Continuity of Operations Plan

To help disaster survivors, legal services providers need well-prepared plans for withstanding a disaster’s potential impact on their operations.

Page last updated: 01/30/2023

What Does ‘Continuity of Operations’ Mean?

“Continuity of Operations” refers to the ability of an organization to continue performing its essential functions after a disaster.

A Continuity of Operations Plan, or COOP, provides an organization with a road map to better prepare for, respond to, and recover from disruptions. These disruptions include the kinds that a disaster can cause.

Every legal aid organization should develop a comprehensive COOP. The plan should enable the organization to:

  • Keep employees safe.
  • Safeguard critical information, including client files.
  • Reduce disruptions to operations, such as a loss of communications or facilities.
  • Meet the needs of disaster survivors.
  • Maintain essential legal services for all clients.

Four Phases

An organization’s ability to respond to and recover from a disaster is an ongoing effort. Every COOP should cover the following four phases:

  1. Readiness and Preparedness. Use education, outreach, and training to help your organization build the capacity to respond.
  2. Activation and Relocation. Authorize individuals to activate the plan at the proper time. Be prepared to work at alternate locations.
  3. Plan Implementation. Identify which issues to address first after the disaster. Set priorities that return your organization to near-normal function as soon as possible.
  4. Reconstitution. Assess long-term organizational needs. Return the organization to full strength. Apply lessons learned to revise your COOP.

Key Elements of a COOP

No two COOPs are exactly alike. Plans need to account for differences in organizations, the risks the organizations face, and local circumstances. Nonetheless, every plan should include:

  • A clear ranking of who has the authority to make which decisions.
  • Identification of primary and backup employees to manage specific tasks. Assign these tasks by role, not by name. You do not want confusion if a person leaves or is replaced.
  • Procurement of alternate work locations and preparation for arrangements that allow work from home.
  • Arrangements for obtaining or borrowing essential equipment, such as generators, power banks, and routers, that you may need for contingencies such as power outages.
  • Backup storage of data — potentially to cloud servers — to maintain access to important documents and case files. A cloud server is an online, virtual data-storage infrastructure that users can access remotely.
  • Measures such as cloud-based phone systems to preserve lines of communication with employees and clients. Research options for different disaster scenarios, such as loss of power, cellphone service, or internet access.
  • Consideration of the type of natural disasters most likely to occur in your area, such as wildfires, tornadoes, or earthquakes. What are the risks to your organization’s operations if these occur? How will you reduce those risks?
  • Preparation for disasters that are not natural disasters. These include situations such as active shooters, chemical explosions, pandemics, or terrorism.
  • Responses to specific scenarios. For example, what are your options if your employees cannot make it to work or your clients cannot travel?

COOP Development Resources

You do not need to start from scratch when developing a COOP. The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have resources that can help:

COOP Implementation

A COOP has no value if employees do not know how to use it. To prepare them, include the following three phases for the implementation of your plan:

  1. Training. Train all employees on COOP procedures. Create manuals and distribute copies to all employees.
  2. Testing. Conduct regular simulations to test COOP efficiency. Document test results.
  3. Updates. Routinely update COOP procedures to account for lessons learned in your state or other states. The updates also should consider new technology and changes in law or policy. Delegate a team member to lead an annual review of the COOP. This review should include team members across all departments and areas of operation.

Case Study: How a COOP Helped Survivors in Southeast Louisiana

What difference does a well-developed COOP make?

In 2005, the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina displaced every employee of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS) for six weeks or more. The displacement was one of many challenges that made it more difficult for SLLS to respond to residents’ legal needs after the massive flooding.

SLLS wanted to be better prepared for the next disaster, according to an account of its actions provided in Section C of the Report of the LSC Disaster Task Force. Based on lessons learned from Katrina and other disasters, SLLS adopted a COOP to improve its resiliency. Under that COOP, the organization:

  • Requires employees to fill out a form each year telling the organization where they will be if a hurricane hits.
  • Moved its servers off-site and tests them regularly.
  • Migrated from paper checks to online banking.
  • Uploaded its case management database to the cloud. Attorneys and volunteers can now access the database remotely.
  • Reached agreements with sister organizations in the civil legal aid field. If SLLS employees are displaced, they can work from the offices of these organizations.

SLLS updates its COOP every year in April, before storm season. So SLLS was prepared in August 2021, when Hurricane Ida made landfall in southeast Louisiana as one of the state’s strongest hurricanes on record.

“With lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina and the 10 presidentially declared disasters that followed, we hit the ground running providing critical legal aid in some of the hardest hit areas to make sure the most vulnerable people are not left behind in the recovery process,” SLLS wrote in its 2021 Annual Report. SLLS represented 1,705 Hurricane Ida survivors and their 4,053 household members.