By Paige Newland, Learning Consultant/Program Coordinator | Office of Court Services An emergency like flood, fire, power outage, mold, active human threat—or, as we all now realize, a pandemic—can adversely impact the court system in ways we may not expect. Employee absence, loss of records, technology failure, or facility damage can greatly diminish the effectiveness of the court system and result in the delayed administration of justice. The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the critical need for courts to be prepared for the unexpected.
The importance of court emergency preparedness is aptly summarized by the following from a 2019 National Center for State Courts Report:
Given the critical nature of [the courts’] responsibilities, the development of effective emergency management strategies and a Continuity of Operations Plan is essential to the courts’ ability to continue their mission-essential functions.”
Long before the pandemic, the Indiana Office of Court Services planned an emergency preparedness and COOP education program to cap off the 2020 Spring Judicial College. But as COVID-19 arrived in Indiana, IOCS had to heed its own advice and adapt this program for remote delivery.
The webinars presented by IOCS reviewed COOP planning principles, recommended action steps for enhancing a COOP program, and shared lessons learned in emergency preparedness from both local and national perspectives.
NCSC presented their 2019 report resulting from a national focus group of court preparedness stakeholders conducted last spring. NCSC hosted the focus group—using a State Justice Institute grant—to “provide an opportunity to share experiences and leverage the expertise of key court officials to improve state courts’ performance in the areas of emergency management and continuity of operations planning.”
The focus group consisted of court representatives from seven states and territories as well as representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Six key themes arose from their discussions:
- Collaborative relationships in emergency management are necessary at all levels of government to ensure the courts have the support they need to continue operations.
- Communication capabilities must be in place to stay in touch with internal staff and external partners and to keep the public updated on court activities.
- Managing and supporting the workforce through prioritizing employee wellness will help ensure smoother operations during a disaster.
- Alternate facilities established ahead of time will allow court operations to resume more quickly.
- Long-term recovery requires patience in navigating staffing changes, repairs, potential FEMA reimbursement, and returning to a “normal” state of operations.
- Information technology challenges should be anticipated; proper planning to establish redundancies can mean the difference between disaster and inconvenience.
Preparedness is critical to maintaining judicial integrity and effectiveness. Strengthening partnerships, establishing operational redundancies, and planning for recovery are all vital considerations to keep courts open and operating during the worst disasters.
Though sometimes unpleasant, weathering the storm builds resilience for a brighter tomorrow. Let us use our experiences to inform future planning. We never know what’s around the corner; the better prepared we are, the greater the opportunity for justice to prevail.