Fire! (Part 1)

December 2005 » Business
Dark black smoke billowed from the entire length of our eight-unit building, and there was a flurry of organized chaos, consisting mostly of emergency responders and a few other business owners like myself.
Thomas True, P.E.

Part 1: A disaster at the office—it could happen to you.

July 13th seemed like any other summer day at TRUE Engineering, a medium-sized civil and survey firm in Bedford, N.H. I had returned from vacation two days earlier and was trying to catch up from the time away. Deadlines were looming, and the day whistled by.

I managed to get out of the office by 5:15 p.m. and headed home. Around 5:30 p.m. I got a call from Doug, one of the other engineers at the office. Doug had a big submission the following day, so I assumed it was a routine call for help.

"Tom," Doug said, "you gotta come back to the office." "I'm not coming back," I replied.

"Tom, the office is on fire," Doug said.

"Get lost. It's your deadline, you handle it," I said.

"No, really Tom!" About then I heard the sirens and knew Doug wasn't kidding. "Okay, I'm almost home. I'll change into field clothes and be right there." Assuming the worst, I brainstormed during the 30-minute ride back to the office about what would be needed in the hours and days ahead. By the time I got to the site, I had three pages of notes and tentative plans of attack. Our street was blocked off by a large contingent of fire hoses, fire apparatus, and police, so I walked rapidly toward the site in tense anticipation of what I would see. (I later found out that the fire was so severe that fire departments from nine nearby towns had been called upon to respond.) Dark black smoke billowed from the entire length of our eight-unit building, and there was a flurry of organized chaos, consisting mostly of emergency responders and a few other business owners like myself. Several staff members were already on the site and more arrived shortly after.

Most importantly, Leslie showed up with the day's backup tape! We stood at the site in disbelief for several hours until it was blatantly clear we wouldn't be able to do anything else. It was time to get into action, so we headed to UNO's restaurant for a working dinner and to regroup. We had the two company laptops and our cell phones but nothing else. We didn't even have phonebooks, so we had to borrow those from the restaurant. There were so many questions:

  • How do we secure the building?
  • Will anything be salvaged?
  • Can CADNET, our computer specialists, recover anything from the computers, the network, or the backup tapes?
  • How do we contact employees who we haven't yet seen? What do we tell them?
  • How do we tell our clients and vendors? How will they react?
  • What impending deadlines do we have?
  • How will everyone contact us?
  • What will we need to get up and running as soon as possible? We might not have any equipment or any place to put it.
  • Most importantly, was this a sign that I should be doing something else with my life?

The day after

The next morning, everyone arrived at the site in work clothes, ready to go. The fire marshal hadn't cleared the building for entrance, so we huddled around our coffees in the parking lot, chatting in disbelief at our circumstances. Peppered amongst the chatter, I made sure that the staff had their marching orders for the day based upon last night's preliminary plan.

There were demolition crews securing the buildings, but no other movement. The fire chief arrived and made his way through the building. He then came to take me through the office for my first look at the devastation. As we approached the building, Chief Wiggin explained the basics of fire investigation. He explained that fires create a vortex that points to the origin.

We entered the building to find water still dripping from the ceiling, and the floor covered with debris and 3 to 4 inches of a gummy, black sooty mess. Nearly everything was recognizable but clearly destroyed. As the chief moved toward my personal office, I noticed "Do Not Cross" tape around my office.

"Here's the source of the fire," the chief said. "This was one of the hottest fires we've seen in a long time. One of my firemen, in full apparatus, got knocked off his feet when he entered your office and had to be hauled off in an ambulance." Blessing No. 1—No one was seriously injured or killed.

We continued up the stairs to view the area above my office. This area was the nerve center of our business—archives, flat files, project organization binders, reference library, print shop—all the important stuff that we need to work. I knew what I would see, but stared in disbelief that all our paper records were completely gone.

We completed our tour and left the building. The chief said that we could enter the building and start removing our stuff, but we must stay away from the taped-off area.

