In January 2020, few people had heard of the disease that started to make the news channels. But, with the spread of COVID-19 worldwide, government agencies and businesses were forced to begin thinking about what they would do if the illness came to their neighborhood.
“I had never even heard of a continuity of operations plan prior to the pandemic,” Easton, Md., Town Manager Donald Richardson said.
The continuity of operations plan, or COOP, is a federal initiative that encourages municipalities to plan how critical operations will continue under a broad number of circumstances.
“The plan could be activated in response to a wide range of events or situations — from a fire in the building; to a natural disaster; to the threat or occurrence of a terrorist attack. Any event that makes it impossible for employees to work in their regular facility could result in the activation of the plan,” notes materials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Between Homeland Security and FEMA, municipalities have been provided guidance in the best practices for keeping essential operations functioning in an emergency.
Homeland Security recommends creating a COOP plan for individual government agencies as well as for the operation of a municipality as a whole. Those agencies could include law enforcement, fire, 911/emergency dispatch, emergency medical services, public works, utilities and departments of health. The agency’s recommendations include educating all entities on continuity concepts, with special training that depicts emergency situations and involves discussions about the details of how these could be handled.
While those concerned with creating a COOP for their municipality or department would like the luxury of time, COVID was not going to wait for an extended planning process.
Easton, a town of about 16,000 residents on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, knew the winter of 2020 called for immediate action.
Richardson and longtime Easton Mayor Bob Willey put their heads together and consulted with other towns about what to do to guarantee that town business would continue if the pandemic reached them.
The resulting COOP that the town adopted is designed to minimize the risk of infection to both town employees and anyone doing business with town departments.
While a COOP can be several pages of instructions designating alternate locations and chains of command for personnel to keep a municipality operating, Easton officials kept it simple with a two-page plan, which was adopted effective March 23, 2020.
The town of Easton COVID-19 Continuity of Operations Plan ordered that town buildings would be closed to the public to “reduce the community spread” of the illness and to “free up Town resources and staff to fill certain needs identified under this COOP.” Easton’s departments and town offices would continue to be available by telephone.
The town’s 138 full-time and nine part-time employees and about as many Easton utilities employees were reduced to minimum necessary staffing levels, according to Richardson. Employees would be screened for illness before entering their workplaces. The COOP also outlined restrictions on work associated travel and time of absence because of illness or quarantine.
Richardson said the COOP was created keeping in mind the advice of both the Maryland Department of Heath and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Among the best practice recommended by Homeland Security is the creation of a COOP team or point-of-contact person who will coordinate agency planning.
The POC and team gathers necessary data for the planning process, including essential functions, interdependency with other agencies, personnel and resources required to support the operation and potential alternate locations of operation. Methods for gathering the information can include group discussions, surveys and interviews with key personnel.
For example, in Johnston County, N.C., Homeland Security reported continuity planners surveyed 150 employees and conducted 60 interviews to find out about each agency’s critical functions and other relevant data.
In Brainerd, Minn., Fire Chief Tim Holmes became the POC for the 74 full-time city employees. He worked quickly in the early months of 2020 to create a COOP for the city of about 15,000 in central Minnesota.
“I wish we had the luxury of an extended planning process,” he said. “No state or local agency mandated the creation of the COOP, but we had in the back of our minds that we had to do something if the pandemic came to the forefront.”
While some of Brainerd’s departments had already created their own COOP, Holmes said city leaders determined there should be a COOP that covered general operations. To do so, Holmes found a template from an emergency management association and used it as a guideline for Brainerd’s COOP.
After drafting a plan, Holmes took it to city administration and presented it at meetings of department heads to both educate and seek input on the completion of the COOP.
“It’s an overarching document that just really gives us guidance and something to fall back on in a situation similar to what we’re in right now,” Holmes said. “The plan outlines the preparation that we’re doing, the activity associated with the disaster or emergency that we’re in, and then the efforts to get back to normal, or the recovery side of an emergency.”
The plan considers what operations must continue uninterrupted in a time of emergency such as emergency and disaster response; water treatment operations; fire control; law enforcement; snow removal from roadways; emergency road repair; maintaining heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in municipal buildings; and network connectivity.
While the plan was adopted at an emergency teleconference of the city council on March 26, it was not immediately activated. That can be done by the mayor, the city’s fire chief or individual department heads who see an immediate need, Holmes said.
The city did activate a stay-at-home order with a percentage of the city’s employees working from home in spring 2020 and again in November. Willey said the creation of Easton’s COOP and the precautions implemented have carried over into the reopening of city buildings. “Before this, people could pretty much go anywhere they wanted in our town hall. Now we have closed the offices to the public, which is working well.”