III. Why Should Dependency Courts Participate in Court Plans?

A. Why Is This Issue Important?

It is important for all courts to have an emergency preparedness plan that is more comprehensive than just a checklist for emergencies or a phone tree. Given the variety of emergencies that a court can face (e.g., hurricanes, terrorist threats, fires, earthquakes, and tornadoes) emergency plans are needed that can:

• address a wide variety of emergency situations;
• be put into operation immediately;
• provide effective responses to disasters and emergencies that occur both with and without warning and that may continue for more than 30 days; and
• provide assurance to the community that court operations will continue (SJI Court Emergency/Disaster Preparedness Planning Project, 2005: 2).

In a disaster, the courthouse may be inaccessible, and the participants may change. There is a tension between the need for consistency and the need to be flexible in times of disaster. Court proceedings require that judges, court staff, dependents and their representatives (counsel and child welfare agency) have a safe and secure place to convene. In a disaster:

Honorable Ernestine S. Gray

1. Judges and court staff may be unreachable or unavailable. Personnel may be relocated, injured, or otherwise unavailable.
2. Dependents and their representatives may be unreachable or unavailable.
3. The courthouse may be unusable, and it may be necessary to move essential functions to an alternative site or to use electronic methods to conduct essential court business.

 

Anthony Gagliano

 

B. Suggestions and Considerations

Dependency courts should be involved in plans related to prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery, including continuity of operations plans, occupant emergency plans, shelter-in-place plans, disaster recovery plans, emergency procedures, and security. Scarce resources should not prevent planning for emergencies.

1. A Continuity of Operations (COOP) Plan

The COOP plan “ensures that essential functions and activities are conducted without unacceptable interruption, and allows for resumption of normal services as quickly and safely as possible” (Huff, 2006:8). It establishes a reliable response capability with effective processes and procedures to quickly deploy predesignated personnel, equipment, vital records, and supporting hardware and software to an alternative site with which to sustain organizational operations for up to 30 days. The plan designates the leadership decision process to determine the best course of action for the activation of the COOP plan, and performance of response and recovery activities. FEMA (FPC 65) recommends that COOP plans contain the following elements:


1. Identification of Essential Functions

2. Delegation of Authority
3. Orders of Succession
4. Interoperable Communications
5. Alternative Facilities
6. Vital Records and Databases
7. Human Capital (planning to protect personnel from threats they are most likely to face in an emergency)
8. Tests, Training, and Exercises
9. Plans for Devolution and Reconstruction (the ability to recover from a catastrophic event and return to full service)

 

The SJI Court Emergency/Disaster Preparedness Planning Project (2005:13) lists the basic provisions of a COOP plan as:

• Locating alternate facilities for holding court. In a natural disaster other buildings in the vicinity may also have suffered damage, and there could be competition for space from other agencies and businesses. The COOP identifies alternate facilities from which essential court operations may be conducted when continued operations of essential functions are threatened or are no longer feasible at the courthouse. Because space and support capabilities at these alternate facilities will be limited, the number of personnel to be relocated must be restricted to the minimum number of persons with the skills and experience needed for the execution of the COOP plan and essential functions. Some personnel may move to another site to continue to support essential functions, while others may be asked to work from home awaiting further instructions (see Issue VI below)

• Maintaining communications capabilities (see Issue V below).

• Maintaining records/information capabilities, including all of the back-up systems (see Issue VIII below).

• Maintaining the capability to manage caseflow, including determining court functions that are truly “essential” and establishing priorities for functions that must be brought back into operation first.

 

No one anticipated the extent of the devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and many were unsure of what was expected of them in a crisis of this magnitude. The safeguards that Louisiana and Mississippi built into their laws, policies, and procedures did not anticipate the extent of the devastation and could not protect their children from the effects of the hurricanes.

An important planning resource for dependency courts is the National Association for Court Management’s Business Continuity Management Mini Guide (2006), the appendix of which contains examples of a business impact analysis questionnaire, a mission essential-function template, FEMA’s COOP planning guidance, and orders of succession, as well as a delegation-of-authority worksheet and a continuity-of-operations planning checklist.

2. An Occupant Emergency Plan (OEP) Evacuation and Critical Incident Plans

For dependency courts, it is especially important to carefully plan evacuation, so that the judge, court clerk, and others necessary to hold hearings would all be evacuated to the same location. In addition, court personnel should have agreed-upon places to report to if the emergency extends beyond the immediate area. Once relocated, judges can adjust their individual calendars to accommodate the transfer of emergency matters from other calendars.

This short-term emergency response plan establishes procedures to safeguard lives and property. It addresses how court personnel and the public evacuate a specific facility in the event of an emergency, including fire, weather events, chemical spills, power outages, courthouse violence, and bomb threats. All response checklists should be contained in this plan. The OEP also provides shelter-in-place instructions in the event evacuation is impossible or unwise (e.g., chemical exposure).

3. A Disaster Recovery Plan (Information Technology, or IT)

This is the information technology department’s plan for preventing, preparing for, responding to, and recovering from a disaster or emergency. It contains elements similar to the COOP plan and provides specific information about equipment, databases, and information systems that must be operational in accordance with the court COOP plan of identified and ranked essential functions.

Joy Peacock

Preparation activities take place during normal conditions and include establishment of:


• a command structure;
• assignment of resources;
• development of preparedness and response plans;
• development of a multiyear strategy for the identification of resources to enhance and sustain the program; and
• the development of a test, training, and exercise plan.

 

All of these plans require working relationships with executive branch agencies to help ensure the court system’s ability to perform in a safe and effective manner both immediately after an emergency and in the long term.

The dependency court needs to identify which of the courthouse’s plans specifically include them and which parts of the above detailed plans should be created specifically for the dependency court. The Mission Essential Functions Template (http://www.flcourts.org/gen_public/emergency/bin/Mission%20Essential%20Functions%20Template.doc) from the Florida State Courts Emergency Preparedness Web site might be helpful in prioritizing the dependency court’s continuity-of-operations needs.

 

Ilona Picou