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NEWS | Jan. 31, 2017

Army Reserve Assists Catholic Charities of Oneida

By Maj. Ruth Castro 1st Mission Support Command

Members of the U.S. Army Reserve, 1st Mission Support Command in Puerto Rico and US Army Reserve Command in Fort Bragg conducted a planning assistance visit to Catholic Charities of Oneida/Madison County, January 23 through the 27th.

The primary purpose of the visit was to assist Catholic Charities in developing a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP), support the agency staff to develop program specific emergency plans integrated into the agency emergency plan and establish the internal capability to develop, implement, and maintain COOP and emergency planning.

“We are here to provide a baseline capability for Catholic Charities in emergency planning and continuity of operations planning,” said Mr. Robert Stabb, Emergency Management Specialist at U.S. Army Reserve Command.  “Catholic Charities is part of the community response plan and the whole of community response element for their community, and they have specific emergency response requirements such as disaster case management as assigned by the state of New York.”

“I hope that by the end of the week, they will have a baseline ability to move forward in their internal COOP and emergency management planning,” continued Stabb. “In addition to supporting a community partner, this visit also allows Army Reserve personnel to maintain proficiency in continuity and emergency planning.”

Mr. Carlos Alvarado, Safety and Occupational Health Specialist for the 1st Mission Support Command and Professional Continuity Practitioner Level 1 (FEMA), provided the necessary COOP training to the Catholic Charities staff.

“COOP is important for US Army Reserve units and Soldiers because it allows for a stronger organization which can continue performing essential functions in case of any wide range of events like natural disasters or terrorist attacks,” said Alvarado. “You must also identify any other needed capabilities like accessing files or your network that can diminish your capabilities. COOP gives you the procedures to continue functioning during an event.”

Continuity of Operations is a Federal initiative, outlined in Homeland Security Presidential Directive -20, to ensure that agencies can continue performance of essential functions under a broad range of circumstances. The purpose of a Continuity Plan, when an organization is faced with a continuity event, the plan provides for the continuation of essential functions and enables a rapid response to any emergency situation.

Executive Director of Catholic Charities of Oneida/Madison County, Denise Cavanaugh, believes that COOP training can help her organization prepare for movement to a different location if and when they encounter an emergency event. “This training is excellent because we do not have a formal process or plan for our facilities and our people,” said Cavanaugh. “Since we are responsible for providing services to the community, it is critical to think about what could happen, how do we continue our services, and how do we prepare for them.”

“I understand that COOP is very new to our organization and I think maybe to most non-for-profit organizations,” said Cavanaugh. “We have a connection with the Army Reserve, and when we heard that we could receive this training, we made a commitment and jumped at the opportunity.”

Cavanaugh’s primary goal is to fully utilize the resources provided by the U.S. Army Reserve and FEMA and develop a COOP plan. “I also want to be able to work with the Syracuse Diesis which encompasses six different Catholic Charities in seven counties in the central part of New York,” continued Cavanaugh. “We are hoping to share with them what we have learned so they can also benefit from this.”

While nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are not required to have continuity programs, they can benefit from continuity planning.

“The federal government goal, especially FEMA, is to develop resilient communities that are strong and able to continue providing services to the community and their recovery back to normal state can be faster after an event,” said Alvarado.

Alvarado’s goal, as the COOP instructor focused on providing the necessary tools and material needed to create a COOP plan. “We are providing them with all the resources they need,” continued Alvarado. “This group is very engaged, and the leader of the organization is present, and that makes a big difference. They are brainstorming and having great discussions that will assist them in creating their COOP plan, and I believe they will be successful.”

Alvarado is a COOP certified trainer that ensures Army Reserve units remain adequately trained and prepared to execute their COOP plan at a moment’s notice. “I think there is a benefit to training our civilian partner agencies,” said Alvarado. “We are all part of the same communities, if the communities are strong, the recovery will be a lot faster. What we are doing is very beneficial because local agencies can see that the Army Reserve is their friend. We are not just engaged in combat; we also provide support to the community.”

