November 01, 2013

How to Survive an Earthquake—Or Any Other Natural Disaster

By Paul Manolopoulos and David Reynolds

On February 28, 2001, a 6.8-magnitude earthquake shook the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle, Washington. The Nisqually Earthquake, one of the largest in Washington state history, lasted 40 seconds and caused extensive damage to the historic building. More than $8 million of repairs were needed to resolve the most pressing problems caused by the temblor, and an $86 million seismic retrofit followed these initial repairs. The courthouse remained open for business throughout the duration of these construction projects.

Maintaining “business as usual” in a courthouse while major construction takes place presents a unique set of logistical and programmatic challenges. During the retrofit, courtrooms, judicial officers, and employees were forced to relocate multiple times as individual floors were taken off-line and seismic stabilization infrastructure was installed. However, the details of construction are not the subject of this article. Instead, we focus on “lessons learned” through our response to the earthquake.

Here are 10 proactive steps we believe courts can take to prepare for and minimize the impacts of a disaster:

1. Identify your lines of succession.

Designate who will be in charge of the organization as a whole and of each of its significant divisions and identify backups. Make certain that everyone included in these lines of succession understands his or her specific responsibilities. Collect and disseminate contact information (cell phone, home phone, e-mail address, etc.) to all primaries and backups.

2. Identify your mission-critical functions.

Identify proceedings that are legally mandated, as well as the procedures required to suspend them. Prepare draft orders to suspend operations in case they are needed. Clearly define your operational priorities and continually scale your daily operations based on these priorities and available resources.

3. Identify your mission-critical staff and resources.

Identify who and what are required to perform each of your mission-critical functions. Identify backups for mission-critical staff and provide cross-training as necessary.

4. Maintain redundant communication systems.

Install analog phone lines in key locations in case cell phones and digital phone lines fail. Purchase two-way radios or 800 MHz radios as backups for your phones, e-mail, and other communications media.

5. Develop a communications plan.

Determine how information will be gathered and shared within your organization; with justice system and community partners; and with parties, attorneys, witnesses, jurors, and the general public. Develop protocols for sharing information as court operations scale up or down. Establish redundant methods for sharing what’s most important.

6. Identify services and court proceedings that can be conducted off site.

Law schools, law firms, and other courts often have available court or court-like space. Negotiate memoranda of understanding in advance. Also consider relocating staff and converting vacated staff space into makeshift courtrooms as needed.

7. Create an emergency operations/exit plan and provide training.

Ensure that judicial officers and employees know how to evacuate the building in the event of an emergency. This includes helping other court participants to safety as appropriate. Ensure that judicial officers and staff know where emergency exists are located and where to gather after exiting. Provide emergency operations training for current judicial officers and staff, and incorporate this training into your new judicial officer and employee orientation processes.

8. Involve your community partners.

Include your justice system partners, your local bar, and your community partners as you plan for disaster response. Don’t assume that your priorities align with those of other groups. Remain flexible and receptive to alternative plans.

9. Have a COOP (Continuity of Operations Plan).

A successful Continuity of Operations Plan, or COOP, should be applicable in any emergency situation that impacts court operations. A successful COOP also should be scalable as events unfold. Ensure that judicial officers and key staff have access to the COOP at all times. During an emergency, follow your COOP, but approach it as a guide and not as a recipe for success.

10. Be prepared to go “old school” if all else fails.

Pens, paper, tape recorders, and flags come in handy when power and data networks fail. Make hard copies of your COOP, contact lists, and other important documents, and keep electronic copies of these documents on a thumb drive.

We believe these tips make good advice for any emergency situation, not just for earthquakes. Planning your emergency response in advance is key.