V. Why Establish Emergency Communication Procedures?
 

A. Why Is This an Issue?

Communication is vital to response or recovery of court operations both during and after an emergency. It is not difficult to understand how any type of emergency situation will disrupt normal modes and procedures for communication between individuals involved in a court case, including judicial officers, court personnel, case parties, and attorneys. In the event of an emergency that suspends court operations for even part of a day, the dependency court needs to be prepared to restore communication among court leaders, between its judicial officers and personnel, and with external stakeholders, such as child welfare agencies, families, dependents, and attorneys.

This includes knowing how the dependency court fits into the entire courthouse’s critical incident, evacuation, disaster recovery (IT), and continuity of operations plan (COOP). The dependency court is likely to be tied into the courthouse’s plan for recovering or repairing the general communications infrastructure. However, the dependency court should take its own measures to ensure that key personnel have the necessary contact information for court personnel, attorneys, guardians ad litem, court-appointed special advocates (CASAs), foster parents, and social services agencies.

The dependency court should designate an individual with specific authority to speak on behalf of the dependency court. This may or may not be the same as the spokesperson for the entire court.

B.Why Is This Issue Important?

The ability of the court to communicate with its own personnel and with the individuals and professionals in the community who are directly involved with the dependency court will have a direct impact on its ability to resume normal court operations as soon as possible after an emergency. The court needs to be ready for emergencies that result in limited or restricted access to the physical courthouse. Access to the courthouse might be limited or completely prevented by inoperable local or regional communications systems if an emergency or natural disaster has affected the local or regional area (Birkland, 1998).


Karen Hallstrom
 

While it is probably not possible for the dependency court to prepare for each and every communication contingency, at a minimum the dependency court must be ready to initiate some alternative modes of communication (e.g., alternate land lines, satellite phones, Nextel-type radios, text messaging, media announcement template), and key personnel need to know how to contact all court personnel and dependency court stakeholders such as attorneys, foster families, and social services agencies. Having one of these elements without the other will delay the court’s ability to perform essential functions and to resume normal operations.

The dependency court need to know how interruption of communication infrastructure is addressed in the courthouse’s COOP plan in order to prepare its own COOP plan. If the more general plan addresses the communication contingencies important to dependency court, the strategy may be sufficient. If, as it is likely, there are stakeholders for dependency court that are not considered in the general communications plan, the dependency court representative will need to either get them added to the courthouse COOP plan or prepare a separate supplement to the COOP plan specifically addressing the communications infrastructure needs of dependency court.

The element of communication that will most likely be within the dependency court’s complete control is contact information for the court’s stakeholders. As the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals discovered after the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, the lack of a telephone infrastructure, including home phone numbers of court staff, may complicate response efforts. E-mail services may not be functioning if the system’s server is physically damaged as a result of the emergency (Wasby, 1998).

Another facet of communication that is important for the dependency court to consider is determining who has the authority to speak on behalf of the court to court staff, court stakeholders, and the general public both during and after an emergency. Without clear lines of communications authority, conflicting messages may be delivered, which can result in increased anxiety and uncertainty and may disrupt or undermine efforts to resume court operations (NCSC Best Practices Institute, 2003).

C. Suggestions and Considerations

1. Communication Infrastructure

Federal judicial branch COOP plan developers recommend the following actions to support communications in times of emergency:

• have alternate e-mail addresses for judges and court staff
• maximize the use of available media, including e-mail, radio, TV, and external Web sites, for both internal communications and communications to the public
• have satellite phones charged and staff who know how to use them (Huff, 2006)

 

Multiple technologies should be employed when possible because communications failures are likely in emergencies. Readily accessible alternate means of communication may include radios, walkie-talkies, messengers, satellite phones, and 1-800 numbers. The dependency court can also use community resources to communicate with court personnel and court stakeholders if needed. For example, after Hurricane Andrew, Dade County used the County’s Emergency Operations Center’s communication systems to broadcast press releases and messages to the community, participants in court proceedings, and nonessential court personnel about the status of court operations (Salokar, 1998). In addition, law enforcement officers helped to establish contact with court personnel who had not been heard from, and some court personnel drove to the homes of judges to communicate with them. Dade County also had the benefit of a local paper that continued printing daily editions and was able to include messages that advised citizens as well as court personnel of the status of court operations.

