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Volume 30, Issue 3

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Whether your perspective is from the national strategic level or the municipal level, the view of homeland security and emergency management has changed for the foreseeable future. The primary responsibilities of any elected or appointed public servant – or leader of a private corporation, for that matter – are to protect property and, above all, preserve the health, safety, and welfare of his or her respective constituents. Meeting those challenges and the increased demands of emergency preparedness and security planning is a daunting task for even the most seasoned professional. In an environment that is complex, uncertain, ambiguous, and often volatile, leaders have five primary roles to play in ensuring the security of their communities and organizations: plan, prepare, practice, communicate, and seek funding/resources.

This article focuses primarily on planning and preparing your organization for the next disaster – manmade or natural – that will inevitably affect your community or organization. The article discusses two areas that require a dedicated team effort from the entire county government staff: continuity of government and its associated vital records program, and emergency support functions (ESFs).

Continuity of Government

Continuity of government is an essential function of emergency management and, therefore, critical during a severe disaster emergency. Continuity of government means the preservation, maintenance, or reconstitution of the civil government’s ability to carry out its constitutional responsibilities. It will ensure government institutions continue to function and that vital services are provided to the citizens of your community. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, raised the specter that enemies of the United States possess the motivation and capability to seriously disrupt the normal day-to-day functions of government bodies. Obviously, catastrophic natural disasters may also interfere with the normal course of daily business.

The Continuity of government concept dates back to President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 10346. The president directed federal agencies to develop plans to maintain the essential functions of their organizations during nuclear war or other catastrophic event. Succeeding presidents have maintained the concept through other executive orders, and ultimately many state and local governments have adopted it as well.

President John F. Kennedy best summarized the importance of this concept when he said, “The continued effective functioning of civilian political authority in an emergency is vital to the survival of our free society.”

The corollary is that the private sector should adopt the same concepts when considering their continuity of business/business recovery plans. Additionally, the private sector will be greatly impacted if the affected political jurisdiction cannot execute its authorities and responsibilities. Consumer confidence and spending would drop off precipitously.

Continuity of government operations and planning will facilitate rapid restoration of authority and essential government functions and services, reduce panic, preclude civil unrest, minimize potential risks posed by secondary effects of the disaster, and greatly reassure the citizens of your community that their elected and appointed officials take emergency preparedness seriously and will do everything humanly possible to preserve their health, safety, and welfare. A viable continuity of government plan that ensures restoring order, protecting the safety of the public, restoring utilities, clearing roads, and preventing looting, etc. will also reassure the private business sector.

Continuity of government plans establish policy guidance to ensure the execution of county mission critical functions in the event the government complex or any individual agency or facility is threatened or incapacitated and the relocation of selected county personnel and functions is required. Continuity of government plans will ensure county departments and agencies are prepared to provide critical services in the following situations:

  • In a potentially threatening environment;
  • From a site with degraded capabilities;
  • From a site that is incapacitated; and/or
  • From an emergency relocation site.

County government must be prepared to respond to any emergency or threat of emergency that may disrupt operations within an agency or county facility. The county emergency operations plan (EOP) was designed to martial your forces and respond to any emergency in the county. The continuity of government plan, as part of the EOP, should be designed to help you help yourselves and allow you to be as self-sufficient as possible. Development of a solid continuity of government plan will require the county staff to look internally for additional expertise and staffing of a county continuity of government working group.

The establishment of such a group will help ensure all departments are on the same page and will support one another. Establishing a public-private partnership in this effort and having representation from the business community on the working group will also pay dividends. The business community has a great deal of experience in continuity of operations planning and several concepts translate to the public sector. Additionally, when county government staffs are looking for emergency relocation sites, the private sector may be able to offer empty or under-utilized office space. Memorandums of agreement would solidify this arrangement.

