by Wayne North, Investigator / Consultant with Overwatch Risk Solutions
Like any organization, educational institutions must be prepared for the possibility of natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes; and man-made disasters such as active shooters, bombings, arson, and cyber-attacks all pose unique challenges to the institution’s operations. As part of their emergency planning, many organizations plan and prepare on how to respond to emergency situations and potential disasters but there is an additional consideration that must be taken into account. How does the organization continue to operate after the incident has occurred and its infrastructure, facilities, computer systems, day-today business operations and financial systems have all been crippled? This is where a Continuity of Operations Plan, known by the acronym COOP, is vital in order for the institution to continue to operate and eventually recover from a catastrophic event.
COOP – Not a Stand-Alone Plan
Typically, a COOP is annex or a part of a larger Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) and is located in the Functional Annexes section of a school EOP. A COOP Annex describes how a school will ensure that essential functions continue during an emergency and its aftermath. A generally accepted rule of thumb is to strive to restore essential functions as much as possible within 12 hours of activating the EOP and be able to sustains essential functions for up to a minimum of 30 days while full recovery takes place. Proper COOP planning also focuses on ensuring the protection of essential facilities, equipment, records, personnel, and assets as well as minimizing loss of life and property damage.
The first step in COOP development is to identify what functions are essential and what functions are non-essential. This enables COOP planning to focus on the most critical and essential functions. Essential functions are defined as those organizational functions and activities that must continue under any and all circumstances, including when the school is closed. These functions may include financial, personnel support, and student support services as well as the protection and security of sensitive records. Non-essential functions are those services and activities that could cease in an emergency situation without adversely affecting operations, staff, students, and long-term recovery.
Advantages to COOP Development
There are many advantages to proper COOP planning that can pay dividends even during normal operations. It provides a vehicle for an organization to objectively anticipate risk and threats, increase operational performance by identifying more efficient processes and business practices, and improve overall internal and external communication practices.
During a time of crisis, after a critical incident has occurred, a well thought out and written COOP has already identified and defined the following:
- Essential functions that need to continue
- An order of succession to ensure proper leadership continues
- Creates delegation of authorities to avoid disruption of services
- Identifies alternative facilities and locations in the event current facilities are inoperable
- Establishes communication plans to keep staff, students, families, and the community properly informed of developments
- Creates a plan for protecting and accessing vital records
- Creates a plan for the continuation of Human Resource services
- Establishes criteria and a plan for devolution in extreme cases
- Establishes a well-structured plan for reconstitution
Obviously, identifying these essential functions and establishing procedures beforehand is much better than doing so after an incident has occurred.
Practice, Evaluate, Practice, Repeat
A COOP must be a living document and be continually reviewed and updated as needed. A school’s essential functions and facilities may change over time. Key administrators and staff members may change. Even a school’s student demographic may change, thus altering what services are needed during an emergency. Therefore, a COOP, like any emergency plan, must be reviewed at least annually to ensure it is current. It is also necessary to practice and exercise the COOP. What looks good on paper may not be practical or even possible in reality. Routinely exercising the plan also ensures key personnel understand their roles and responsibilities in the event of an emergency and greatly reduces the chances of confusion and indecision during an emergency.
Training and exercising the COOP plan also ensures that the plan is realistic and capable of supporting essential operations, that equipment and systems work as anticipated, that employees are able to get to alternate facilities within the required time frame, that the organization’s supply chain is addressed, and that any deficiencies are identified.
COOP planning is essential to ensure the continued performance of critical business and service functions during a wide range of potential natural, manmade, and even national security emergencies. It is simply a good business practice. For schools, COOP planning ensures that vital services to the community and families are restored as quickly as possible.
Plan now. Practice the plan. Update the plan. Repeat.
When a crisis hits, it is too late to start planning.