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July 2009

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


Time to Prepare Together

A two-day conference last month in Indianapolis taught lessons that apply to all federal courts—and their sister federal and state government agencies across the country. The conference's message was: plan for emergencies. Its objective was: plan together.

"When a fire strikes, or the flood waters rise, or a more virulent strain of the flu hits," a federal judge told participants, "you, your co-workers and the community will be glad you took the time to be prepared."

Law enforcement and public health officials, staff and judges from the federal and state courts, state and national records managers, local hospital administrators, representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Indianapolis Federal Executive Association met in a Cross-Sector Coordination Planning Conference, June 25-26, 2009, in Indianapolis. The conference title underscored their goal: to reach out and work with other agencies in planning and preparing for emergencies.

Judge John Tinder (7th Cir.), in his welcome to conference participants, said, "There is more to emergency readiness than just looking inward at your organization. The best plans also include connections to outside agencies that will help you respond and recover from a disaster; this is the cross-sector preparedness portion of this conference, and will perhaps be the most important step you take as you go forward in your planning."

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana and the Administrative Office's Judiciary Emergency Preparedness Office (JEPO) played a pivotal role in organizing the conference and in sharing their own experience in emergency planning.

The conference brought together all the individuals with responsibility for emergency planning in a community—at federal, state and local levels, according to George Huff, AO-JEPO, a conference organizer.

"The goal was to close the gaps between all the respective agencies," Huff said. "The program was designed to prompt the conferees to consider the significance of assessing all-hazards emergency preparedness and operational continuity planning. Participants were encouraged to develop a framework of collaboration that cuts across sectors and jurisdictions."

All federal court units are urged to have Continuity of Operations (COOP) plans in place. Templates to help them outline strategies and plans for the continuation of essential functions, the delegation of authority, alternate work sites, and recovery are available and can be customized to each court's particular needs.

Laura Briggs, clerk of court for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, spoke at the conference on one of the elements of a viable continuity plan: succession planning.

"Organizations must have specific orders of succession for their offices that have COOP assignments," Briggs said, "because, during an emergency, officials who may have authority to execute essential functions may be unavailable or inaccessible." She advised that the orders of succession documentation and the agency's continuity plan be part of the court's vital records—those records essential to maintaining the function of the court. The Southern District of Indiana makes copies of the court's continuity plan part of individual Go-kits. The district's continuity plan includes contact information for everyone named in order of succession, as well as the names and contact information for all key players of critical related agencies, such as the U.S. Attorney's Office, the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), Probation and Pretrial Services Office, and the Federal Defenders Office.

The conference program covered much of what the Judiciary values in a good COOP plan (see Box on page 4), with an emphasis on establishing a framework for cross-sector coordination. To improve the local bar's awareness of its court's continuity plans, attorneys attending the Indianapolis conference were approved for Continuing Legal Education credits.

Tinder told participants that the courts routinely include the USMS, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Federal Community Defenders Office in their emergency plan. But the courts also reach beyond other federal agencies and work with county and state emergency management agencies, local and state bar associations, and local law enforcement.

"Making connections with outside agencies ahead of a disaster puts you at an advantage during a disaster," Tinder told conference participants. "Cross-sector preparedness facilitates better communication, the establishment of memoranda of understanding or agreement, and an overall more robust plan which enables you to know who to turn to for help, for answers, and for support," he said.