 After their COOP session was complete, every member of the staff indicated that they were prepared to begin formulating their plan. Team members completed a variety of practical exercises to put into practice COOP strategies. “These practical exercises helped me think about what we need to prepare for,” said Tyler Bourgeois, Director of Special Projects. “We could have started a draft outline for COOP during the different exercises, but at least we now know what to think about and focus on.”

Emergency disaster planning was also on the agenda for Catholic Charities. Stabb led the training and concentrated on the planning aspect by using their current emergency plan as a guide. “I want to achieve a little better integration with them as a community response partner, and I am particularly interested in their capabilities in community response because having 195,000 Soldiers across the U.S., some of our Soldiers would be eligible or impacted by the services they receive in the case of an emergency,” said Stabb.

Training local community partners is something the Homeland Operations Division plans on continuing. “The National Response Framework requires that all agencies, which includes all federal agencies and the Department of Defense, are part of a tiered and unified response,” said Stabb. “Part of that requires that we interact and coordinate with our agency response partners both at the national and local level.”

“Current experience has shown that we need to do that effectively for instance in Rainelle, West Virginia, our Soldiers were part of a community response at the most basic level for an incident,” continued Stabb. “That type of interaction is vital to save lives and prevent human suffering.”
While preparing to participate in the training, staff members were excited and nervous about what to expect.

“The opportunity to work with the experts at the US Army Reserve to develop our internal competence in COOP and Emergency Operations Planning is an exciting one,” said Bourgeois. “It is an opportunity to walk through our existing policies and programs to ensure we unflinchingly maintain our duty of care to those we serve, while also keeping with the mission of Catholic Charities to help those who are most in need.”

A month before the training, Jan Stasaitis, Director of Administration, confessed that she did have a bit of stress. “Not knowing what the training would entail was very intimidating,” said Stasaitis. “Even though we received a lot of information, it was very digestible, and we are very fortunate to get this opportunity.”

Throughout segments of training, several customized, practical exercises were provided for the staff to work through and begin thinking about what needed to be incorporated into their emergency management plan.

“I think the scenarios used were very relevant to our agency,” said Bourgeois. “Using Information from our existing emergency helped me better understand what our plan is.”

For most, the concept of a continuity plan was somewhat foreign, but after the training, they had a better understanding of what to expect and how to move forward with planning. “I had very little knowledge of what COOP is, but through the very professional and knowledgeable instructors, I can say that we are now better prepared to begin planning,” said Stasaitis.

“All this training has stimulated so much energy among the staff, and I know we will have several meetings around this topic. This trained has helped reignite the thought process around emergency planning as well, and I have every expectation that we will improve our emergency plan and that we will implement a lot of different training modules.”

Responding to emergencies does not necessarily mean planning for a hurricane, tornado or terrorist attack, for an organization like Catholic Charities, they are often met with situations that they have to respond to quickly.

“By the nature of what we do, we respond to a lot of mini-problems,” said Bourgeois. “Our staff does an excellent job of responding to some emergency situations pretty much on a daily basis. People walk into our office that need emergency services, and we provide them with the aid they need and pull in the appropriate staff to help.”

“We might do a real job at working through emergency situations at the lower level, but if we think about this formal process, I believe this will help us streamline our thought process and get everyone on the same page. We should hopefully be able to react to the same types of situations or new situations more efficiently and quickly.”

After a week-long training session of continuity of operations and emergency management planning, the staff from the U.S. Army Reserve are confident that Catholic Charities will be successful in their plans. “We are here to assist you,” said Lt. Col. Shedonta Gordon, USARC G-33 (Training Department), COOP instructor, and facilitator. “After we leave, we are still available to help you with any questions you may have and review your plans.”

Catholic Charities is a not-for-profit human service, non-governmental organization that provides a wide array of services to a large and diverse population, including contract services under New York State Office of Mental Health and Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.  Catholic Charities is part of a whole of community services network. These services are essential to the well-being of the supported populations and support the community as a whole; some of these services are part of the whole of community services programs of Oneida and Madison counties as well as New York State.