Jefferson Parish, Louisiana learned from Hurricane Katrina that using a national Web site for e-mail services (such as YAHOO) can allow communication between court staff since there may be times when the Internet is available but local e-mail servers are not. This court also realized that Blackberry-type devices were among the earliest form of communications operating after the Hurricane. Text messaging on cell phones also worked sometimes, even when calls could not get through.
The trial court manager ensures that court personnel and the public are given emergency warnings and guidance to enable a smooth transition of essential functions to one or more alternate facilities. Emergency notification may be communicated through a variety of media, including:

• Court emergency telephone notification system
• Public announcement system
• Court Web sites
• Electronic mail (e-mail)
• Recorded telephone messages
• Announcements on local radio and television stations
• In-person communication

Multiple technologies should be employed when possible because communications failures are inevitable in an emergency.

Honorable Ernestine S. Gray

2. Communicating with Employees and Stakeholders

Create a list of contact information with entries for each dependency court employee as well as for the courthouse’s identified emergency and recovery leaders. The list should contain current home phone numbers, cell-phone numbers, beeper numbers, and e-mail addresses for each individual (Salokar, 1998). Dependency court managers and supervisors should have a list of contact information for all employees in their division, and this list should be kept in both the office and the manager’s home or car (NCSC Best Practices Institute, 2003). The Employee Directory Template at the Florida State Courts Emergency Preparedness Web site may be helpful for creating directories of contact information (http://www.flcourts.org/gen_public/emergency/bin/Employee%20Directory%20Template.pdf).

The dependency court has stakeholders that are often different from clients of other courts in the same courthouse. Because dependency hearings depend on social services workers and attorneys, guardians ad litem, court-appointed special advocates, foster parents, dependents, biological parents, and law enforcement officers, it is important to know how to contact these individuals after an emergency as well. Coordination efforts between the court and its stakeholders before an emergency can significantly impact the ability of the dependency court to resume court operations after an emergency.

3. Authority to Speak for the Court

The court will designate one person and one alternate to speak for the court to ensure accurate and consistent information is imparted. When deciding who will have the authority to speak on behalf of the dependency court, it would be prudent to know to whom this individual will be relaying information. Will their authority be limited to the public information officer for the entire court and the trial court administrator? Or will authority include communication to dependency court stakeholders and the general public? Making this determination will involve knowing the extent to which this authority is already defined by the parent court’s COOP plan (SJI Court Emergency/Disaster Preparedness Planning Project, 2005).

If the media are not including information about court operations in their briefings, other government agencies may be willing to include the courts in their briefings. The dependency court can also print announcements in local newspapers, use the court’s Web site, maintain an information hotline at the court, or provide a toll-free number for the public to call for court information (NCSC Best Practices Institute, 2003).

4. Other Ideas for Communications Emergency Preparedness

• Prepare an informational handout with ways for stakeholders, families, and foster families to get back in touch with the court in the case of a disaster or security incident.

• Provide staff with a laminated “emergency card” to carry in their wallet or handbag, listing phone numbers to call in the event of an emergency, the court’s Web site, and television and radio stations that broadcast information about the court during an emergency. It will be important to ensure that these cards contain current information (NCSC Best Practices Institute, 2003).

• Can a judge or court staff member offer their home for the court to work out of in case the courthouse is inaccessible? After the Red River Flood in Grand Forks, North Dakota, one judge was able to offer her home as a base of operations. Court personnel were able to contact the judge or reconnect with their office through 800 numbers announced through the media. A conference call was organized once most court personnel were located so that everyone was integrated into the plan to resume court operations (Pedeliski, 1998). Alternative sites should be designated in the COOP plan.

• Consider creating a centralized communications center for attorneys. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the courts and local bar associations created the Communications Center for Displaced Attorneys, which provided information on how to contact court officials, how to seek extensions or continuances, and what special orders were in place; it also established a leased Web site that provided e-mail addresses to displaced attorneys, which enabled them to communicate with other attorneys, the legal community, and the court staff (Huff, 2006).