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December 2011

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


Survey Assesses Courts' Emergency Planning

It's Twenty Questions, but it's no parlor game. In fact, the questions couldn't be more serious. Court executives, federal public defenders, chief probation and pretrial officers, and clerks of court are being surveyed on the status of their unit's emergency preparedness program. The information is being collected by the Judicial Conference Committee on Judicial Security to better assess the Judiciary's preparedness in the event of a natural or man-made emergency or disaster and to identify areas where further emphasis may be needed. The goal is for each court to have in place a plan for the evacuation and continued operation of the court in the event of a disaster or other interruption.

Among the survey questions: the status of a court, unit, or office's Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP), who is covered by the COOP, the type of training or exercises that have been held to test the COOP, if telework guidance has been provided for employees in the event of an emergency, whether the Judiciary's Emergency Notification System is integrated into the plan, and so on.

By early December, 84 districts had responded to the survey. Of those districts, all had completed a continuity plan or had one in development. Over half of the districts responding to the survey also had tested their continuity plan. Of the responding courts, nearly all also had occupant emergency plans (OEP) and had conducted training exercises.

Thirteen courts of appeals responded to the survey. Eleven courts of appeals reported they had a completed continuity plan. The remaining two courts of appeal are developing continuity plans. Every court of appeal had an OEP.

While teleworking is not universally embraced for the daily functions of a court, nearly all courts responding to the survey have a plan in place to implement teleworking in the event of a man-made or natural disaster affecting the workplace.

"Under the Judiciary's continuity management program, each court has a responsibility to assess the risk to the physical facilities and information systems and safeguard its employees as they support the work of the courts in an emergency," said William Lehman, Chief of the Judiciary Emergency Preparedness Office. "Updating COOP plans, and preparing for and conducting exercises to test the plans are key to that emergency preparation."

As courts evaluate their COOPs, the experiences of eight midwest court districts that tested their plans in the 2011 National Level Exercise (see The Third Branch, June 2011, "Earthquake Scenario Test Courts' Response.") offer tips on planning and operations. The complete list of lessons-learned is available on the Judiciary's J-net, under Emergency Preparedness. If these best practices aren't part of your unit's COOP plan, now is the time to add them.

  • Prioritize essential functions now.
  • Plan how employees will notify supervisors of their whereabouts, add maps and directions to relocation sites, and train staff on responsibilities in a disaster.
  • Create phone trees to contact staff, have staff update InfoWeb information regularly, and include emergency contact information on cells phones of all Emergency Relocation Group members.
  • Ensure that the local offices of the U.S. Marshals Service, Federal Defenders, U.S. Trustees and General Services Administration are integrated into your COOP; and get to know your local emergency responders, including Federal Emergency Management Agency, law enforcement, and disaster recovery planners.
  • Get an out-of-state area code for employees to call if local service is down, include phone and laptop chargers in Go-bags, and use alternate Internet e-mail when phone and the Judiciary's Data Communications Network are inoperable.
  • Review with jurors what they should do in an emergency; add vendor's information to COOP plans.
  • In the event of an evacuation, determine how courtrooms will be secured; make decisions on oral arguments, closure of court, filing extensions, etc. as early as possible and announce decisions to the Bar, the public, and employees. Maximize use of all available media.
  • Conduct training on your COOP and update it continuously.