As soon as I left the chief 's side, I was approached by a public adjuster—an "ambulance chaser." The fun is about to begin! I thought. Luckily, someone from my staff ran up and said, "CADNET just called. It will take awhile, but everything on the backup tape will be saved." Blessing No. 2—At worst, we would lose only one day's work.

Even though we knew the backup tape worked, the first item out of the building was our network server.

By this time, all five company phone lines had been forwarded to my cell phone, so my phone was ringing constantly. As both friends and clients called, I gave them the appropriate staff member's cell phone number and moved onto the next call.

Even though I kept the calls brief, I would hang up to find three or four more voicemails.

I quickly realized too much time was being spent describing what happened, so I changed my voicemail accordingly.

Luckily, many of the calls were from concerned friends, clients, and associates offering "whatever they could do." "I have computers." "I have phones." "I have office space." "I have that check I promised you." Blessing No. 3—We quickly knew who our friends were and that they would get us back on our feet.

Many friends and clients visited the site to see for themselves and to see what they could do. Clients typically said, "That stinks. If there's anything I can do, let me know. How's this going to affect my project?" Blessing No. 4—Our staff could see the humor in these comments. Concern about deadlines was our first sign of normalcy.

Our insurance adjuster showed up and introduced himself. "I'm here to help.

What do you need?" he offered. That's kind of a dumb question, I thought. I'm going to need everything and lots of money to pay for it! CADNET called again. The RAID-3 system worked. Everything on the server could be saved.

Blessing No. 5—We wouldn't lose a minute of work up until the time of the fire! That would include everything in our flat files and archives because we scanned and saved them on the network during our slow season.

Blessing No. 6—Staff hadn't understood the merit of scanning our archives until this point. Now I had their complete attention, and they would trust my judgment without question until our crisis subsided.

The day passed quickly, and we went to a public hearing that evening (albeit with charred work folders) for our second sign of normalcy.

Day 2

Because of the goodwill of our friends, we were able to set up a temporary office, complete with furniture and computers, to start getting our business back in order.

Using my laptop and a cafeteria-style table, I set up a makeshift office and started managing the reconstruction, as well as our business. Early in the morning, my longtime associate and mentor, Bob LaMontagne, visited.

"Tom, you know I'm going to tell you what I think," Bob started. "Maybe you should consider closing TRUE Engineering and doing something else." "Bob, I really appreciate your honesty," I replied. "My wife and I have already had the same thought. I'll do the math, but I really think this is what I'm meant to do with my life." Blessing No. 7—Friends who will tell you what's on their minds, and the courage to listen to them.

I later discovered that nearly 50 percent of businesses that suffer a catastrophic event never reopen. We were passionate and committed not only to survive, but also to prosper.

The following days During the next week, the cleanup operation began in earnest. One activity included manually copying more than 30,000 pieces of important, but wet, papers. Also, since most of our equipment and belongings were recognizable but obviously destroyed, we created an assembly line to photograph, label, and itemize everything as it came out of the building.

There were occasional surprises—items that had been unscathed by the fire. The best surprises were pictures, kids' crafts, and personal items that could never be replaced at any cost.

Blessing No. 8—This was the third fire that I experienced in my life, yet it was by far the easiest to handle because the majority of our loss and concern was related to money and business, not personal items.

TRUE Engineering is back up to speed and is producing work on a regular basis.

Although our temporary office is cramped and not appointed as we'd like, it is working.

I'm sure that we've lost clients for fear that we're too distracted with rebuilding, but I know for a fact that we've gained clients because of our ability to get back on our feet in short order.

We often talked about the "daily fires" of running our business. This was the real deal, and we made it through.

Blessing No. 9—As a result of many calls and comments from our peers, it's obvious that a move to a paperless system and electronic archiving would have significant value to organizations in this profession as well as to others.

Consequently, we will be forming a new division to cater to and service this line of work specifically.

It's not what happens in your life, it's what you do about it.

Thomas True, P.E., is president of TRUE Engineering in Bedford, N.H. He can be contacted via e-mail at ttrue@trueesi.com.


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