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Debunking the Five Myths of Federal Continuity of Operations (COOP) Planning

Posted on January 13, 2013 in Emergency Preparedness Blog

Due to recent incidents in the National Capital Region-dating back to the snowstorms of 2009 and 2010 and as recent as the earthquake in August 2011 and the derecho storm in late June, have put Federal continuity programs in the spotlight. How do these incidents relate to departmental or agency continuity programs, plans, and procedures and what are the myths surrounding them. And are our agencies and departments ready to implement such a plan in the event of these unforeseen incidents? Unfortunately, myths and misconceptions surrounding the true purpose of Federal continuity plans pose the single greatest challenge in the development of a cohesive continuity programs.

Identifying and addressing some of these myths will help set the record straight so that you can prepare the best operational COOP program for your environment.

1. Because a department or agency has a COOP plan, they are prepared.
Nothing could be further from the truth. A complete COOP plan will “check the box” by receiving passing scores from the FEMA Continuity Evaluation Tool (CET) but that doesn't necessarily mean a department or agency is well prepared. It is not the COOP plan that is key to success, but a strong COOP program. A COOP plan is only as good as the program that surrounds it. A successful COOP program requires continuous attention to improving in all of the elements of a viable continuity capability. This ensures that not only is a plan in place, but that continuity concepts are embedded into an organization’s daily operations.

2. Departments and agencies only need to participate in one annual exercise (usually the Eagle Horizon portion of the annual National Level Exercise).
The Eagle Horizon portion of the National Level Exercise series should not be the only time a year that a department or agency dusts off their COOP plans. Eagle Horizon should be the build up of a full year of training sessions, tabletop/functional exercises, and drills covering specific elements of a department or agency’s COOP plan. Employing a variety of escalating exercises throughout the year is part of the essential Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP). Utilizing the building block approach leading up to Eagle Horizon helps Federal agency meet both internal and external exercise objectives—ultimately enhancing a departments or agency’s COOP Program’s preparedness.

3. COOP planning is for “worst-case” incidents only.
It is typically found in the first several slides of any COOP presentation a statement that COOP planning is all-hazards and can be activated for any incident or event. There is a clear disconnect between this theory and reality. Oftentimes, COOP is not even mentioned during senior leadership discussion following a broken pipe or an upcoming snowstorm. The fact is many decisions are made that relate to an organization’s COOP plan, but it is not recognized as a COOP situation because the incident lacks a catastrophic feeling to it.

4. It is impossible to get senior leadership buy-in.
Like all other programs and initiatives, a COOP program must have a strong marketing and branding campaign to gain the attention of senior leadership and the general workforce. Continuity Managers can also be marketing specialists to enhance a COOP Program’s visibility. This can even make COOP planning and exercises fun. Federal Continuity Managers have the opportunity to think “outside the box” by training and exercising COOP plans in innovative and memorable ways. For example, planning for a snowstorm in July may not grab participants’ attention like a tabletop exercise about a zombie attack or an alien invasion. Both scenarios essentially test continuity federal operations, but with a fun twist. This has two practical benefits: participants may be reluctant to fight the scenario and it creates a fun learning environment to discuss what can be a dry subject.

5. COOP programs do not receive adequate funding.
The Federal government is cutting program funding everywhere. Dedicated COOP funding is not immune to this but it is only a piece of a larger continuity or emergency management program that receives resources as well. These programs include health and safety, pandemic, IT disaster recovery, records management, crisis communications, and critical infrastructure. Federal continuity managers can be the most innovative when they leverage their resources with other programs and other departmental resources to create a comprehensive approach to preparedness. In the Federal government, continuity planning provides Continuity Managers the opportunity to build partnerships and interact with all levels and elements of an agency. It all starts by breaking down the intra-agency stovepipes.

It is no secret that continuity programs can be dry, tedious, and even onerous. The key to successful planning, maintaining momentum, and receiving the appropriate level of buy-in and funding is to be as resourceful as possible. Continuity planning can be perceived as dull, but it does not have to be. If done correctly, COOP planning can be fun and exciting.

About the Authors: Justin Pierce and Todd Jasper are FEMA certified Master Professional Continuity Practitioners and have assisted over 14 department and agencies develop comprehensive COOP Programs. Want to learn more about how to improve your agency’s continuity program? Click Here.

Since 1990 Man-Machine Systems Assessment, Inc. has supported over 30 federal and commercial clients in the areas of Professional Services, Emergency Management and Defense Systems Test Evaluation Support. With a passion for engineering solutions and emergency management, this Minority, Women-Owned, government services firm has been recognized by Inc Magazine, Hispanic Business, Smart CEO and the Washington Business Journal for growth, excellence in service and service to the community. 
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