Governments and Continuity of Planning

Tuesday is COOP/COG voting day in Washington state.

There is an initiative on the November ballot for Washington voters to add a requirement for state agencies to do continuity of government and continuity of plans for state agencies. It is a bit of a "duh" item for me, but it is on the ballot.  

I wrote an op-ed that did not get picked up on this topic. For your reading pleasure ... and for Washingtonians, share it with your family members and friends — for those who have not voted.

FYI, we are an "initiative happy" state. 


Vote Yes on Senate Joint Resolution 8200

One of the primary purposes of government is to protect the public safety of its citizens. In normal times, this means providing for the provision of 911, police, fire and emergency medical service systems and personnel. In catastrophic disasters, it requires the functioning of “all of government” to react to what has happened.

To facilitate the continuity of government following either an enemy attack or a major disaster, the Washington State Legislature is seeking voter support for Joint Resolution 8200. The new language adds “catastrophic incidents” to the already-existing language identifying enemy attack. The original language came from the threat of nuclear attack in the 1960s.

Continuity of government (COG) and continuity of operations planning (COOP) is about preserving the ability for decision-making and enabling the continued functioning of government. Continuity of government is about establishing a clear line of succession of elected officials and senior appointed officials. While the 2001 Nisqually earthquake was not a catastrophe, that moderate earthquake almost resulted in the collapse of the Washington state Capitol dome, possibly injuring or killing a significant number of senior elected officials.

Some question the lack of definition in the legislative language for what a catastrophe is. Let me explain. When there is a heart attack, an automobile accident, a shooting — that is an emergency. A disaster is an incident that quickly overwhelms the ability of first responders to handle an event. That threshold for declaring a disaster can be low. Fire and police are resourced for “normal emergencies” and not for disasters and certainly not catastrophes. Catastrophes are disasters that are so overwhelming that it will appear that there is a total inability to cope with all the physical damages, injuries and deaths.

In emergency management lingo, catastrophes are “low-frequency — high-consequence” events. For Washington state, these are usually tied to earthquakes. The Cascadia Subduction earthquake fault, Tacoma fault, Seattle fault and South Whidbey fault are examples of events that will cause major damages that can render catastrophic consequences. None of the above were even known about at the time of the original legislative language that is now being amended.

The Voters' Pamphlet statement in support of the proposed language changes states, “Our State is Not Prepared for a Catastrophic Event.” I support that statement wholeheartedly, and here are some factoids to back that up. The recent Ballard business fire consumed over 60 percent of the Seattle Fire Department’s resources — for one fire! There could be scores of fires in the Puget Sound region, post-earthquake. Here in Washington state, the disaster preparedness message is for people to have two weeks of supplies, four times the three-day national standard. That is because for the Cascadia Subduction fault, we cannot expect outside resources to arrive for eight days. For this same event, the National Guard is planning to relocate their command and control headquarters from Camp Murray near Tacoma to Spokane. They believe that the majority of their personnel will not be able to respond to such an event due to impacts to their own families or having other positions of public responsibility requiring their attention.

In summary, this change to the constitution is an appropriate response to our state’s potential for catastrophic disasters. The state Legislature in both houses passed this legislation with the required two-thirds majority that included bi-partisan support in both houses. This is a good government bill and one that you should support by voting yes.



Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.