How essential are you?

Continuity of operations plans require identification of 'essential' personnel. But who, and what agency, isn't essential? Actually, the question is, who is?

It looks like such a benign statement: Please identify the essential personnel in your organization/department/unit. This is usually one of the first tasks in any continuity of operations plan (COOP). However, getting people to agree on who is essential (as well as which functions are essential) is anything but benign. The first pass at something like this has nearly everyone in the organization being listed as essential. After all, if they were not essential, why are they employed?

Needless to say, this can be a daunting task. However, it can and does get even more difficult when your COOP must be useful not for just a few days or weeks, but several months at a time. This is exactly what you have to plan for when adjusting your COOP for a pandemic flu event.

With such a long period to account for, the issue of identifying your organization’s essential functions and personnel becomes magnified--particularly so, in government. Why? Many governmental organizations exist to manage processes that may be suspended during times of crisis.

Let’s take education as an example. There are some who argue that if a pandemic flu event occurs, then social distancing becomes a top priority; thus, any functions that require people to gather should be suspended. This leads some to say that in a pandemic flu event, all schools will be closed. If that is the case, who becomes essential personnel? Teachers? Probably not. Custodians? Doubtful. Principals? Possibly. Superintendents? Likely. Administrative staff? Some.

As you can see, this list is probably quite different than the list in a school system’s typical COOP.

The same can be applied to a body/organization which regulates an activity that a governor or mayor may deem non-essential during a flu event. After all, if the majority of the population is staying at home, are parking attendants essential personnel?

For many, this can be a hard pill to swallow, as it might make it seem that their job or organization is not important. Furthermore, this may prevent them from creating a realistic long-term COOP, and that is exactly what we do not want to happen.

Therefore, as one begins this type of planning, it is important to stress that the planning is being done for an extreme circumstance, not normal life. Few will argue that education of our youth is not important, but for a limited amount of time and for the sake of health and safety, it may be that education is considered “nonessential.”

Getting your organization in this frame of mind when doing COOP for an extended period is extremely important. The consequences of not doing so end up being a COOP that is not based on the “reality” of that kind of situation, and/or the squandering of precious resources that in actuality will never be used. A few days ago, California proposed a $400 million investment in pandemic flu and disaster preparedness - by far the largest amount any state in the U.S. has devoted to the cause, health experts have said.

How much of that money will be used to purchase remote access capabilities for personnel who will never need it? See my point? On the other hand, some organizations will see this as a one-time source of funding and will try to make a strong case in order to acquire systems/capabilities they could never afford before, thus eating away at dollars better spent elsewhere. Sad but true.

The moral of this story is that when doing a COOP for a pandemic flu or similar event, the organization as a whole needs to take a hard look at itself; it may not like what it sees. So as many of you begin this planning process, don’t be afraid to ask the $100,000 question: Is there anything we do that is so important that it can’t be suspended for a three or four month period of time without causing severe consequences to the population we serve? The answers to that question will lead you to your essential functions. The essential personnel will fall out from there. Good Luck!