Episode 8

In this podcast we dive into the subject of CONTINUITY OPS. We are going to look at how a Continuity of Ops plan is crucial in any response effort, but in particular in a crisis of this magnitude. Marty Luna will offer much needed perspective on the Continuity of Ops process and how to successfully manage this process in your jurisdiction. Executive Assistant Chief Homer Robertson with The City of Fort Worth FD will lay out the COOP plan in his City and how they have been adapting it to this extended response.


Narrator: Welcome to the Disaster Management Podcast series each episode features subject matter professionals discussing strategies and techniques for emergency managers and policy makers to consider as they prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters. This series is brought to you by Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service and the National Emergency Response and Recovery Training Center.

Heather Crites: Howdy and welcome to the next podcast in are covid-19 response series. Today’s podcast is hosted by Kris Murphy and Heather Crites. My name is Heather Crites. I am a training specialist with the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service and am primarily responsible for our enhanced all hazards incident management unified command course also known as MGT 314.

Kris Murphy: And I am Kris Murphy also with the MGT 314 program and I’ve interacted with many of you listening during your time here in College Station. Also joining us today is Homer Robertson. He’s the executive fire chief with the city of Fort Worth from here in the great state of Texas. And Marty Luna who’s an associate training specialist with TEEX, and he is based out of Wyoming. Gentlemen why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourselves Homer.

Homer Robertson: Thanks Kris. Again my name is Homer Robertson the executive assistant chief here in Fort Worth. A little bit about Fort Worth, we’re 13th largest city in the United States. Now with a population of almost 900,000 people in about 350 square miles. My primary responsibilities here in Fort Worth is I oversee the office of emergency management as well as our training division and the support services includes fire apparatus and training. Pretty busy and especially during these COVID times.

Marty Luna: I’m Marty Luna I’m in Cheyenne Wyoming. Chief talked about his population just in the city of Fort Worth there aren’t that many people in even in the state of Wyoming so that’s one of the things that we have to deal with low population. Background basically Public Safety my entire life. Started Martin Pentacle services. Retired as a lieutenant for the Cheyenne Wyoming Police Department. Did a number of years of the emergency management. Was the first executive director of homeland security for the state of Wyoming. I spent two terms as a County Coroner and about six plus years ago I decided I’ve done everything that I was going to do with that one and I went back to work for TEEXs full-time. I’m a telecommuting instructor that’s a little bit about me.

Kris Murphy: We’re so glad to have both of you with us. In today’s podcast we are going to dive into the subject of continuity a OP’s. We’re going to look at how a continuity of OP’s plan is so crucial in any response effort but in particular in a crisis of this magnitude. Marty why don’t you start us off with a quick definition or explanation of what is exactly meant by the phrase continuity of OP’s.

Marty Luna: Sure Kris thanks. I want to start this off with a little mantra that I always start my classes off with and I think about it is more dealing with any kind of a planning situation. Right now with COVID nationwide, worldwide we’re in a reactive mode and so that kind of creates some issues for us but I want you to think about three different things. I want you to think about common sense, I want you to think about situational awareness and I want you to think about critical thinking because those three things are always going to go into some kind of a plan. Continuity of OP’s whether you call it business continuity, government continuity. Our plan that has to put us in a position that says okay if something happens how do we keep the doors open. How do we take care of our people, number one, how do we take care of our customer and what are some of the recovery strategies that we have to come up with. The biggest thing that we’re seeing right now is just the fact that there’s no clear lines of communication or continuity of operations that’s going on nationwide or worldwide that gets us in one kind of zone. We’re just in between things right now. With that said what people need to think about right now is we need to put a team together even though we’re in this reactive mode, we need to put a team together that says at what point in time do we start looking at the recovery issues and how do we get back into business, whether your government, whether your retail, however it is, but how do we get back into business and that’s where we need to focus. And that takes a team effort, becomes a culture after a while and that’s what you really have to think about. Let’s not be reactive let’s look forward and start into that recovery phase.

Kris Murphy: Homer, anything you’d like to add to that?