The county continuity of government working group will provide the impetus for a living document, requiring long-term strategy and program management, as well as support and commitment from county leadership. The working group will not only identify essential functions and personnel and materiel resources, but also develop long- and short-term goals and objectives, forecast budgetary requirements, evaluate obstacles, and establish planning benchmarks. FEMA suggests a number of relevant performance measures in its discussion of the objectives and planning considerations for continuity of government activities. These include the following:

  • Ensuring the continuous performance of an agency’s functions/operations during an emergency
  • Protecting essential facilities, equipment, records, and other assets
  • Reducing or mitigating disruptions to operations
  • Reducing loss of life, minimizing damage and losses
  • Achieving a timely and orderly recovery from an emergency and resumption of full service to customers

To ensure its viability, a continuity of government plan must contain a baseline of preparedness, be capable of execution across the full range of potential emergencies, and, therefore, include these minimum essential elements:

  • Be maintained at a high level of readiness (which requires involvement of the entire county government staff in the planning process)
  • Be capable of implementation both with and without warning
  • Be operational within 12 hours of activation
  • Be capable of sustaining operations for up to 30 days
  • Take maximum advantage of existing county infrastructure for support operations and departmental emergency relocation sites (alternate facilities and possibly necessitating a public-private partnership to accommodate emergency relocation sites for all county departments/agencies)
  • Identify the mission essential functions of each county department/agency
  • Delineate delegation of authority
  • Identify orders of succession
  • Prepare for operations without communications between departments
  • Identify, maintain, and provide for the back-up of vital records and databases
  • Assess departmental vulnerabilities and capabilities
  • Account for logistics and administrative issues
  • Address personnel issues
  • Call for exercises and training
  • Identify a working group member from each department/agency, as well as representation from civic organizations and the business community

Generally speaking, the key performance measures for continuity of government are the degree to which the consequences of emergencies can be mitigated and the speed with which government functions and services can be restored.

As suggested by FEMA, in cases where civil government and associated services have been disrupted, the goal of the continuity of government planning process should be to reestablish a basic level of civil authority within 12 hours and be sustainable for up to one month. You are the best judge of your administrative needs – only you will be able to get back to business as usual … if you plan.

Vital Records Management

The management, protection, and preservation of vital records are essential functions of county government and its emergency management program. A department’s information will be essential to its ability to execute critical responsibilities in the wake of an emergency. The Achilles’ heel however, is that much of this information is stored on-site in non-electronic format and even in basements that are prone to flooding.

Vital records management and contingency planning for their preservation are inexorably linked to successful emergency preparedness. Appropriate staff members from all county departments/agencies must address the following issues:

  • Determine the most critical functions the department/agency must perform if it must operate under other than normal business conditions and in a facility other than its normal place of business
  • Identify which records are required to support those critical activities and the reconstitution of normal operations
  • Identify which records or IT systems contain information necessary to protect the legal and financial rights of the agency and persons affected by the agency’s actions and preserving copies of such records
  • Establish and implement a plan to recover records damaged in an emergency or disaster
  • Provide for the protection and availability of electronic and hardcopy documents, references, records, information systems, and databases at both the primary and alternate sites
  • Maintain off-site storage of vital records

Planning for vital records protection must address actual and potential risks that could adversely affect agency operations. Possible threats include: fires, hurricanes, floods, other physical damage to infrastructure, infestation, sabotage (from either an internal or external perpetrator), civil disturbance, power failure, and acts of terrorism. Conducting an internal vulnerability analysis is highly recommended. To assist in the effectiveness of this process, counties should develop departmental emergency guidelines, outlining policies and objectives of the program, as well as functional statements on how the program will be implemented and staff responsibilities. Here again is an opportunity to tap into the experience and expertise of the private sector.

All political jurisdictions are not equal when it comes to IT staffing, level of knowledge, and hardware. IT experts from the private sector are an invaluable resource when it comes to IT strategic planning and preservation of vital records. The private sector also has a vested interest in the aspect of the continuity of government plan. After all, tax documents, land use planning documents, building permits, and licenses, etc. are considered vital records.

In summary, the vital records program will achieve two important and fundamental aims. First, the program will provide a department/agency with information needed to execute essential functions under other than normal operating conditions, thus providing basic services to its constituents and resumption of normal operations during and after the post-disaster recovery phase. Second, the program enables county staff to identify and protect vital records dealing with the myriad of legal, financial, and historical concerns of county government.

