In January 2004, the Justice Programs Office (JPO) of the School of Public Affairs at American University initiated the "Court Security and Disaster Preparedness Technical Assistance Project, with funding provided by the State Justice Institute. During the course of the project, American University staff and AU/JPO Senior Fellow, Lawrence Siegel, was in contact with state court administrative offices in every state, and conducted technical assistance visits to 20+ state trial courts located in smaller populated areas in eight states. The goal of the Project has been to assist trial courts - particularly those in rural areas - in developing court security and emergency preparedness plans and response capabilities, both for the immediate emergency period and its longer term aftermath. The project was designed to complement SJI's Urban Court Emergency Preparedness Project conducted by the Justice Management Institute (JMI), which focused on developing court emergency preparedness plans for courts in metropolitan areas.
During the course of the project, a number of planning tools were created to assist courts in assessing their current court emergency response capabilities, identifying deficiencies and planning for improvements. The final product of the project has now been completed, Planning for Emergencies: Immediate Events and Their Aftermath-A Guideline for Local Courts, which is intended to serve as a user-friendly "how to" guide for trial courts-particularly those in rural areas-that are beginning the process of developing emergency preparedness and response plans.
The Guideline evolved from observations gleaned during the technical assistance visits conducted as well as review of a wide range of court emergency planning materials developed by state court administrative offices and local courts and other emergency preparedness resources compiled by project staff.
During the course of the technical assistance visits, attention was given to addressing issues relating to the special circumstances that rural courts are likely to encounter in the face of an emergency:
- Who has the decision-making authority to declare an emergency and activate a plan when most courthouses in rural areas are occupied by multiple court and non-court users?
- How does the frequent geographic dispersion of court facilities and resources in rural areas affect the court's ability to communicate a unified message to employees, users, and the public, following an emergency?
- What kind of planning and collaboration is required to ensure continued court functioning in the post-emergency period in rural areas where a single district might be comprised of several county courts?
While the Guideline is designed primarily to assist rural trial courts in developing and implementing emergency preparedness and response plans, it also provides step-by-step information that can be used by all courts that are interested in developing or reviewing plans. Topics include:
- Developing inter-agency relationships and agreements
- Designating decision-making authority
Creating a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP)
- Prioritizing case management issues in the post-emergency period
- Establishing effective and reliable communication strategies
- Training for emergencies and testing plans
The Guideline is also appended with planning materials including: a needs-assessment/planning tool, a series of hypothetical scenarios to stimulate inter-agency discussions, and an annotated bibliography of planning resources.
Given the devastation wrought by the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and, more recently, by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, the need for broad-scale, coordinated emergency planning has never been greater. With its comprehensive approach and concise format, Planning for Emergencies: Immediate Events and Their Aftermath-A Guideline for Local Courts should offer a sound starting point for courts to begin their planning efforts.