Homer Robertson: I think Marty hit it right on the head when he talked about how do we develop those COOP plans. The thing that about the COVID response that we’ve had, it really has been kind of reactive but in another way it sort of hasn’t been reactive. I have a great team here at our emergency management office led by Mayor Bill Martinez who’s absolutely one of the best emergency managers in the country. She had pushed us for the last 18 months to work on COOP plans before we never heard the word COVID. The thing that impressed me the most was that we were really planning for maybe somebody hacking into our IT system or some other maybe natural disaster in Texas, we always worried about tornadoes, is what were we going to do, how are we going to pay people, who was going to come to work, who were essential employees, who were not essential employees, and one of the things she had done and her group had done was to push every department in the city of Fort Worth and we have close to 7,000 employees now, to develop those COOP plans. From the city manager’s office on down. It has paid off in big time dividends. We did have a foundation or a base to work off from our COOP plans. We didn’t know it was going to be COVID and we’ll talk about later I think how we had to adjust because it was something that we couldn’t see. We need to be planning for the next big thing right now.

Heather Crites: Homer that seems like such an overwhelming task. What has been the main focus of Fort Worth? What are some of the things that should be included in a continuity plan to make it effective.

Homer Robertson: First you have to identify what the mission of each department is. One of the first things is you’ve got to be super open-minded about what your job is. I’ve been here for 35 years and I’ve done things and last 14, 15, 16 weeks that I never thought the fire department would be involved in and it just completely changed our operation and I don’t think I’ve worked any harder in the last 35 years and I have in the last 16 weeks. Every day was something a little bit different. You got to be able to think outside the box. No way we could have forecasted what we were going to have to do. One of the things that strikes me is that in your classes at TEEX’s and we’ve encouraged our people throughout the city departments to participate and we wanted to teach them how to operate the EOC, because we can’t keep a staff here large enough to run this as we have for the last 15, 16 weeks. So we had to use people from all kinds of different departments and they did an awesome job planning situational awareness but one of the things we found was that would cause this enemy the COVID enemy was not a visible enemy, is that instead of encouraging people to come to the EOC we had to limit the number of people that came into the EOC. Our leadership came here every day including the mayor and department heads. We had to start limiting that because we couldn’t afford for that to be taken out the leadership. So instead of encouraging people we had to minimize the number of people we had come to the EOC. I never thought we would have to do that.

Kris Murphy: Homer you and I talked last week on the phone and you were telling me about that they wanted to cross-pollinate. How have you guys figured that out?

Homer Robertson: First thing we did we looked at each of our departments and I think fire maybe was a little bit more extreme because we had seen some places around the country that COVID had gotten into the fire stations. They had 70, 80 people in quarantine and maybe 10 to 20 positive cases. One of the things we looked at from the start where were our major specialty units. Our fire communication system, our arson, our bomb investigators, our aircraft fire rescue people. We looked at those and we determined that if we lost those people to COVID and say had a 50% absenteeism, how could we support that. So we lock those down. We didn’t allow people from the outside, we didn’t even allow, in some instances just routine maintenance to be done, it had to be an emergency. We used the highest level of PPE that we could to keep from our people from being exposed. That kind of transitioned into the EOC. We looked at the people that we needed to operate the EOC. Decision-makers, the leadership of the city and then those folks did not go out in public. We did have an exposure into our EOC where we had two different individuals that tested positive for COVID. As soon as we recognize that we got those people out of here and we did aggressive testing of everybody that remained in it limited exposure but this invisible enemy was a big deal and we did the same things in stations. I’m very proud of the fact because that we’ve been touching COVID patients every day since we started having our first exposures. We have not had a positive case of COVID inside the fire department during this entire event. We’ve been very fortunate over the last 15, 16 weeks not to have any positive cases with 950 firefighters.

Kris Murphy: That is great news good for you Homer. Marty I read somewhere that continuity planning is simply a good business practice to ensure the execution of essential function. Who does this planning process and when does it take place.

