Denver Ranked Country’s Sixth Most Endangered City; Audit Finds City Isn’t Disaster Ready
by Glen Richardson
Despite the horrific damage inflicted upon Houston, the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico by hurricanes last year, most Cherry Creek Valley residents think they’re relatively safe from Mother Nature compared to most major metro areas. Wrong: Five counties in Colorado — mostly along the urban corridor — are ranked as very high risks. Fact: Denver is the sixth most endangered major city in the country. Moreover, the likelihood for mass shootings, wildfires and terror attacks are equally likely here as anywhere.
To make matters worse the City of Denver is not prepared to continue non-emergency but mission-essential services in the event of a disaster. In a just released appraisal City Auditor Timothy M. O’Brien, CPA, found that insufficient guidance and training could mean a longer recovery period before city agencies restore vital services after a man-made or natural disaster.
Worst Case Scenario
“If the worst should happen, Denver needs to be ready to respond to keep city services going,” Auditor O’Brien warns. “If we faced an extreme weather event, pandemic, terrorist attack or another disaster, we’d need to know Denver could bounce back and continue serving its citizens.”
Non-emergency, mission-essential operations include a broad swath of services the city provides, ranging from assistance to vulnerable populations to services for citizens.
The audit looked at whether agencies had “continuity of operations” plans that would be effective in the event of an emergency. The pla
ns are created as a guid
e so each agency’s personnel know where to go and what to do in the case of an emergency. They are part of a greater “continuity of government” plan for Denver. Emergency services such as firefighters and police are not included in these plans. They are part of a separate emergency preparedness plan. Standards for effective continuity of operations plans are set by FEMA.
Front Line Flaws
After examining the operations of the Office of Emergency Management & Homeland Security, as well as the Office of Human Resources, the audit concluded the city does not have proper planning in place to ensure mission-essential services are up and running after a disaster. For example, the city’s continuity of operations plan lacks critical and up-to-date information. Denver’s continuity of operations plans are incomplete or ineffective according to FEMA standards. These flaws could lead to time-sensitive performance and operation issues, causing increased costs and potential damage to city infrastru
cture, services and reputation.
Mission-essential functions include front-line, time-sensitive services. Many city agencies provide critical services for the health and well-being of some of Denver’s most vulnerable populations, including children who benefit from summer food and after-school meal programs. If a disaster took out everyday functions, everything from paperwork and permitting to other time-sensitive services could fail. This could also mean tax dollars would be wasted if city agencies were not able to do work in a timely manner.
The audit found 29 out of 69 agencies had not reviewed their plans in 2017. Of those 29, three agencies had not reviewed their emergency plan since 2001. Five agenc
ies did not have a continuity of operations plan at all. The audit also found there was no training for the agencies on how to write an effective plan.
Tone At Top
The Office of Emergency Management & Homeland Security is supposed to collaborate with government agencies to help them prepare their continuity of operations plans, as directed by Executive Order 85. The order states all agencies should have these pla
ns. The Office of Emergency Management & Homeland Security is supposed to provide sufficient guidance and training to ensure agencies have complete and effective plans. The agency is also intended to ensure the plans are kept updated.
While the executive order is not specific about when agencies should update their plans, the continuity of government plan and FEMA both recommend annual updates. “The Office of Emergency Management & Homeland Security needs to set a tone at the top to encourage all agencies to make sure they are ready to keep working no matter what happens,” Auditor O’Brien suggests.
The office is primarily funded by federal grants. Recently more money has come from Denver’s general fund as federal funding decreases year after year. In total, the funding for the office continues to decrease. Specifically, the agency’s operating budget dropped from $5.1 million in 2015 to $3.8 million in 2017.
Prepare For Worst
The audit also found there might not be alternate facilities available for some agencies, which would leave employees without a designated place to continue working if they must leave their normal work spaces. The audit team also discovered Denver’s cloud-based continuity planning software contract lapsed for nearly three months. In that time, the files outlining plans to keep the government running could have been lost. Now, the cloud-based continuity of operations planning software is again under contract, but the auditor’s office recommends a review process to update the contract regularly and on time in the future.
The audit also identified problems with user access and password setting for the continuity of operations software. The agency agreed to all eight of Auditor O’Brien’s recommendations, including training, regular plan updates and testing for continuity of operations plans.
Auditor O’Brien found that through stronger and more robust continuity of operations plans, agencies throughout the city will be better prepared to continue their operations, provide services and protect city data in the event of a disaster or disruption. The agency has already made significant progress in addressing the audit’s recommendations. “Disasters can cost billions of dollars and devastate lives,” Auditor O’Brien said. “It is important for Denver to be ready for the worst when its residents could need city services the most.”