Huntsville Center exercise tests Continuity of Operations Plan
Charles Carson, Huntsville Center emergency manager, goes over the Center's Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) with members of the Emergency Relocation Group during a COOP exercise April 12. (Photo by Kristen Bergeson) (Photo Credit: Kristen Bergeson) VIEW ORIGINAL

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – The U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville held a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) exercise April 12 to ensure readiness if, or when, disaster strikes.

The COOP exercise tested the Center’s ability to stay functional “when something has gone catastrophically wrong – a natural disaster, terrorist attack or something else that has impacted employees to the extent that they cannot come into the workplace,” said Col. Sebastien P. Joly, Huntsville Center commander.

During the exercise, most employees worked from home, while members of the Emergency Relocation Group met at an undisclosed alternate site.

The COOP covers tasks like travelling to the alternate site and ensuring communications systems and other resources are available. The exercise also demonstrates that the Center can continue to meet mission-essential functions from a remote location.

As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) support agency for unique, complex and high-risk missions, resiliency is important for Huntsville Center to continue serving the warfighters and Department of Defense partners in times of crisis, said Joly.

“If something disastrous happens, we can’t just throw up our hands and say ‘we’re out’,” he said. “We have to be able to deliver the mission, especially when it comes to those nationally critical functions.”

Aligned with the established national essential functions, Huntsville Center’s critical functions include providing engineering services to Army, Air Force and other assigned government agencies and providing timely engineering support for national response and disasters.

The Center’s workforce proved its ability to successfully achieve that mission during the COVID-19 pandemic, when employees’ regular working situation was disrupted but the need for the kinds of support they provide was increased. The Center was instrumental in the establishment of alternate care sites and community vaccination centers.

“The COVID-19 pandemic made us figure this out much better and showed that we can continue to perform operations at a high level in a virtual environment,” said Joly. “This exercise is really just fine-tuning things to accommodate a sudden disaster as opposed to a long-term pandemic.”

The COOP exercise was led by Charles Carson, Huntsville Center’s emergency manager who has over 14 years of experience in USACE emergency management. Before joining the Center in November, he worked with the USACE Mississippi Valley Division, where he implemented the division’s COOP following actual emergencies four times in the last five years alone.

He said Huntsville Center’s lack of geographic boundaries and ongoing reliance on electronic communication has left the workforce better prepared for emergency situations.

“We are different from most other USACE organizations because we literally have projects all over the world,” he said. “We are used to working with people who aren’t in our building, so this isn’t a huge departure from our standard way of doing business. Of course, there’s always room for improvement.”

A primary element of the COOP exercise was testing of the Alert! Mass Warning Notification System, which sends employees emergency warnings and other critical information and collects responses regarding their safety and work status. For the system to work effectively, employees must be registered and keep their personal contact information updated.

Initial reports showed 86% of the workforce had responded via the Alert! system within 12 hours of notification. Carson said he and other Center officials were combing through the data to remove users who are no longer employed at the Center and identify employees who are not registered or need to update their information.

“Accountability is one of the key things we are working on with these exercises,” said Carson. “Being able to track folks and ensure that they are cared for, safe and available to work is one of our primary responsibilities.”

Carson said he and Huntsville Center leadership are currently modifying the COOP based on findings from the exercise and will release a revised plan by June 9. The updated COOP will be available to employees on SharePoint.

“My assessment is that the exercise went very well overall. We were able to meet the objectives, which were to educate leadership about the COOP, test the system and find out where our shortcomings are,” he said. “Achieving the mission is and will continue to be our primary focus.”