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December 2007

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Exercise Grand Slam Tests Readiness in Disaster

[Editor’s Note: The following is a hypothetical situation only, part of Exercise Grand Slam, intended to test the emergency preparedness of government agencies in New York City.]

At noon on a fall day in New York City, a suspicious package is discovered in the city’s business district. Within hours, five vehicles—possibly with explosives on board—are found parked in southern Manhattan, in Brooklyn, and around Penn Station and the United Nations. Alerted by the Department of Homeland Security to a possible terrorist attack in the city, the New York City Office of Emergency Management requests that all buildings in the vicinity of the suspicious vehicles hold their people inside while police investigate.

At the heart of the affected area is the James L. Watson U.S. Court of International Trade Building. Inside the building, Clerk of Court Tina Potuto Kimble and Chief Deputy Clerk Ed Volpe and 97 other employees of the Court of International Trade are sheltering-in-place (SIP) in two courtrooms selected for their locations away from windows and with access to bathrooms.

Or at least Kimble and Volpe are. Actually, most court employees went about their business as usual that day while the clerk, deputy clerk, and a number of court managers participated in Exercise Grand Slam, a full-scale continuity-of-operations program relocation exercise run by the metropolitan New York Federal COOP Working Group (CWG).

CWG, a committee of the New York City Federal Executive Board, conducts periodic Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) exercises for all government agencies in the New York metropolitan area designed to test and evaluate COOP readiness. Southern District of New York Circuit Executive Clifford Kirsch chairs the Board. “Grand Slam,” explains Volpe, “was a 30-day exercise compressed into one day. The night before the exercise we used our cascading phone tree to call everyone. It was a good way to verify phone numbers and to be sure everyone got the message. If a generic answering message was reached, the employee was called back.” The court already asks employees for personal e-mail addresses and there are plans to set up employee e-mail accounts on national search engines, so they can be reached from anywhere, anytime.

When the actual exercise began, the court gathered its first-responders—managers and their deputies or a designated employee—to explain the scenario.

“There are different stages of SIP,” said Volpe. “An announcement by the fire safety director over the loudspeaker would tell employees to, for example, stay in their offices and lock their doors. This keeps them from going out into the halls and perhaps putting themselves at risk of meeting a gunman. Or they may be instructed to stay in the building.” Volpe explains that remaining in the building might be the safest avenue in the event of civil unrest or if there was a biological hazard outside. “In the courthouse, we would seal airways and passageways with plastic as we head to our shelter-in-place courtrooms. Once in the courtrooms, we’d lock the doors and seal them.”

If occupants must evacuate the building, the Court of International Trade has a rally point several blocks away that’s known to all employees. The court holds annual evacuation drills to familiarize staff with the location.

In Exercise Grand Slam, the scenario eventually called for buildings to begin releasing their occupants and for businesses to close. The court would need to find a remote site from which to operate.

“You have to remember where we are,” said Chief Judge Jane A. Restani. “Other courts in the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York have alternative courthouses they can go to. We have one courthouse in lower Manhattan.” Restani says the court was disrupted temporarily when the World Trade Towers fell, but with help from the General Services Administration was back in the building within a week.

“We always had backup for our data and we were able to update our website quickly,” Restani said. “In fact, we were able to help attorneys who lost records and data in the Towers. But we learned a lot from that event. And we were eager to have a COOP site. New Jersey was a natural COOP for us.”

The District of New Jersey houses the court’s backup server and now, in the event of a court evacuation, provides a two-room suite and courtrooms if needed.

“The key for us,” explains Volpe, “is that our court is predominantly electronic. We have a spare server and backup tapes in New Jersey. The tapes are updated once a month, so we’d never be more than a month out of date. We are also able to put a notice on the Case Management/Electronic Case Files system if we are experiencing problems at the court building. We can even say how long we’ll be away and include emergency phone numbers for attorneys and for employees.”

“Basically, we’re a computer-driven operation,” Restani agrees. “Attorneys can always contact the court by phone. Temporary restraining orders are handled by phone anyway and we’re quite used to not seeing attorneys. Electronics and our website work well for us.”

However, Restani admits to some concerns about the COOP site, which were resolved by the exercise. “It was an interesting experience to go there,” she said. “I could operate from my home over the Judiciary’s communications network, but in a real emergency I would be at the New Jersey COOP site. I wanted to see how people got to the site, particularly using public transportation and without going through lower Manhattan.”

Restani says it is important to select a COOP site far enough away, yet close enough. “You have to consider the logistics of how your people get to a site,” she says, “and the avenues of transportation.”

The court’s COOP called for human resource and financial procurement personnel to go to the New Jersey facility immediately, along with the clerk of court and IT people. “We learned,” said Volpe, “that it makes more sense for just the computer staff to go initially, along with the clerk and deputy clerk, and secure connectivity with our server. If there was an incident, we don’t want to take more people than absolutely necessary away from their families.” The court’s COOP will be adjusted.

The court also had the finance and procurement manager telework to test if she could connect from home with other government agencies—which was successful. The court’s succession plan also was tested by having two managers not respond. In both instances, the managers’ deputies took their places without incident.

“Knock on wood, it was seamless,” said Volpe, describing the court’s ability to operate from the remote site. “We found a lot of problems. But correcting them involves more tweaking than anything else.”

The District Court for the District of New Jersey was a major contributor to the exercise success. “Without their cooperation and generosity,” said Kimble, “this exercise would have been far more difficult.”

“A well-thought-out—and tested—COOP allows a court to continue essential activities and functions in the event of a disaster, whether natural or man-made,” said William Lehman, chief of the Administrative Office Judiciary Emergency Preparedness Office. “They also ensure the safety and well-being of employees, visitors, and the public.”

Restani endorses a continual monitoring of a court’s COOP program. “What good are walkie-talkies if you don’t check the batteries?” she asks. “We send someone to the District Court for the District of New Jersey once a month to check on our server equipment. We have emergency plans. The various scenarios we worked out in Exercise Grand Slam were actually about solving problems from New Jersey. We’ve never had to set up shop in there, but we now know we can.”