Emergency Support Functions

No two emergencies are the same, no matter how similar they may seem. Therefore, emergency management professionals have adopted an “all-hazards approach” to emergency management. It is also incumbent on the entire county government organization to realize that one emergency can, and sometimes does, result in another emergency. For example, a multi-vehicle traffic accident can result in a hazardous materials incident; or severe winter snowstorms may eventually lead to flooding.

To help counteract this phenomenon, county EOPs have recently been revised and are, to a large extent, based on the National Response Plan (NRP)/Emergency Support Function (ESF) concept . County EOPs serve as an emergency management link between the municipalities and the state. ESFs, developed by FEMA in the late 1980s, are tools that build synergy among multiple agencies that perform similar functions, creating a single, cohesive unit, which, in turn, allows for better management of emergency response functions and resources.

ESFs group the types of assistance that the county and/or its municipalities are likely to need based on 12 federal ESFs. Because differences exist between the capabilities and resources at the federal level and the needs at the county/local level, the 12 federal ESFs do not fully address all state, county, or local needs. For example, in our state of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) requires an additional seven ESFs (with some counties even adding more of their own), which are included in the ESF annex of county EOPs. Standard operating checklists should also be developed to further facilitate response actions and activities of the staff in the county emergency operations center.

ESFs are established to carry out the provisions and task assignments of the county EOP. Each ESF addresses tasks for specific emergency management functions and is broken down into the four phases of emergency management (preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation). A single department or agency is designated as the primary coordinating agency responsible for managing tasks and resources within each ESF, while other departments or agencies act as support agencies. The primary coordinating agency oversees the assigned ESF under the direction of the county emergency management coordinator (EMC). The selection of the primary coordinating agency is based upon its authority, resources, and capabilities in a particular functional area and its administrative and personnel abilities to perform the required duties. Each primary coordinating agency is responsible for assigning sufficient personnel and time to ensure effective administration and implementation of the assigned ESF. Other agencies, departments, and organizations are identified as support agencies for one or more of the ESFs based on their resources and capabilities to support the assigned functional area. Primary coordinating agencies may reassign support agency tasks as needed and may recruit additional support agencies for newly identified tasks.

The private sector will also have role to play when ESFs are executed and will be instrumental in how they are implemented. First, in the event of a catastrophic disaster numerous volunteers will be required. This may have an impact on employee attendance at many places of business. Also, several ESFs are directly tied to the private sector. Private hospitals may be inundated with injured greatly affecting their ability to address their normal case load; private transportation resources may be required for evacuation or the transportation of mass casualties; construction equipment may be necessary for debris management and removal, excavation, or river bank stabilization; grocery stores or “big box” retailers may be asked to provide food and water; utility companies may pressured to restore power to thousands of business and residential customers; and some county emergency management agencies in Pennsylvania have even developed a separate ESF for business and industry.


It is not a matter of “if,” but rather “when,” the next disaster emergency will occur. To think that it will not is to operate under a false assumption. Like Gen. Tommy Franks, USA (Ret), said during his Shippensburg University commencement address in 2003, “Hope is not a plan.”

However, a holistic approach to emergency management will mitigate the impact of that disaster. This requires the concerted and dedicated efforts of the entire county government organization, beginning with a strong level of support from the board of commissioners, coupled with a strong public-private partnership. Some may have a larger role to play than others; nonetheless, everyone on the team has a significant contribution to make. In order to be truly effective, the county’s emergency management system can no longer rest solely on the shoulders of the EMC. While the EMC leads the way and is the resident emergency management professional in the county, he/she must have the support of everyone involved in county government – the entire team.


Thomas J. Arminio, director of emergency management services for Delta Development Group, assesses the emergency management, planning, and homeland security challenges clients face and then formulates sound, viable strategies for improvement in those areas.

Troy D. Truax, AICP, is a principal of community and economic development planning, for Delta Development Group. Truax provides a diverse background of professional planning expertise and knowledge to Delta’s public and private client base.