway.

To assist we separated our services into categories of Public Safety, Transportation, Solid Waste, Engineering, Support Operations, and Administrative Operations. This helped us focus our discussions so that progress was made.

Some examples of our mission-essential functions:

Disruptions of one day

  • Transportation (operate/repair traffic signal system; install/repair traffic control signage; maintain traffic control for emergency operations; operation of fixed route transit system; fuel buses/vans; remove debris; repair buses/vans)

Disruptions of one day to one week

  • Transportation (ensure roadways are traversable - pavement condition)

Disruptions of one week to one month

  • Transportation (sweep streets; repair sidewalks)

After the mission-essential functions were outlined we identified what personnel and resources were needed to perform each one. Also, orders of succession were established three deep for each categorical area.

The GIS and mapping functions for the City of Gainesville were set up in the conference room of the Operations Division during the Hurricanes of 2004 because the regular offices of GIS staff did not have generators to stay operable during the power outages.

For each geographic location of services, alternate facilities had to be identified in which the mission-essential functions could be relocated in order to continue functioning for the periods of time noted in the COOP. For example, with our transit service, if the fueling and maintenance facility is shut down for at least a 24-hour period, our COOP identifies the alternate facilities that will provide the same or equivalent capabilities for fueling and maintenance that are needed to carry on with our mission-essential functions of transporting people. Whether the event is a terrorist explosion or a transformer that blows because of human error, the COOP can be activated.

Our plan identifies a COOP Relocation Team (CRT) and their respective responsibilities to ensure that mission-essential functions are as seamless as possible when relocating to alternate facilities. Vital records and databases that are necessary for continuity of operations are identified, as well as appropriate backup systems. For example, we want to ensure that our payroll system is accessible and submitted on time so personnel are paid even in the event of an emergency.

As the Team started out we had difficulty grasping how the COOP was different from the Emergency Management Plan. But as we worked it became obvious that the COOP is a much broader plan that can also be used to assist us in reestablishing our mission-essential functions as quickly as possible during and/or after an emergency event. We had an opportunity to test the event a couple of months after completing our final plan when our transit maintenance facility was without power when a contractor blew the transformer. The power supply to our fueling system was also impacted. Since the power was not going to be restored for several days, we were able to utilize the knowledge gained in our COOP Planning Team to set the COOP in action and ensure that our 100-bus fleet was able to pull out each morning.

Teresa Scott can be reached at (352) 334-2070 or at scottta@ci.gainesville.fl.us.

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