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Putting out the fire of disaster.

Putting Out the Fire of Disaster

THE NOVELISTS ARE WRONG. THE phone call doesn't always come after midnight. It came early in the evening of a work day in late February 1991. When I squelched the ringing by picking up the receiver at 7:00 pm, my partner said, "You live the closest to the office, Jack. Please get there ASAP. The building owner just told me our office is on fire." Is this a joke? No, said my partner, this is serious.

The 20-minute drive leaves plenty of time for unpleasant fantasies. The worst ones are confirmed when the fire trucks, flashing lights, and crowd come into view. The smell of smoke is heavy. The barricade tape surrounds a dark and blackened section of the building - right where our office is or was.

Fire fighters let me past the barricade tape. They tell me to remain available to speak to the fire marshal after he finishes the fire scene inspection. A couple of fire fighters tell me I cannot enter the building yet, but they assure me the fire is out. Then the bad news starts.

One soot-streaked face advises that the fire was contained in the upstairs level (our office space). His equally smoke-stained buddy is sitting on his blackened antifire coat and says, "Jeez, what a hot fire! It dropped the false ceiling on what wasn't burning, and we had to fire-ax the door and roof to get in to fight it."

The building owner and fire fighters answer favorably to my first question: No casualties.

My partners arrive. The fire marshal conducts the required interviews, then accompanies us upstairs. I'll spare you the details of what burning materials, smoke, heat, and water do to an office. The fire's cause remains unclear, but we are cigarette smokers and the fire marshal suspects it could have started in a wastebasket. The fire's point of origin is clear, even to a layperson. It started in the corner of a room that once had a side table, ashtray, and wastebasket plus a computer, surge protector, and electrical outlets.

Destruction is total. The fire burned or cooked every office and all of the furnishings, equipment, and business materials. Files, letters, company reference materials, personal effects, and any paper products left in the open are either burned or damaged beyond repair. Three computers and our telephones look like gummy models for a warped Salvador Dali painting. Office property damage is estimated at $150,000, plus $35,000 in losses in furnishings and office and personal effects.

HOW DOES ONE SURVIVE A REAL DISASTER? I can summarize the answer by noting that the determination to survive is essential. We did not quit or even think about closing the business in the wake of tragedy.

We benefited not only from good luck but also from the crisis planning and office discipline that we have always recommended to clients. Experiencing a fire is a radical way to learn that our advice is practical, but we are thankful that we at least tried to practice what we preached. Finally, we did not let the disaster divert us from the primary objectives of client service, client retention, and continuing in business.

I want to make our experience useful to others. So let me break things down, somewhat artificially, into what we did not do well and the favorable role that blind luck, good business planning, and office discipline played.

Foremost in our embarrassing list of poor marks was our inattention to simple fire protection procedures. We had no procedure to periodically check smoke detectors. We had only one that was in the foyer. It failed to work - or at best it worked only after the fire was raging.

We had no safety lines or rope ladders. Escape from the upper floor via one of two terraces would have required a 20-foot leap to the concrete. Now we have lines and ladders.

We did not pay the price for new, top-of-the-line surge protectors for computers and fax gear. We paid a much higher price later. The initial report from the fire marshal cited discarded smoking materials as the possible cause of the fire. However, independent investigators discovered a defective surge protector that was hooked into an older electrical outlet as the cause. We now have expensive surge protectors, and we carefully distribute our electric appliances to avoid overloading any circuit.

We were not attentive to secure storage of vital or hard-to-replace written materials. Everything not stored in metal filing cabinets went up in smoke. Wooden desks and filing cabinets just helped the fire destroy their contents. We now appreciate the money that we spent on several metal filing cabinets and the good discipline that caused our vital information in them to be preserved.

We failed to pay attention to the limits of liability in our business insurance policy. The limits on office contents were fine when we started the business; however, we did not update the contents covered as we grew. Fire losses exceeded our policy limits by at least $10,000. We now have a mandatory annual review of office contents.

A small measure of personal effort contributed to the good luck that we enjoyed in the midst of the crisis. There were no personal injuries. We learned later that a proverbial Good Samaritan saw the flames, reported the fire, then warned several neighbors to vacate the building complex.

The response and on-site performance of the local fire department were superb. Response time was eight minutes. Fire fighters contained and suppressed the fire with minimal damage to property. They also conducted a postfire investigation and gave good advice on how to prepare for the insurance carrier's requirements and secure the premises against vandalism.

Our business neighbors and landlord suffered extensive smoke damage. Given the damage done and the initial report that suggested we had been negligent, we could have been subjected to resentful treatment and, worse yet, lawsuits. The landlord, condo group, and business neighbors offered nothing but support and assistance. Through them, we found temporary quarters in the same complex from which we could observe the old office's renovation.

We were lucky to have a helpful, efficient, and supportive insurance adjuster who provided the initial advice and financial support to keep us in business.

It wasn't all luck. You never plan to encounter a fire, crooked partner, or other natural or man-made calamities. However, we did heed the advice that we give to clients regarding the management of crises and disasters.

