Time to Cope with COOP

Aviation officials in Los Angeles are pretty steamed at the folks at U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

A computer system used to process international travelers coming into the United States was down for nine hours Saturday, creating a backload of 17,000 travelers looking to enter the United States, according to a Los Angeles Times article. Thousands of travelers were stranded on planes for hours. According to the article, Steve Lott, chief spokesman in North America for the International Air Transport Association, explained the airport’s frustration with U.S. Customs this way: “Although ‘we understand that computer systems are not perfect, the frustration is why customs had no contingency plan.’"

LAX officials may be on to something. In June 2004, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued the "Federal Preparedness Circular," which was sent to the "heads of federal departments and agencies.” The circular presents guidance on how agencies can set up a Continuity of Operations (COOP) plan. According to the circular (emphasis added):

It is the policy of the United States to have in place a comprehensive and effective program to ensure continuity of essential Federal functions under all circumstances. ... All Federal agencies, regardless of location, shall have in place a viable COOP capability to ensure continued performance of essential functions from alternate operating sites during any emergency or situation that may disrupt normal operations.

It seems as if most agencies didn't follow FEMA's guidance because on May 9 President Bush issued National Security Presidential Directive 51 and Homeland Security Presidential Directive 20. The directives mandate that agencies develop a COOP plan “to ensure that Primary Mission-Essential Functions continue to be performed during a wide range of emergencies, including … technological … emergencies.”

Bush's directive obviously came too late for international travelers coming through LAX Saturday. So maybe now's a good idea for a COOP plan to be at the top of Jayson Ahern’s to-do list at U.S. Customs. It was just last week that Ahern assumed the position of deputy commissioner for U.S. Customs and Border Protection â€" the No. 2 position at the agency. That's one bad first week on the job.