The Importance of Continuity of Operations Planning

Jennifer Schwab, Assistant Chief of Planning, New Hampshire Homeland Security and Emergency Management

Over the past few months, “what if?” has quickly become “what now?” in so many unexpected ways. Even the wisest of forecasters could not have predicted all outcomes of COVID-19 and the evolving response around the globe.

Here at the State Emergency Operations Center, even our Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) has had to evolve as we face less conventional constraints. A traditional COOP scenario involves something more concrete – a prolonged power outage, or flooding – a sudden event that prevents us from using our first-line tools and resources. Our normal setup is to have backups and alternate locations, and we shift to our secondary tool belt.

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With COVID-19, it’s a whole new type of barrier; one that is invisible and stretched out over a long period of time. It’s not as much the backup tools that we need, as it is the barriers now between each other as part of the new normal. A traditional COOP scenario is expected to last under 30 days. But we’re well past that number as we calculate rolling continuity adjustments on a daily basis.

So we built a different kind of plan.

Pandemic COOPing

In early March, we released the Pandemic-Specific Continuity of Operations Planning Guide to help, not just ourselves, but any organization, business, or community to wrap their brains around how to navigate these uncharted waters.

We took the typical COOP template and boiled it down to what could be done in a short timeframe to prepare, prioritizing the communication piece over the tools and equipment. The guidance from FEMA was to anticipate up to 40% of the workforce to be unavailable for a 2-3 month window. This meant our personnel were our most precious resource, and the top issue for continuous operations.

We focused on clearing and preparing the pathways, for both workflow and communication. We tackled succession and authority delegations, so that each member of the management team had a designated person ready to back them up. We looked at cross-training needs, to prevent the keys being held by any one single person. And there have been many lessons learned along the way, each time we iterate on our processes and adjust to the next challenge at hand.

All of these steps were about preventing bottlenecks, so that if a key team member became ill or needed to quarantine themselves, we could still get the job done.

Building Everyday Resilience

What is remarkable about these steps is that in addition to aiding us in a crisis, they also build our resilience as a team every day. Employees get sick unexpectedly every day of the year, regardless of the season. There are car breakdowns, catastrophic coffee accidents, and scheduled vacations on any given workday that cause stops and starts in our workflow – all without a virus hanging around the joint. What I love about our new COOP focus is that these continuity efforts will continue to serve us long after COVID-19 has run its course.

In this vein, continuity planning at any level will yield a return, and I encourage communities, organizations, and businesses of any size to make that investment.

What a COOP is

A Continuity of Operations Plan is a way of mapping a rehearsable response to less than predictable circumstances. It’s a game plan for events outside the usual game plan. A COOP can be as simple or complex as you’d like. It’s not the page count that counts.

Understandable, Flexible, Exercisable. These are the big three in my book when it comes to any plan.

Understandable. Is the concept easy enough to digest, that most people in your organization can understand it on the first pass? Is it something they can commit to memory? Most often, your COOP is put into effect under duress, and it needs to be a concept that sticks. If I say, “stop, drop, and roll” you immediately know what the expectations and criteria are. As you build a continuity plan, keep it simple and memorable.

Flexible. Is your plan flexible enough to fit many scenarios? Have you built enough stretch into the decision points and pathways that they can shift to meet the need? If you’ve taken any sort of first aid training, you know the ABCs: airway, breathing, and circulation. No matter what the cause of injury – the first concern is whether the person has a clear airway. Then their breathing, and so on. It’s a first-line checklist that is applicable to every medical situation, and flexes regardless of the cause of injury. What are the key points of your COOP that will need to be addressed in any crisis scenario? And do your solutions provide movement and flexibility to meet a variety of needs?

Exercisable. Can you practice your COOP? Are there enough action steps identified to walk through as a team? Are the responsibilities distributed well to allow for a coordinated team effort? In addition to the concept being understandable, it’s also important to put a little muscle memory in there – so that when a COOP is needed, the kinetic recall is there.

Where to Start

We are here with some good news – you don’t have to be able to predict it all, or do it all, in order to have a good continuity plan. In fact, there are some steps you can take immediately to increase your resiliency, without a committee meeting and without a glossy full-color printed plan.

In the Pandemic-Specific Continuity of Operations Planning Guide, we identified ten steps that would prepare an organization, business, or community for dealing with COVID-19. These ten steps are concrete, and yet they’re also flexible enough to apply to disruptions well beyond a pandemic. And the best news – even doing one step will help.

Step One

We put them in order, with Step One being mitigation. If you sit down and think through ways to protect the workplace from spreading infection, you’ve just accomplished a piece of the COOP puzzle.

Step Two

Step Two is identifying succession and authority lines. If you were to be out of commission for any reason, who would succeed you in your role? What authority would you need to delegate to them? And if they were unavailable also, who would be the next person? And now you’ve got two pieces done.

And So On

And the steps continue in this manner. Small bites like this that build on each other can actually make a big difference. As you build each contingency piece, you’re exercising the brain space ahead of time and communicating the common threads with your team. For every step you’re able to complete, your network of options in a crisis is strengthened – and that is resilience. It is options, it’s stretch, it’s pathways; and the more you exercise them the stronger your COOP is. But each step is a valuable achievement in and of itself.

But Am I Too Late?

Not at all. Hindsight will always be there, but today is never too late to start or improve your continuity planning process. Because the impact of COVID-19 is on an elongated continuum, the challenges will continue to serially present themselves. And the traditional scenarios, like flooding, are always in the realm of possibility. We may wish we had a plan for yesterday, but we are not too late for what tomorrow may bring.

Distributed Workflow

Remote work, and distributed teams have grown in popularity over the past few years, but their cultivation has largely kept to newer, younger industries. Most traditional workforces judged the cost, both fiscal and cultural, too high to implement. Many simply believed it was not a viable option for them.

COVID-19 changed all of this. With tools like Zoom and Slack, businesses the world over are making a mad dash to the safety of physical distance and working remotely. In many instances, there was not any other choice – either give distributed work a shot or close up shop. And regardless of how COVID-19 progresses, I think we will find that many organizations, having made the switch, will be less interested in switching back.

Distributed workflows allow for a level of flexibility that change the game. Many businesses may find that they can achieve their goals without the expense of a centralized workspace, spending that money on other options.

The interesting news when it comes to continuity, is that it also provides a “two birds, one stone” type of solution. Returning for a moment to the traditional COOP model, the focus was typically on how to weather the loss of your centralized workspace. With distributed teams, this is already accomplished.

I am very interested as we progress through this time, to see where the trends go with remote work. If it seems to be a pathway that would benefit you, it is a workflow that should be practiced before it is fully implemented. The needs of each business or organization are unique, and so no one approach or tool will work across the board. Get some trial versions, test out tools and ideas, and find what does the best job for your team.

In Summary

Our Pandemic-Specific Continuity of Operations Planning Guide is available at http://www.nh.gov/hsem and is as good a place to start as any. It will get you thinking about some key COOP components that come into play with just about any potential scenario, and certainly our current one.

The need for continuity planning is felt in all fields, in all organizations. I think the adage, “start simply, but simply start” is a great guide for this situation. Take it in small bites. But definitely take a bite, because the need to be agile and resilient is not going away anytime soon.

Jennifer Schwab is Assistant Chief of Planning with Homeland Security and Emergency Management at the New Hampshire Department of Safety.  Jennifer may be reached via email at jennifer.schwab@dos.nh.gov or by phone at 603.223.3633.