THE FOLLOWING LIST INCLUDES SOME postcrisis recommendations based on our fire disaster.

* Know your landlord. The scene of a disaster is no place to be on unfamiliar terms with the property owner. The strains of any crisis make it easy for the most reasonable people to be difficult. A good prior relationship with the landlord or building owner is worth the time and effort. We have stressed this with clients in dealing with local and national law enforcement.

* Know your insurance agent and the underwriter for the same reasons cited previously. Moreover, ensure that your business insurance policy has a "continuing business" clause, which provides cash financial relief. The clause underwrites costs for leasing temporary quarters and furnishings and maintaining a communications system.

* Keep updated lists of whom you pay overhead costs to: communications, leasing, printing, and insurance companies as well as your landlord. When the bills and equipment are in ashes, it's hard to recall how much is owed to whom.

* Pay the extra dollar for metal filing and storage cabinets. And keep call lists, checks, and ledgers in them, no matter how convenient the desk drawers may seem. Our key operating files were safe in the metal containers. What's more, practice refiling what is not needed for the day.

* Pay the extra dollar for a professional answering service and call forwarding system. Despite our telephone meltdown, our phone system remained operative. Prior to the fire we had lined over to the answering service. Clients and other important callers could reach us any time. In fact, they knew nothing about our hardship unless we told them.

* No matter how much time and effort it takes, back up your computer hard disk and floppy data and keep the copies off-site. We did just what we have advised our clients. As a result, we could easily recover almost 90 percent of our data bases and computer files, despite the fact that nary a floppy disk nor a computer survived the fire.

* Have a planned crisis management committee wherein all the players already know each other and the drill. It's blue-sky thinking to presume that company people will do the right thing, rally around the flag, and handle matters from the bottom up. As soon as the nature of the crisis becomes clear (fire, storm, robbery, kidnapping, murder, terrorist act), the committee must convene immediately to decide on and disseminate a strong policy statement and near-term objectives. The committee must show leadership to those inside and outside the company.

* Take first things first. The crisis policy and all statements thereafter must aim at continuing the business. Actions must follow the words, but one must dispel confusion and doubts quickly to avoid business losses. Deal quickly with these specific "firsts:"

1. Reestablishing communications with clients, associates, and tradespeople through phone, fax, and message systems.

2. Establishing temporary quarters for the business.

3. Responding to what the landlord and insurance carrier need regarding claims and evidence of losses. Note that this takes third place among the priorities. Nothing is more important than continuing the business. Ensure that the damages and claims procedures don't take precedence.

4. Managing any media coverage of the event in local or national newspapers or TV. In America, any disaster or calamity is news, and unfortunately that may be the first and only time you'll see your company name in print or mentioned on the air. You'll want to ensure that a fair statement is given as to the calamity's origin and what your business is doing or has done about it.

* Don't rely on the fire marshal for a helpful report on the fire and damages. It took us 90 days to get a copy of his findings. Most important, get a second opinion. The insurance carrier has, or can hire, fire investigators to determine both origin and damages done.

* Disregard all advice to the contrary and preserve the scene of the disaster until it has been fully documented. Conduct your own room-by-room inventory of damage to furniture, equipment, personal effects, and reference works. It paid off for us later that we used a video camera and tape recorder to document the extent of damage in each office space. Ultimately, the evidence that we saved in that manner supported a finding that the fire did not originate from negligence on our part.

* Secure the premises immediately after a disaster that destroys access controls to your office. The fire department and a private cleanup firm were helpful in boarding up windows and doors. However, certain clever crooks and youth gangs monitor fire department and police radio traffic to locate and then loot burned homes and offices. We warded off one carload of youngsters spotted cruising around the office building three hours after the fire department had departed the scene.

* Meet with neighbors, the landlord, and your insurance carrier - ideally together - as soon as possible. There is a health hazard to smoke and water damage that can expose a business to potential litigation. The signs of damage also attract robbers and vandals. Explain why the scene can't be cleaned up immediately, but assure your neighbors and the owners that cleanup will proceed apace.

A FORMER BOSS HAD AN APT SIGN ON HIS desk. "When you're up to your neck in alligators, it's hard to keep in mind that the ultimate objective is to drain the swamp."

I am proud of how my partners and I stuck to basics during the crisis and postcrisis phases. Our perseverance got us through the recovery and back in business. If you visited us tomorrow, you would never know that we were standing in ashes six months ago.

The best advice to any reader is not to dwell on history because nothing will change it.

If this article helps another company survive what we have in the last six months, then its mission as I see it has been accomplished. It will also serve to snatch more victories from the jaws of disaster.

John Platt is vice president and partner of Hamilton Trading Group Inc. in McLean, VA. He is a member of ASIS.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society for Industrial Security
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Platt, John; Shaw, R.A.
Publication:Security Management
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Words:2103
Previous Article:Terrorism in the United States: 1990.
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