Jul 10 2008

Live Test

In D.C., federal IT teams find real-world events create opportunities for training employees to use COOP technologies.

Simulated exercises are a great way to assess the effectiveness of continuity of operations plans, but there’s nothing like the real thing to see how well your employees actually use technology tools to meet their mission when they can’t reach their offices.

Just ask Joseph Johnston Jr. of the Smithsonian Institution or the Transportation Department’s Thomas Barrett. Events outside their brick-and-mortar doorways during the past few years created a learning lab for COOP and telework efforts.

Transportation had a chance to run a live drill this spring. When officials learned that Pope Benedict XVI would celebrate Mass in April just two blocks from DOT’s headquarters. They put their COOP and telework plans into action in “the largest, single-point exercise” the department has ever run, says Barrett, deputy secretary of Transportation.


More than half of DOT’s 5,800 employees who are eligible to work from home or other remote sites that day, avoiding the 45,000-person throng that filled the Washington National’s stadium nearby.

Here’s what the Barrett and Johnston, manager of the Smithsonian’s Network Management Division, suggest:

  • Put plans into practice so people can have tactical chances to try out the plans and technology, even if just for a small real-world event. “You can’t function effectively in a disaster unless you’ve practiced,” Barrett says.
  • Check remote-access links on a monthly basis. IT should adopt the Coast Guard motto: “Semper Paratus” — always ready, says Barrett, a retired USCG vice admiral.
  • Require employees to undergo training before they sign a telework agreement — that way they’re ready should an event arise. Make sure they understand the parameters in terms of security, accountability and safety of the work environment.
  • Sit down and diagram everything related to your systems and find your critical points of failure. That’s the biggest tip, says Johnston, because this information will ensure that an agency has the right plans in place and has resilient and redundant operations.
  • Budget for items that offer quick returns (encrypted notebooks, for instance) and that don’t require much financial backing, and at the same time plan for larger infrastructure needs in the long-term budget cycle.
  • Review change management practices and protocols to make sure they are sound. As new systems are developed, integrate them into COOP plans.

36%  DOT workers who telework today;  50%  The department’s new telework goal

SOURCE: Transportation Department

Some of the Smithsonian’s museums on the National Mall were closed to the public for three days because of flooding and power outages in June 2006, when record rains caused major flooding in the Washington area. Several federal agencies were shut down, but internal systems were up and running within 24 hours, allowing employees to continue business as usual, says Johnston

“We used some ingenious methods working with emergency power feeds so people could work from their homes,” he says. “One glitch was finding ways to hook into emergency generators.” When the IT team ran short of electrical and extension cords, employees brought them in from home and electricians patched them together.

There was a slight delay in making key decisions because several senior managers didn’t realize they had to physically be at one of the Smithsonian’s emergency operation centers (there are four scattered throughout the area). “There is now a realization that we need to have key things in place,” he says.