April 29, 2008 By Chandler Harris
On the evening of Nov. 16, 2003, a pinched extension cord caught fire under a couch at a doctor's office at James Madison University (JMU). The office, leased from the university by a doctor, was connected to the school's administrative offices. Soon the doctor's office and an entire building at JMU were engulfed in flames.
The university building at 1031 South Main St. in Harrisonburg, Va. - the Medical Arts Complex - was destroyed. The building, which was rebuilt and renamed Massanutten Hall, held some of the university's most vital information, and was considered the financial backbone because it housed the financial services offices.
Fortunately nobody was killed or injured in the fire, but the university sustained heavy administrative losses. Materials destroyed included payroll, accounts payable and receivable, and cash; and IT equipment such as servers, phone switches for campus buildings, and grants and contracts. All computer systems in the building were destroyed - either by the fire or water used to douse the flames. JMU also lost paper files stored in the building, including all its employees' W-4 forms. More than 50 JMU employees were forced to move into temporary offices on campus.
Yet amid the disarray, the payroll department could still issue paychecks three days after the fire. The disaster revealed a resilient emergency plan as well as prepared staff at the university.
"The payroll running the following Wednesday revealed a lot of effort went into quickly trying to find locations for staff and get the system back up from the university department perspective," said Dale Hulvey, assistant vice president for information technology at JMU.
Part of the successful rebound came from an efficient transition, Hulvey said, since every JMU employee affected by the disaster was notified the night of the fire and given instructions for the temporary workstation location.
"A lot of effort went into quickly trying to find locations for staff, and get them functioning," Hulvey said. "These folks all relied on computers, and trying to get computers, phones and other equipment functioning was where the challenge was."
Although sensitive data was lost, it could've been much worse, university officials said. JMU retained most of its critical financial data in exterior servers housed at another location. Yet Hulvey admits that if the fire had reached the on-campus servers, the information loss would have been much more severe.
JMU officials say they could have done a few things differently prior to the fire, such as mandating better education about the proper use of electrical and extension cords, as well as highlighting the importance of storing sensitive documents in fireproof containers. JMU now requires the proper use of extension cords, and the university payroll office uses document imaging solutions for its sensitive documents.
All-Encompassing EM Plan
School officials say JMU's safety plan was the primary instrument that the university used to recover from the fire. JMU's comprehensive, 29-part safety plan is used by more than 400 different municipal and state entities worldwide as a model, according to university officials. The plan covers nearly every disaster imaginable, including floods, earthquakes, weapons, bombs, power failures, tornadoes, hurricanes and even biopredation - mold, mildew, insect or rodent infestation. The plan also includes salvaging water-damaged materials, with detailed instructions on environmental stabilization to decrease the risk of molds, as well as the best way to handle water-damaged materials to prevent loss.
The plan takes an interagency and intra-agency approach. It identifies each department's needs and roles in a disaster and pinpoints the appropriate local, state and federal agency for cooperative disaster relief on a case-by-case basis.
The university has a hierarchical command structure of safety officials. At the top is JMU's vice president of administration and finance, who is followed by the
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