Collage of photos from the COOP exercise

Fourteen departments joined the UMB Office of Emergency Management to evaluate readiness in case of a major emergency.

“Hurricane Poe” is bearing up the East Coast. The University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) is in the storm’s path. What do you do? Go.

This simulated scenario was the premise of the UMB Office of Emergency Management (OEM) Continuity of Operations (COOP) exercise last Wednesday. UMB defines COOP as “the readiness to continue performing the most important and time-sensitive work even when disrupted by a big emergency.” Dozens of employees from across the University participated to test and validate their continuity plans.

“The University has an important mission, and we need to continue to operate for students, employees, patients, and community members,” said Hayley Markman, MPA, UMB OEM Continuity of Operations program manager. “A hurricane can have wide-sweeping impacts on our people, their learning and working environment, and where they live. This exercise it how we build and develop various response capabilities.”

Fourteen departments participated in continuity planning beginning in June 2022. These departments — which ranged from Facilities and Operations to the Office of Communications and Public Affairs (OCPA) — all play an important role in responding to and recovering from emergencies.

“We need to ensure these departments have the ability to operate when no one else can,” Markman said.

Jimmy Heiner, director of UMB Student Affairs Facilities and Operations, participated in developing the COOP plan for his department. “I didn’t know what to expect when the COOP planning started,” he said. “However, it gave me an opportunity to collaborate with a large number of colleagues within UMB Student Affairs to help create a plan for readiness in case of an emergency.”

Emergency managers from partner University System of Maryland institutions joined UMB OEM to help facilitate the exercise. Erin Meyer, director for the Office of Emergency Management and Business Continuity at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP), served as a facilitator at Heiner’s table.

“The opportunity to come together and talk through these emergency situations provides a lot of insights,” Meyer said. “They just identified that they rely on leadership to contact staff in an emergency. If leadership isn’t available, they need to think through other ways to solve those problems. Those little things can be critical in an incident, and that’s why these exercises are so important.”

Heiner agreed on the value of stressing their COOP plan. “The exercise gave us an opportunity as a group to put the plan through a simulated test,” he said. “Overall, I think we have a very strong plan and are prepared to keep operations progressing in an emergency. However, it did shed light on some areas where we need to take a deeper dive and think about other strategies. As someone who is versed in creating and testing emergency action plans, having an opportunity to test the Division of Student Affairs’ COOP plan was very welcomed.”

UMB OEM began planning this COOP exercise in January as part of its continuity planning process. The exercise, focused on departmental operations, is the first in a package of future exercises. Future exercises will focus on interdependencies and how departments work together. OEM creates these exercises using a “crawl, walk, run” model, where each subsequent exercise builds on the capabilities and lessons learned from previous exercises.

Participants brought copies of their continuity plan to reference during the exercise. These plans were developed during workshops with UMB OEM to identify essential, time-sensitive processes that must continue during an emergency.

“When an emergency happens, it impacts people, places, and things,” Markman said. “Developing these continuity strategies ensures departments can continue to function.”

Participants who play a key supervisory or functional role in an emergency participated in the COOP planning workshops. Between three and 12 people worked together to develop processes that are realistic and reflective of real-world procedures. They also identified backup plans for when primary options aren’t available. The exercise allowed participants to test that what they put on paper would work in the real world.

“It’s really important to have this plan in place before the emergency happens,” said Laura Lee, lead media relations specialist, OCPA. “This exercise is a great opportunity. We should do more of it.”

In addition to partners from UMCP, Towson University, Bowie State University, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, state partners from the Maryland Department of Emergency Management (MDEM) attended the exercise as observers.

“This exercise allowed us to examine COOP through a different lens,” said Danielle Notargiacomo, COOP coordinator at MDEM. “Engaging and exercising with faculty, staff, and students is an important part of our whole community approach to continuity and underscores our commitment to our vision to shape a resilient Maryland where communities thrive. As state partners, attending UMB’s exercise allows us to collaborate and practice the ways in which the Maryland Department of Emergency Management can best support the University in an emergency.”

Markman said she was delighted to see MDEM at the exercise. “It shows that they see the work that we’re doing and they want to collaborate with us.”

Participants, facilitators, and observers all raved about the COOP exercise’s success. “This helps us in a low-stress environment to identify vulnerabilities in our COOP plans,” said Anna Borgerding, PMP, assistant vice president of Facilities and Operations, who served as a facilitator in the exercise. “It helps us to think through which people and resources we need. In the end, it makes us better prepared.”

Markman said she’s grateful to have such a supportive emergency management team at UMB. “They recognize the importance of the work. We don’t have to ‘sell it.’ They just know it.”

The exercise was “1,000 percent” a team effort, Markman said. Other members of the team — Jonathan Bratt, MS, assistant vice president, Office of Enterprise Resilience; Christopher Stanton, MS, acting executive director, UMB OEM; Laura Cathcart, PhD, training and exercise program manager, UMB OEM; and Jackie Ferreira, emergency management fellow, UMB OEM — had tremendous involvement in redesigning and reviving the continuity program and played critical roles in planning and executing the exercise.

“This was the first time that OEM conducted a COOP exercise,” Markman said. “This was a team effort and we all worked together as one team, one voice.”

As UMB OEM considers future exercises, it will focus on different emergency scenarios and challenges. These exercises build the UMB community’s resilience and the ability to be flexible and nimble.

“Emergencies are always evolving, so when these departments are able to adapt and thrive, UMB is better able to withstand whatever comes our way,” Markman said. “We have a job to do and we need to make sure we can do it, no matter what happens.”

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