Marty Luna: Back to what the chief said, continuity communications is huge. You’ve got to be able to talk to each other and you’ve got to do it but it starts at the very beginning when we sit down and say what are our central functions. The second thing is order a succession, who makes the decisions and how does it work. It has to become a culture, you have to have buy-in not only from the very top if I’m the boss and I say okay I’m going to put this team together and we’re going to put together a continuity of operations plan and these are the essential functions that I have to make sure that we have covered but you have to have buy-in. Writing a plan and putting it up on a shelf and saying hey we have a continuity of business or we have continuity of operations plan isn’t enough. It’s got to be broken down. It goes back to the emergency management functions of prevention, preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery. Go back and you look at the process and that’s I think that’s the big thing is people don’t understand it it’s a process it’s just not somebody sits down in a vacuum and writes a plan. Anybody can do that it has to be done as a team effort but you have that buy-in from top to bottom. Who are our first responders today and not getting anything away from law, fire, EMS or healthcare or hospital workers, but it’s janitors, it’s people that are stocking shelves, there has to be a buy-in from top to bottom all the way down or it’s not going to work out very well. A process starts at the very beginning. If I have a business and something happens, COVID, an earthquake, a hurricane, flood, anything, how do I get my doors back open in the shortest amount of time because what we start looking at then when we’re talking about continuity of operations where their business or otherwise is recovery and how do we get things taken care of, how do we get back on the straight and narrow.

Heather Crites: I’m going to ask a basic question and maybe it’s obvious to most of our listeners, but is a continuity operations plan a plan with multiple annexes that deal with different disasters such as snow storms, tornadoes, flooding, are there different scenarios that impact the plan?

Marty Luna: Chief if I can answer that question really quick, what it boils down to is at the very beginning the first thing that we have to do is a risk assessment. What is it that can impact my business, whether it’s weather-related, natural disaster, sicknesses, all those kinds of things, so you identify those risks at first. There’s not really a bunch of annexes, that comes in succession and communications and basically your delegations of authority, who’s in charge, if I’m not there who’s going to be in charge. What you’re really looking at it’s just kind of an overall plan but you’re looking more financially you’re looking more at different kinds of aspects that I wouldn’t advocate as a planner to sit there and put a bunch of annexes in there you can have guidelines and protocols that you follow that go along with that plan but your plan is a big-picture thing. Just because you write a plan and you put it up on a shelf are you going to exercise that plan you’re going to test it does everybody understand that what that is. That’s a question I always ask. I said how many of you in my classes know what your job is under the county’s Emergency Operations plan or the city’s Emergency Operations plan. And it’s look at you because they don’t know they’ve never seen it. It doesn’t have to be this huge thick 500 plus page plan, it can be just a general overall look but think about those five areas of Emergency Management and National Response framework or National Incident Management System look at those five areas and make sure that you’ve had them covered but it’s got to be a team effort from top to bottom. Lots of people don’t think about those things. You get emergency managers who job is to look and evaluate what their emergency operations plan looks like for the city or county and then they just sit back put it on a shelf. The big thing is you’ve got to pick it out and test it, where’s the holes? That’s where our best practices come from, that’s where our after-action reports come from and they look at things like what went well what didn’t go so well was it a training issue was it a personnel issue. That takes us back going to our county commissioners or City Council and saying hey this is what happened it’s going to take money for training, it’s going to take money for personnel, equipment, whatever and then start all over again. It’s not just a one-time gig.

Kris Murphy: Homer in Fort Worth, how has your normal continuity planning process had to change during this killer crisis?

Homer Robertson: The one thing is you got to be flexible. It’s gonna throw things at you that we had no idea and Marty brings up a great point where he’s talking about what is our critical functions but also what we’re not so critical? What could we postpone? We had a recruit class going. How do we continue to train? We issued everybody in our training class an iPad and they could zoom in. Broke them up so that we could do some good social distancing. An example I’ll use for the fire department was we decided we were going to stop all commercial building inspections and we have thousands of commercial buildings that we inspect every year we shut all that down we shut our hydrant testing program down just to minimize our exposure to the public. But now as we are starting to open back up here in Texas, commercial building inspections are important for both safety of the firefighters for them to see those buildings but also identify hazards. But we’re not going to charge them for it, we’re going to waive that. That helped both the community not having to take money out of their pocket when they’re already struggling and then it still tells to them that our mission is important. We didn’t have that in our COOP but it’s an important part. One of the things I would encourage people to do out there that if they have not done COOP plans that they need to start.

