In observance of National Emergency Preparedness Month in September, our Emergency Preparedness and Response team wanted to shed some light on an often-overlooked aspect of preparedness—Continuity of Operations Planning (COOP). Continuity Planning protects the ability of a company or agency to perform critical functions during an emergency or event that disrupts service. In short, COOP builds resilience within organizations and communities.
At our monthly Community of Practice meeting with PULSE customers and partners, we were excited to host Cyndi Mellen, a Certified Business Continuity Professional (CBCP) and Director of COOP for New York City Emergency Management (NYCEM). Mellen provided an overview of COOP program development and how to effectively build capacity over time. She also shared insights from her time supporting the city of New York, and best practices for organizations trying to start developing a COOP program at their company or in their community. We wanted to share insights on COOP and how building a program for continuity of operations aligns with emergency preparedness planning.
What Is Continuity of Operations (COOP) Planning?
To better understand what COOP entails, Mellen defined it as, “An effort within organizations to ensure continued delivery of essential functions during a disruption of typical operations. At its most basic, COOP is about identifying agency operations and prioritizing the most critical functions and then documenting those assets or resources needed to support their delivery.”
Mellen asked the group to describe some operations they consider essential for communities to function, which prompted discussion of services like water, sanitation, trash removal, anything that supports public health safety, health information exchange functions, hospital functions, food and medical assistance programs, cross-cutting functions like an IT agency hosting other agencies, and administrative functions like payroll. These are the same essential functions that support continuity of care in disaster response.
When there is a disruption of these services, it is important to have a plan in place to prioritize what functions are essential, in what order they must be addressed, and what is needed to restore those critical functions as fast as possible. For example, if the power grid goes down during a hurricane, you need to know what agencies must be involved in fixing the issue and what needs to happen first to keep people safe and minimize damage and losses.
As Mellen explained, cultivating COOP capabilities enables organizations to:
- Identify and prioritize essential functions that must be supported during emergencies
- Continue delivering essential functions during varied events and incidents, potentially minimizing loss and saving lives
- Highlight known risks and engage in data-driven decision-making on resource and funding allocation
- Reduce or mitigate disruptions to operations
Why COOP Should Be a Priority for Organizations Involved in Disaster Response
COOP planning is important for the same reason as more traditional emergency preparedness planning: to minimize damage when there is an unexpected disruption of normal operations. It could be a wildfire sweeping across your state or a storm-induced blackout at your company’s headquarters. Regardless of the scale of the disruption, having COOP programs in place gives organizations and communities the blueprints for what they need to do when something goes wrong and builds resilience into organizations by preventing loss or damage that could be avoided with advance preparation. When there is already a plan to continue providing essential functions in an emergency, it makes it easier for disaster response providers to be more effective and to focus on public safety and restoration of services.
As Mellen explained, “COOP is also about protecting important assets at your organization. What happens if your data center is located in the basement which floods in a storm? If your staff is unable to work because they have been impacted by the emergency, do you have other staff at a sister agency that can continue your operations? When things get back to normal, do you have a reconstitution plan if things have been degraded? And what does getting back to normal look like?”
There are many organizations and agencies involved in emergency response, and being prepared for emergencies requires coordination and partnership among the entire network of disaster response providers. That same level of commitment to planning for emergencies should also apply to COOP programs because there can be no emergency response if there is no way to support operational functions that will allow you to set up field hospitals, contact emergency response staff, or communicate updates to the affected populations. At its core, COOP goes hand-in-hand with emergency preparedness planning.
How to Start COOP Planning at Your Organization
Understanding the need for COOP is pretty simple, but getting your organization to invest time and resources could require more effort. As Mellen acknowledged during her presentation, “There are so many critical initiatives that require organizational attention as it is, how do you justify adding COOP as a focus area when there are already so many competing priorities in play?”
To implement COOP at your organization, your first step will likely be getting leadership buy-in to ensure your company can provide the resources to support the establishment of a COOP program. You will need to determine what stakeholders should be included and what about COOP will be most important to them. Remember that COOP for emergency response providers is something that not only protects public safety but can also support the bottom line and reputational security at your organization.
Once you’ve gotten leadership buy-in, you can begin on these steps for establishing a COOP program:
- Identify Essential Functions
- Conduct a Business Process Analysis (BPA)
- Conduct a Business Impact Analysis (BIA)
- Update, Test, Train, Exercise & Maintain the COOP Plan
About Cyndi Mellen
Cyndi Mellen, PMP, CBCP is the Continuity of Operations (COOP) Director at New York City Emergency Management (NYCEM). Cyndi leads the COOP Unit in coordinating NYC’s COOP Program, helping 46 City agencies build resilience and enhance their ability to deliver essential services during emergencies. She has over a decade of program management, planning, training, and exercise experience across a variety of areas, including COOP, cybersecurity, and complex coordinated terrorist attacks (CCTAs). Cyndi is a Certified Business Continuity Professional (CBCP) and Project Management Professional (PMP). She holds a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree in Homeland Security and Government Information Strategy and Management and a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in Political Science from the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy, University at Albany.
About the Author
Alexandra (Ali) Hochreiter, MPH, has worked in public health and emergency management for 15 years. Ms. Hochreiter currently serves as an Engagement Manager with Audacious Inquiry, a health information technology and policy leader, primarily supporting California and Texas. Previously, Ms. Hochreiter worked as a consultant supporting the Department of Health and Human Services, assisting in COVID-19 analysis and after-action reports, and for FEMA’s National Integration Center, Individual Community and Preparedness Division, and National Preparedness Assessment Division. She also led the development of training and exercise programs for a large investor-owned utility in California, strengthening wildfire preparedness efforts. Ms. Hochreiter’s field work includes hurricane, tornado, and pandemic response, and she is an active volunteer with the Medical Reserve Corps.