The emergency management process encompasses four phases: preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. Arguably, the recovery phase—ensuring that the campus maintains critical functions in the wake of an emergency—is the weak link for many higher education institutions. Campuses typically have robust and carefully thought-out response plans.
But recovery plans, including Continuity of Operations (COOPs), are often put on the back burner. Then, when needed, the plans must be developed quickly, perhaps even during the emergency itself.
First of all, what is COOP? According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, through continuity planning “the objective for organizations is to identify their essential functions and ensure that those functions can be continued throughout, or resumed rapidly after, a disruption of normal activities.” In other words, COOP refers to alternatives, or Plan Bs, for functions that would greatly affect business continuity should they suddenly disappear after an emergency occurs.
Kennesaw State University, Ga., recently began the COOP process, which includes identifying specific recovery vendors and plans to overcome the consequences of particular hazards—public health crises, power outages, severe weather conditions, and so forth. The recovery plan is an important aspect of the overall campus emergency operations plan designed to assist in the safety and preparedness of KSU’s 35,000 faculty, staff, and students.
We started slowly, but deliberately. Starting too quickly can discourage involvement and possibly raise unwanted concerns about resources.
We focused on this framework:
1. Solidify executive support. Selling the need for developing a common sense and realistic COOP is not difficult when you explain the consequences of not having one, including the repercussions and aftermath of a catastrophic incident. Declining enrollment, financial problems, and institutional reputation all top the list.
Having both executive and operational support is essential, as is explaining to department heads that the planning process itself will strengthen their missions. When the time comes to assign timelines and requirements, however, those messages should come from the executive level to demonstrate support, buy-in, and a sense of priority.
2. Identify a pilot group. A viable continuity plan must start with a pilot group of departments, with each one designating a person (or people) to serve as the continuity planning liaison to the appropriate manager within the institution’s emergency management function. KSU, for example, uses its Office of Emergency Management to lead the overall COOP effort and has a continuity working group to help steer the process. The group, which comprises representatives of the pilot group departments, receives training on the continuity planning process, aspects of recovery, and continuity, to consider while developing plans and assessing the continuity planning tool that the university chose for streamlining the process. Training a designated person gives each department a greater understanding of the goals of the continuity plan and recovery as a whole.
When identifying the pilot group, we had to consider which departments were willing to participate and which would be essential to the university’s continued functioning. KSU selected public safety, residence life, health services, sports and recreation, the library, and transportation. Each department serves important functions within the university—from providing safety to giving academic support, from assisting student life to facilitating a return to normalcy—which is the ultimate goal of the recovery process after an emergency.
Each department was also a willing participant that valued the importance of proper planning for emergency events. Many of these departments already had established emergency plans for their individual facilities, although those plans will become more robust as the COOP process unfolds.
3. Select a COOP tool that best fits institutional needs. While some institutions develop their own software tool for managing business continuity/disaster recovery and COOP, many related software tools are available for purchase or through an annual subscription. Smaller schools may simply develop and distribute continuity plans as printed documents. Whatever the tool, it must be easy to use—in other words, not require an IT background. Otherwise, you run the risk of having completed departmental plans that are simply collecting dust on someone’s bookshelf rather than being maintained. KSU selected Kuali Ready, a user-friendly COOP tool developed specially for higher education.
4. Focus on essential functions. Both individual departments and the institution overall should develop plans based on essential, or critical, functions—the ones that must continue or resume quickly after an emergency or disaster event to ensure either the viability of the institution or its ability to serve its customers. For this portion of the planning process, Kuali Ready provides a methodology that defines four levels of criticality:
Critical 1—Must be continued at normal or increased service load; cannot pause. Necessary to life, health, and security, such as police services and fire safety equipment.
Critical 2—Must be continued if at all possible, perhaps in a reduced mode. Pausing these services completely will have grave consequences. They include health services for students, functioning of data networks, and at-risk research.
Critical 3—May pause if forced to do so, but must resume in 30 days or sooner. This includes classroom instruction, research, payroll, and student advising.
Deferrable—May pause, then resume when conditions permit, such as routine building maintenance, training, and marketing.
Following are more tips to help institutions dive into the planning process for continuity of operations:
- Ask a campus executive to send the initial request for COOP participation.
- Start off slowly and find a few champions to attend the initial meetings.
- Explain the difference between emergency operation plans (which describe how the institution will respond directly to an emergency situation to stabilize an incident) and COOPs (recovery plans used to return operations to a sense of normalcy after the initial emergency response to a situation begins to wane).
- Remember that end-users at the departmental level must know how to implement and maintain their respective piece of the plan. Although the planning process should not be IT-centric, the department liaison should work closely with the IT professional assigned to his or her department.
- Develop and regularly provide a short training program that covers both the technological and planning requirements. Provide examples of situations when a COOP would be needed.
- Form a continuity working group that meets at least quarterly to review the process. This group may also help determine the validity of the critical functions submitted at the departmental level.
- Review departmental plans early in the process to ensure that each department understands what’s being asked of it.
Start now. The best time to plan for the aftermath of the emergency is before it occurs—which means today.