Emergency Plan Speeds University's Recovery from Devastating Fire

School's emergency plan is model for other state and local entities, officials say.

by / April 29, 2008
Bouncing Back

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.


Efficient Transition
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

assistant vice president for resource planning and risk management in the JMU Division of Administration and Finance, the director of public safety, and the university's safety engineer.

The JMU safety engineer conducts "life safety" inspections of all residential, administrative, academic and maintenance shop facilities; provides preplanning consultations; and plans reviews of new construction and renovations. The safety engineer also provides guidelines and follow-up inspections of special events with large public assemblies, and is also directly involved in coordinating state and federal mandates for environmental safety and health on the JMU campus, including training and awareness programs.

Every campus building has a building coordinator who is responsible for the emergency planning and training of staff and students. Building coordinators are trained annually, and they, in turn, train the building occupants, handle procedures during a disaster and coordinate relocation if necessary.

"We tackle different kinds of training issues in work safety, including fire prevention, burning candles, hazardous materials, what to do with a chemical spill, what steps to do so nobody is hurt," said Towana Moore, associate vice president for business services at JMU. "We try to be as proactive as we were before the fire, so it becomes an automatic response on what they can do so we can be as safe as we can be."

The school also promotes risk management training and programs to prevent disasters. One primary issue addressed in risk management training after the 2003 fire was the safe use of surge protectors, extension cords and other appliances. The school also promotes active review of its emergency procedures. After the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, JMU officials reviewed their emergency response to shootings to make sure there weren't holes or deficiencies.   


Dodging Danger
JMU officials annually test their plans to make sure their emergency procedures are effective.

In 2006, JMU took part in a regional training exercise with local and state emergency medical services, police and fire agencies that simulated an avian flu outbreak. In 2004, JMU also participated in an emergency drill with the local Harrisonburg and Rockingham Emergency Preparedness Task Force that simulated the discovery of an unknown substance in the university Convocation Center following a concert. The university and community members participated to help determine appropriate actions for evacuation and mass inoculation.

The university no longer leases space to tenants, and has a strict policy and outreach efforts regarding extension cords and surge protectors. Officials at JMU admittedly dodged a bullet with the fire, but they are confident their emergency procedures are some of the best in the country.

"It could've been much worse," said Don Egle, director of public affairs and university spokesman. "Anytime you have a situation with a building burning down and you lose valuable paperwork, it's a very serious thing," he said. "But we addressed it quickly and efficiently. You can't prepare for every situation, but when you have infrastructure and planning in place, it helps in a very substantial way."

Chandler Harris Contributing Writer