Continuity of Operations (COOP)

Updated: April 23, 2021
In this Article

    How does the government continue to operate in times of a disaster, attack, or other incident that might require the use of National Security Presidential Directive 51?

    Continuity of Operations (COOP) That is the directive which establishes a comprehensive national policy on the continuity of Federal Government structures and operations and a single National Continuity Coordinator responsible for coordinating the development and implementation of Federal continuity policies.

    These would take effect in a variety of situations including scenarios where Washington D.C. might be evacuated, or where the structure of the government itself is threatened by disaster or hostilities.

    There are two layers of planning–the overarching rules and regulations that govern what to do in such situations are known as Continuity Of Government (COG), while the specific directive, plans, and processes responsible for making sure the government continues to function are known as Continuity of Operations guidance.

    Authority For Continuity Of Government / Continuity of Operations

    As mentioned above, National Security Presidential Directive 51 is the policy which assigns National Essential Functions for federal agencies plus guidance for state/local governments to create an “integrated national continuity program”.

    To that end, a document called the Continuity of Operations(COOP) is authorized “to ensure that Primary Mission Essential Functions (PMEFs) continue to be performed during a wide range of emergencies”. COOP and COG are essential; a report published by the Rand Corporation notes, “At the federal level, COG ensures the integrity of constitutional authority” and, “…At the state and local level, COG operations can facilitate the quick restoration of civilian authority and essential government functions and services.”


    Goals Of COOP

    As you might guess, COOP is meant to continue essential functions of the government regardless of circumstance. In order to do this properly, COOP planning requires individual government organizations to identify critical operations (formally known as “Essential Functions”) to “…ensure that those functions can be continued throughout, or resumed rapidly after, a disruption of normal activities.”

    Four Phases Of COOP

    COOP planning recognizes four Phases of Continuity of Operations ranging from the initial ramp-up of contingency operations to the final “reconstitution” phase.

    • Phase I Activation: Readiness and preparedness to implement COOP
    • Phase II Activation and Relocation: This phase involves making or using plans, procedures, and schedules to “transfer activities, personnel, records, and equipment” to alternate facilities
    • Phase III Continuity Operations: This is the full execution phase for essential government operations at alternate operating facilities
    • Phase IV Reconstitution: At this final stage, operations at the alternate facilities end and the government returns to normal operations

    These plans can be activated in whole or in part for certain (comparatively) less impactful circumstances like a fire in a critical federally-controlled area all the way to extremes such as the terror attacks of 9/11 and even the Jan. 6 riots in Washington D.C.


    COOP Functions

    Continuity of Operations planning includes focusing on a variety of important functions:

    Essential Functions

    • Defining and planning to maintain the work considered the “critical activities” required even during a disruption of normal operations.

    Orders of Succession

    • This is the planning that replaces government leadership in cases where the main or lead person is unavailable to fulfil their duties. Succession in this case basically means “who replaces the main person if they aren’t available” in a similar fashion in spirit to the rules of Presidential succession, except these particular replacement plans are not directed by the Constitution but rather by the agencies who need such planning.

    Delegations of Authority

    • An important set of rules that ensures decision making can move forward even if normal communications are unavailable.

    Continuity Facilities

    • These are the agreed-upon locations outside the main “business-as-usual” locations where government business is conducted during COOP. This can include working from home, from a mobile facility, or elsewhere.

    Continuity Communications

    • Planning to insure government agencies can continue communications “under all conditions”.

    Vital Records Management

    • Exactly what the name implies, these plans are meant to guarantee that essential records are protected and accessible. The plans also include instructions and procedures for data management software and equipment that are required to maintain essential functions during a “continuity situation”.

    Devolution of Control and Direction

    • This refers to a planned flexibility in operations that allow the transfer of “statutory authority and responsibility for essential functions” to alternate workers, locations, etc.


    • Described as the process “by which surviving and/or replacement agency personnel resume normal agency operations from the original or replacement primary operating facility plan.”


    How You Are Notified Of COOP Activation

    Each organization will have its own specified procedures, but let’s examine one such set of COOP protocols as instituted by the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO):

    • GPO will notify employees, business partners and other government agencies via voice or email
    • Employees should visit the agency’s official site to read the most current updates, site status, and work instructions; agency official sites should be updated within 24 hours of COOP activation
    • Employees must monitor approved communication systems for future updates or instructions
    • Employees may also call a special COOP information line to learn about current status of operations, any orders to report to alternate COOP work sites and general COOP communications

    Learning More About Continuity Of Operations

    Those who need to be included in a specific agency’s COOP planning should start by identifying your agency’s COOP point of contact, or a Regional COOP Program Manager with jurisdiction over a given agency or region.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

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