Continuity of Operations Plans: Maintaining Essential Agency Functions When Disaster Strikes


  • Paul M. Whitworth


Business continuity planning, contingency plans, continuity of operations, critical functions, and essential functions


In a post 9/11 world, agencies are becoming increasingly aware of the potential effects of both human caused and natural disaster events on humans, resources, and continuity of critical and essential agency functions. Critical and essential functions are defined as those activities required to provide vital services, maintain the safety and wellbeing of stakeholders, and sustain the economic base in an emergency (e.g., Cerullo & Cerullo, 2004; General Services Administration, 2000). Critical and essential agency functions can be interrupted by a variety of events including terrorist attacks, severe weather, or building level emergencies (General Accounting Office, 2004, February). Disaster and business continuity experts hold that current threats to agency operations include: potential terrorism, sabotage, biological events, bomb threats, computer crime, hazardous waste events, hostage taking, mail threats, radiation events, and mass destruction (Chandler & Wallace, 2004). Similarly, concerns about natural disasters are increasing amid recognition that the frequency of major disasters is increasing; the number of declared disasters nearly doubled during the 1990s as compared to the previous decade (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, n.d.a).Agencies should develop continuity of operations plans to ensure essential functions during emergency and disaster events. A viable continuity of operations plan consists of document plans, procedures and support that provide for continued performance of essential functions under all circumstances (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 1999). According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a viable continuity of operations capability means that an agency maintains a high level of readiness that can be implemented with or without warning such that essential agency functions can be operational within 12 hours of activation and sustainable for up to 30 days (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 1999). Components of continuity of operations plans include identification of essential functions, establishment of plans and procedures, access to information systems and vital data, provisions for delegation of authority and orders of succession, dispersal of operations across geographical locations with alternate sites, multiple critical personnel to conduct essential functions and redundancy of communications (e.g., Federal Emergency Management Agency, 1999; General Services Administration, 2000; McCloskey, 2002).