Marty Luna: The big thing is going to be technologies and operations. Some of the other issues, number one is your employee’s safety, then you’re looking at your customer safety. You know how do you keep your people paid, payroll. The other thing that you have to look at is there going to be another wave. Continuity wise how do we plan for that to make sure that we’ve got that taken care of.

Heather Crites: When it comes to writing these continuity of ops plans is there a guidebook so to speak. What resources are you using to assist in your planning?

Homer Robertson: We go back, we ask our colleagues and network a little bit and find out what they’ve used and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel and I think guidelines can help us. Nobody knows their operation better than they know it. Each department, each group they truly understand their operation. They need to look at as a guideline get other people to send you their COOP plans and then just say hey we don’t need this but hey here’s a good idea here’s a good topic a subject that we need to address What’s our primary mission? How do we address that and then how do we pay people and how do we support people. The thing that we had in every COOP plan that needs to be included. Marty just brought payroll up how do we do that how do we track her time but we got to pay people. I have not been able to work from home. Our payroll clerks come in, do they need to come in every day, can they work remotely? When we’re talking about supporting our people how do we support them in their mental health? That’s where these platforms. I see a lot of that coming out right now. We did not in our COOP plan address enough about behavioral health, mental health of being cooped up at home not coming to work, not socializing. I think that’s another important one that we didn’t even think of.

Kris Murphy: I know there’s a template available for people starting out that they can access from the fema.gov site.

Marty Luna: Exactly. Chief said don’t reinvent the wheel. There are plans out there. Look at what you can use for your particular business or government. Antity also look at the real domestic preparedness consortium has a particular course called management 381 which is business continuity planning. But it breaks it down get some good templates in there. You use what you need to use, you throw away what you don’t need to use. Go back a little bit to what Chief said, they were looking at the mental health issues. What’s it like when we have to remotely work and work from home and things like that. My wife works in the school district. They have been remoted for a period of time now. I’m just happy I’m not waking up with a pillow over my face every morning.

Homer Robertson: As we talked about we’re sharing these plans with other people, we’re looking at other people’s COOP plans. I will tell our listeners be careful about who you share your COOP plans with. I would not publish them on the internet. If I share them I would only share them with people that I trusted and then ask them not to do that. So it’s COVID this time. What if it’s an attack on our IT system next time and we have basically published how we’re going to operate. There is a certain amount of confidentiality that we need to think about. I don’t want somebody that’s going to hack into our IT system to have really seen my continuity of operations plan so that they can plan around it.

Kris Murphy: That’s a great piece of advice Homer. What sre some of the main considerations when you’re putting a continuity plan together?

Marty Luna: Chief talked about the cyberattacks. I was involved in y2k planning, planes didn’t fall out of skies and communication systems didn’t go down but the planning aspect was the whole thing is breaking it down. A continuity of operations plan is internal. It’s how I’m going to function when the bad thing happens. I’m an active-shooter instructor. I’m not going to tell you where you have to go there are different things that we need to do and I sure don’t want that on paper because that tells bad people where I can go hunt for you. I think the simplest thing to do is look at what do I do internally, what’s my functions, what’s the product that I put out, you know whether it’s government or otherwise. Kind of do it in concentric rings to see how that works and put your plan together that way. It’s not just what goes on inside, it’s what goes on in your neighborhood and your community and how that might affect how you work things.

