Operations Under Fire

Having a continuity of operations plan will assist in delivering service during an emergency event

   You are the director for All-City EMS, a third-service EMS agency handling BLS and ALS for a large urban area. One day, the director of your health department calls to say he has been informed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that some Southeast Asian areas are seeing an increase in avian flu. The World Health Organization has categorized this as a phase 4 pandemic, and he advises you that the city manager has requested that all department heads break out their continuity of operations plans (COOP). He also tells you there will be a mandatory meeting the next day with the city manager to discuss COOP. "COOP," you think to yourself. "I haven't even looked at that plan since they made us write it three years ago."

What Is COOP?

   For the uninitiated, a continuity of operations plan, commonly referred to as a COOP plan, can be intimidating to understand, develop and operationalize. The process may seem daunting, but having a solid understanding of what it entails and who needs to be at the proverbial table can make the process easier.

   Continuity of operations planning allows for the continuation of essential functions of government departments or agencies during any incident or emergency that may disrupt normal operations. COOP addresses the recovery of critical and essential government operations in the event of an emergency. This can be on a short-term basis, like a power failure, where having backup capability (systems, personnel, processes, files, etc.) can quickly resolve the situation. It can also be longer term, such as in a natural disaster, when services are impacted for several days or even weeks. Most recently, certain public health and EMS agencies found themselves dusting off, and even implementing, components of their COOPs for the 2009-2010 H1N1 pandemic.

   As critical components in the healthcare system and emergency response entities, EMS agencies need to understand who needs to be involved in the COOP process, the various components that make up a COOP, the transition from day-to-day emergency operations to COOP activation and other elements.

   The initial development and subsequent retention of adequate COOP capabilities requires substantial effort. For that reason alone, COOPs should be developed and maintained using a multi-year attitude and process, which should, among other things:

  • Outline the progression the agency will follow to designate essential functions and resources
  • Define both short- and long-term COOP goals and objectives
  • Forecast budgetary requirements
  • Anticipate and address possible problem areas and potential obstacles
  • Establish planning milestones.

The Planning Process

   A good plan can utilize the following general template, with minor modifications based on your EMS agency specifics:

Section I: Statement of purpose

   This statement need not be long, but it should summarize concisely the intent of your agency's COOP. A statement such as "This Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) is intended to help preserve and restore essential functions of the Regional Emergency Medical Services Agency (REMS) if its headquarters is subject to a crisis, an actual or threatened loss of administrative and/or operational capacity" is more than sufficient. This statement should be able to make the uninitiated aware of who you are, what the essential functions of your agency are and why you are developing a COOP.

Section II: Risks/hazards identified

   This section of your plan will detail any known or expected community risks and/or hazards that have the potential to imperil your agency's operations and cause activation of your COOP efforts. Obviously, these risks are variable and dependent on your specific geographic location, as well as additional considerations. This particular section should be done in cooperation with your local emergency management officials, with input from your public health authorities and hospitals, who will all have a good idea of what the area has seen before and how it will likely impact your EMS agency. Keep in mind that the aforementioned risks/hazards might be caused by any natural disaster, accident or terrorist act that significantly damages your facilities, equipment and/or vehicles.

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