Disaster & Emergency Preparedness

Disaster and Emergency Preparedness

The Galveston Hurricane of 1900, still the deadliest natural disaster to ever strike the U.S.; the 1995 storms in Fort Worth and Dallas, called the costliest thunderstorm in history; the F5 tornado that devastated the small town of Jarrell in 1997; the Great 2000 Fort Worth Tornado; Tropical Storm Allison and the massive flooding in June of 2001; Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, and the third costliest hurricane to ever make landfall in the U.S. – Hurricane Ike. The resulting devastation from Hurricane Harvey remains to be seen (TMCEC recognizes the municipal courts and court personnel affected by Hurricane Harvey. Our thoughts are with you.).

Texas ranks highest of all U.S. states and U.S. occupied territories in the number of declared disasters, ranging from severe thunderstorms and tornados to tropical storms and hurricanes, from flooding to fires, even dust storms and earthquakes.  

There are health pandemics, including the outbreak of the “swine flu” (H1N1) that interrupted schools, social events, and courts across the country and Texas. Public utilities are disrupted – from weather or acts of terrorism. Power outages roll across Texas towns.

And in today’s society, we face a new type of threat…those which are manmade. These “disasters” include active shooters (remember the deadly 2005 Tyler courthouse shooting), a release of biological agents, or an incident similar to the February 18, 2010 suicide plane crash into an office complex in Austin, which housed an IRS Field Office and other state and federal agencies. Even the mere threat of an attack can disrupt day to day operations.

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “how quickly your company can get back to business after a terrorist attack or tornado, a fire or flood, often depends on emergency planning done today.” Is your court prepared?

Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

-English Proverb


The concept of disaster and emergency planning for municipal courts is a rather untapped field, with little statutory guidance and even fewer scholarly resources. Much of the planning for emergency situations is focused on court security issues. However, municipal courts are often faced with other emergency situations - from losing power to losing the entire courthouse - and planning for these disasters is an important process for municipal courts to undergo. The following is a list of resources helpful to municipal courts in preparing for disasters and other emergency situations:

  • The Texas Municipal League (TML) has set up a member needs bulletin board to help cities impacted by the Hurricane Harvey Disaster connect to support and resources. 
  • The Texas City Attorneys Association offers a City Attorneys Responding in an Emergency (CARE) Unit to help local city attorneys respond to a catastrophic event by providing critical legal assistance to facilitate recovery. The CARE Unit has highly qualified volunteer attorneys, who are knowledgeable in municipal law and disaster issues, ready to assist local counsel in properly advising city officials on recovery efforts. Learn more about the CARE Unit here.
  • State Bar of Texas Disaster Relief Resources is a clearinghouse for disaster response resources for the public and attorneys, including the State Bar of Texas Legal Disaster Hotline: (800) 504-7030, which helps people find answers to basic legal questions and connects them with local legal aid providers following declared disasters. Other resources include locating emergency shelters or housing, how to apply for federal assistance, scams and price gouging, insurance help, upcoming legal clinics, disaster relief contacts and resources (Texas, federal, and non-profit), lawyer referral services, weather safety tips, and psychological and counseling resources.
  • The Office of Court Administration (OCA) has a Court Closures and and Delays page, which includes a report form for court closures and reopenings. Though reporting court closures and reopenings is not required, it is encouraged in order to collect such information in one place.
  • Continuity of Court Operations: Steps for COOP Planning prepared by the National Center for State Courts (September 2007): "The ability of courts to perform their statutory mandates and ensure access to justice and the protection of liberties is particularly crucial when society's traditional standards of operation are in disarray... A critical component of an emergency preparedness program is a continuity of operations (COOP) plan that ensures mission essential functions when normal operations are impaired. This Guide... provides a step-by-step guide to help courts develop and maintain a viable COOP capability."
  • Disaster Recovery Planning for Courts: A Guide to Business Continuity Planning prepared by the National Association for Court Management (2000): "Although this guide is not exhaustive, it is a compendium designed to assist judges, court managers and staff step through the planning process to prepare their courts to keep business operations up and running, even in a disaster. Included in the guide are actual disaster case studies from jurisdictions across the country."
  • Emergency Management for Courts prepared by the National Center for State Courts' Best Practices Institute (2003): "Emergency management refers to protecting the court or court system from any event that could threaten its operation - whether the event is an act of man or an act of nature. It encompasses all activities commonly associated with the terms 'court security' and 'court safety.' The [best practices] are offered as a starting point for courts to review their current emergency management plans. An overview of each practice is presented, followed by examples of how the practice could be or has been implemented."
  • Court Security Handbook: Ten Essential Elements for Court Security and Emergency Preparedness prepared by the Conference of Chief Justices/Conference of State Court Administrators Joint Committee on Court Security and Emergency Preparedness (June 2010): An October 2003 survey of state courts "produced a framework for addressing court safety and security called Ten Essential Elements for Court Safety and Security." Those elements were identified as:
    • Operational Security: Standard Operating Procedures
    • Facility Security Planning: The Self-Audit Survey of Court Facilities
    • Emergency Preparedness and Response: Continuity of Operations
    • Disaster Recovery: Essential Elements of a Plan
    • Threat Assessment
    • Incident Reporting
    • Funding
    • Security Equipment and Costs
    • Resources and Partnerships
    • New Courthouse Design

"Although this handbook is not intended to provide detailed answers to every court security and emergency management preparedness question, it does provide the user a convenient yet significant gateway to this information."

  • Position Paper on Emergency Preparedness in the State Courts prepared by the Conference of State Court Administrators (2006): "It is vital for courts to make the necessary preparations now, via a continuity of operations plan (COOP), to carry on with their most essential functions under all conceivable emergency conditions, from a wide-ranging natural catastrophe to any number of less dramatic or building-specific events that can disrupt court operations."
  • Planning for Emergencies: Immediate Events and Their Aftermath, A Guideline for Local Courts prepared by the State Justice Institute Court Emergency/Disaster Preparedness Planning Project (2005): "The goal of this project was to assist trial courts - particularly those in rural areas - in developing court security and emergency preparedness plans and response capabilities... Although no two "emergencies" are identical, the common thread that runs through both the literature and the first-hand accounts is the critical importance of having a plan that can be activated to at least deal with the issues that can be reasonably anticipated to arise; and on-going communication among all agencies (court and non-court) involved in making the plan work."
  • Court Security: Being Prepared by Lt. Jimmie Barrett of the Arlington County, Virginia, Sheriff's Office (featured at a TMCEC one-day clinic). Visit Lt. Barrett's website Protecting Court by clicking here.

For more resources, visit the National Center for State Court's (NCSC) Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Recovery Resource Guide or the Continuity of Court Operations page for a copy of the Planning Guide, an online course centered on the Planning Guide, and many additional resources.