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We found that the plans agencies use to continue their essential services during emergencies are of inconsistent quality and completeness across King County. These inconsistencies were driven by a lack of clear responsibilities around Continuity of Operations (COOP) Plan practices as well as limited guidance and review processes. To address these gaps, we recommend that the County clarify emergency planning roles, responsibilities, and practices.

In supplement to the Pandemic Planning audit, the following letter provides information that will assist the King County Council, the County Executive, and the Office of Emergency Management in developing and approving clear code guidance related to emergency management to address four key gaps we identified in audit reports between 2016 and 2022:

Watch the presentation (11:00)

Summary

In 2020, King County had to adapt quickly to unique emergency conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting massive changes to operations as the County sought to fulfill its regular obligations and respond to the crisis. In response, the King County Council passed motion 15650 requiring OEM to work with county agencies to update emergency plans, including COOP Plans. COOP Plans are a key tool used to ensure that agencies continue their fundamental services during emergencies. This audit evaluates whether COOP Plans across the County are designed to help agencies continue to provide their essential services during an emergency.

The pandemic also revealed wide inequities in the County’s ability to address the needs of all community members, with those who are Black, Hispanic, or American Indian or Alaskan Native more likely to be hospitalized by and die from COVID-19-related infections compared to Asian and White people. The County has a unique opportunity to learn from the lessons of the pandemic and ensure improvement for future emergency responses.

Most, but not all, county agencies have up-to-date Continuity of Operations (COOP) Plans; however, some agencies do not update their plans regularly. In addition, most agencies do not detail the regular training, testing, and exercises needed to prepare for emergencies that could disrupt services. Gaps we saw in COOP Plan quality included weaknesses in identifying and prioritizing essential functions, naming alternate work sites and key records, and addressing emergency communication with staff. Many of these issues are likely driven by a lack of clear and appropriate responsibilities and authorities for coordinating and implementing COOP Plan practices, as we originally found in our 2016 audit of emergency management in King County.1 Because resources are limited and authority for COOP Plans is shared between the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and departments, OEM states that it has not regularly reviewed most COOP Plans for deficiencies and has not produced detailed guidance for some COOP elements.

Public Health – Seattle & King County (Public Health) is in the process of updating its collection of emergency plans, which includes an Infectious Disease Plan. Rather than reviewing the soon-to-be outdated pandemic plan, we identified leading practices for incorporation into the new plan update.

1 “Emergency Management: Insufficient authority and communication hinder emergency preparedness and response in King County”
We expand upon unresolved recommendations from our 2016 audit of emergency management to improve organizational structures for emergency management and clarify preparedness requirements for all county agencies. We recommend that OEM regularly review COOP Plans for completeness and quality and incorporate missing topics into its training and guidance. Lastly, we recommend that Public Health design the development of its Infectious Disease Plan to involve the needs and voices of communities that could be disproportionately impacted by future pandemics.

Audit team

Brian Crist, Kayvon Zadeh, and Kymber Waltmunson worked on this audit. If you have any questions or would like more information, please call the King County Auditor's Office at 206-477-1033 or contact us by email at KCAO@kingcounty.gov.