Homer Robertson: Great point Marty. One of the things we’re learning about the COOP plans is that while they’ve been around for a long time and we’ve encouraged people to do them. I think that this COVID incident has struck the nerve of how important they are. A lot of our department heads a lot of our leadership and our elected officials probably did not have a good understanding of what COOP plans were and how important they were until the start. So we’ve got to do a better job going forward educating them and making sure that they’re aware that these kind of things are place. As a guy used to say they’re typed in pencil, is that we’re constantly erasing rewriting adding things thinking of something new and then for us to really be able to develop a COOP plan is that we’ve got to think about things we’ve never thought about. We need to look ahead for us to develop a great COOP plan we got to have a global view. We need to know what’s going on in Italy and China and in Africa to forecast what all we need to have put in that COOP plan. That’s one of the things I think the most important thing it’s taught me.

Marty Luna: I can’t disagree with it you Chief. We have to look at communication. So we have to have consistent communications and I think that that’s primary problem that worldwide we’re running into. We’re being fed a lot of information really fast, a lot of it statistics and numbers. We don’t get big picture things like demographics or those different kinds of things that have an impact on how we try to plan for something. But I think you made a statement, move forward, right that’s what we have to do now. Let’s not keep in this reactionary mode but we need to focus on looking at people internally that we have right now. Send them down at the table and play the what if game and let’s move forward.

Homer Robertson: I agree 100%. That what if game is really at a different level than it was. We just always relied on things that we felt comfortable with. We knew that we’re coming. Major incidents that we have dealt with in the past. I can’t think of anything that we can compare COVID-19 to as far as our ability to marshal resources back to World War 2.

Marty Luna: I’ll tell you what my computer I have a statement on there says, “the worst freeze in our language is, it’s the way we’ve always done it.”

Heather Crites: I would assume flexibility is key so how flexible can these plans be or do they need to be flexible?

Marty Luna: Just because it’s a black and white doesn’t mean the way it is. You’re constantly using that planning cycle to look at how do we prevent, how do we prepare, how do we mitigate, how do we respond, how do we recover. Somewhere in there you’ve got to test it you’ve got to take it off the shelf and look at it and say we’ve got to make sure that it works because if it doesn’t work we have to fix it. Something that I bring up to my students all the time, we talk about best practices what are best practices? They’re ok, it works over here it worked here that worked here and we take in all these different ideas and we call them best practices and there are lessons learned whatever you want to call it guess. Guess who else looks at best practices, starts with an A, attorneys. They look at best practices – if you are not following best practices because it’s the way we’ve always done it your liability goes up, so you’ve got to really be aware of that.

Homer Robertson: I think absolutely we’ve got to be flexible. Just because we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know what the next big thing is and I’ll give you an example is our State Emergency Management Group TDEM through the governor through out to the fire departments of all people that we needed to go out and test for COVID patients in the nursing home. We have some 21,000 patients. Who would have thought that a modern-day fire department would have to tackle that kind of thing. That was certainly not in our COOP plan. Where do you get the testing kits, where’s the PPE coming from, how do you train people, those are all things that we have to be ready for the next time.

Kris Murphy: Homer what do you think their greatest challenge has been with the planning for this?

Homer Robertson: Probably in our COOP plan is the willingness to open their minds up and go down paths that we would have not normally have gone down. Our ability to accept new responsibilities and figure out how to make it work. I think Marty will agree with me on this is that we’re in the problem solving business. Whatever they throw at us we got to figure out a way of doing it. Next time it may be a little bit different but I think the framework of the COOP plans gives us a guideline.

Kris Murphy: And I have a question so a continuity of ops plan, a COOP plan is done at the local level, like the city of Fort Worth or the city of Cheyenne correct? Or is it done at a department level and then is there one at the state level, is there one of the federal level? Kind of explained to me how this works.

Homer Robertson: We developed that starting at the department level because you got to think they’re the folks that understand the problem. Nobody knows better what they’re doing than they do. And then we pull those together how do they tie in departmentally through the EOC and emergency management. I’m sure that the state has one but at my level they haven’t shared it with me, I don’t know what the states COOP plan is.

Marty Luna: Heather, Kris, it goes even deeper than that. It has to start at the very very lowest level and work its way up. Cities have COOP plans or they should, states should, the federal government does, its under the national framework that their continuity of operations and how that works and who’s responsible for what. As Chief said it might be something completely different next time so flexibility is a huge huge issue that we have to keep in mind because it’s not this rigid plan and it’s not something that I just put together because then if I have this plan in place I get grant money kind of thing. They’re real, they’re fluid. You just have continuity of operations every day. The big thing is how do you move into that next phase and that’s what continuity of operations is really about. How do I keep my doors open and then once I get to open them back up where do I go from here, what are going to be the restrictions, what’s changed, which the new normal as they say, how do we make that work.

Heather Crites: When it comes to say a city continuity of operations plan, do the business owners are they stakeholders in that plan are they part of that process?

Marty Luna: Everybody’s a stakeholder Heather, everybody. It affects me as a citizen from that community I’m a stakeholder. You know it’s not that broad. It’s just more in the lines of you sit down as either a fire department, a police department, a business, an event and you identify who the stakeholders are. You’re the one who has to take the lead on that and many of those, it’s going to be everybody listed right there they’re going to be a stakeholder.

Kris Murphy: Homer what are your thoughts on that.

Homer Robertson: I can’t say that in our continuity of operations plan that we went out into the community. For us it was more of an internal document with the goal of making sure that we could support the community I mean that’s really what we’re here for. We got to make sure that our plans reflect how we can support those people, those taxpayers out there our customers, so how do we take our plan and support those people and helping them be successful as we start opening back up. I know TEEX spends a lot of time teaching the importance of instant command system and NIMS and how all that ties in together. And one of the things we always talk about in those classes is that you have to use ICS on the little incidents every day in order for you to be able to use it on the big one and I think this is the big one. As far as COOP plans go how on a daily basis do we use our COOP plan so that we’re good at it when the big one hits like it did this time.

Marty Luna: It’s a plan that you put into effect every day. When you open up your doors and people come to work we call them standard operating procedures or guidelines or protocols whatever you want to call them, that’s all part of your continuity of operations.

Kris Murphy: Homer, how do you think your COOP plan that was in place six weeks ago has held up during this?

Homer Robertson: We’ve had pages of lessons learned. It was a great foundation and we’ve grown it. I don’t know how big the after-action reviews going to be on this because we’ve learned hundreds of things that we have not even thought about. It was a good start we’ve learned a tremendous amount.

Heather Crites: Gentlemen, as we wrap up I want to give you the opportunity to impart your final words of wisdom.

Homer Robertson: I’m encouraging people that if you don’t have continuity of operations plan you’ve got to get one done now. You’ve got to start now. Get that input together, get those stakeholders together, sit them down and say okay what was the impact and how do we move forward from here to make sure that next time and there will be you next time, how do we make it work, how do we keep things operating and that’s whether your government or your private sector business owner a family. What’s your continuity of operations plan for your family. The other thing that I want to put out there Kris and Heather is that if you would offer up my email. I’d be more than glad to answer questions that somebody may have had that they didn’t get answered here.

Heather Crites: Homer what words of wisdom do you have for us.

Homer Robertson: I want to echo what Marty said. If you don’t have an existing COOP plan, yes you’re behind. No matter how small an organization, whether it’s at the local state or federal level, you need to start now. Looking at your operations what’s the most important thing that you need to accomplish to support whoever your customer is. It’s a living document. We’re constantly changing. It’s a tremendous whiteboard exercise if you just put a problem at the top and ask everybody in the room how would this affect your part of the organization. You start building a matrix off of that. We have so much work to do. Do we have protocols and operational procedures in place to handle it.

Kris Murphy: Great information gentlemen.

Heather Crites: I want to thank you both for being with us today. We appreciate you taking the time to talk continuity of ops with us. We appreciate what each of you are doing for your communities. I would also like to thank all emergency personnel both behind the scenes and on the front lines for your continued dedication during these unprecedented times.

Narrator: Thank you for listening to the Disaster Management Podcast series brought to you by Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service and the National Emergency Response and Recovery

Training Center. If you have any questions or ideas for future episodes please contact [email protected] or visit teex.org for information about training near you.