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Summer Journal

Volume 27, Issue 3

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Whatever Can Go Wrong Will Go Wrong

Except in the case of hurricanes, disasters are usually a complete surprise. Most of us have auto insurance, wear seat belts and (always) drive defensively, but we don't really believe we're going to have an accident. The same mind set exists in most of us when it comes to being in a disaster. We have never had a fire before so why do I need to worry now. The snow storms of early 1993 along the Tennessee Valley were the worst in decades. The roofs on some carpet mills in northern Georgia could not hold the weight of the snow - so they fell down, then the snow melted and the carpet rolls became water damaged - then the construction people came in to remove the fallen roof and with their cutting torches, set fire to the rest of the facility and any part of the office that was not damaged before now is either burned or covered with soot. The people in this area will long remember the disasters of 1993. The thing to remember is that they had never had a snowfall disaster before.

Fires don’t have to be big to cause considerable damage. A trash can fire in a US Military War College library did very little direct damage to the collection but the soot that covered everything shut the library down for weeks. A fire in a facility at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, DC was contained to the ninth floor but while the firemen were putting the fire down, the stand pipe (a pipe built into most buildings and used to deliver water to the fire hoses on the floors) broke on the 5th floor, flooding the remainder of the building. At another loss a chilled water pipe for air conditioning a computer room broke and flooded the area below the raised floor and the 65,000 magnetic tape library on the next floor down.

In todays tight budget and stretch the dollar economy we feel obligated to maximize the space we have. In a hospital or medical clinic the medical records, of which there is only one copy, are nearly always on the first floor or basement and the old inactive files are kept in the subbasement - but they’re in good company because that's where insurance files are kept along with library special collections and the major computer equipment and probably the telephone switch gear. The space needs to be used by items that don’t have a lot of human traffic. Putting these valuable things in this location seems reasonable but remember that water used to fight the fire runs down hill while soot is usually hot and it rises with the heat of the fire.

A very well maintained high rise building in San Francisco, on Sunday morning, with very few people inside and almost no air-conditioning systems running, did not have a fire or flood. When the electrical power to the building was interrupted the emergency generators immediately took charge, keeping the building operating properly. A smoke detector in the make up air plenum smelled smoke and told the computer that controls the indoor environment of the building to get the smoke out of the facility. All the air movers became energized and started moving air, trying to purge the building of any smoke that might be present. The procedures to remove the smoke from a building is to bring in outside air and push the smoke out. This building computer did exactly what it was designed to do except the fire was outside in a sidewalk transformer vault. All the proper procedures resulted in drawing the smoke from an exterior fire into and throughout the building.

A levee next to a county court house in South Alabama broke and flooded the town for 48 hours. The information in some of the ledgers dated back to before the Civil War and the damage was considerable. Paper for the most part is made of wood pulp and wood floats in water. Some of the books floated out of their shelves, some of the shelves floated up and turned over dumping the contents out only to have the shelf settle back down on the books. Some of the books swelled so large that they could not be removed from the shelves once the recovery effort was begun. The questions, priorities, inventories and the system to deal with most eventualities need to be addressed (if possible) while developing your disaster plan. Open ledgers laying face down in the mud with their shelves on top of them often can be recovered, cost effectively.

Decisions need to be made to save the 100 year old brass rollered shelves or the ledgers (one was going to be destroyed in the recovery effort). A document or ledger that has been microfilmed may not need to be saved but if the item has historical worth, the intrinsic value may justify the expense of recovery. When the entire county is shut down because the court house information is unavailable, the people making decisions have the problems of keeping the county going and making expensive recovery decisions. If a disaster plan has been written and practiced the trauma of the disaster and unnecessary expense will be greatly reduced and the goals of the recovery plan can be reached in a reasonable time frame.

All is not always lost--Documents and books that are covered with mud, debris and soot that are so misshapen that they look lost may be recoverable. Computers and magnetic media in the same general condition may not be lost. A damage assessment, triage team that knows what you are looking for in your recovery effort can greatly assist in determining the direction of the job flow and the extent of the scope of work to help accomplish the goals of your restoration project. Many times when a disaster occurs a lot of people want to “help” by becoming involved with the clean up - but - it normally takes just a few days of soot, debris and mud for this not to be fun any more and everyone just wants to get back to normal.

Damage Assessment--Objective damage assessment, when dealing with a disaster in your facility, is a difficult task. This is your facility that has been damaged. When determining what to do, it is easy to become nostalgic about almost everything you see. The ashes in the charred box may be the company’s artificial Christmas tree that you bought on sale five years ago. First it probably is not cost effective to clean the tree even if it wasn't heavily damaged, and secondly - items that are moisture/time sensitive are continuing to deteriorate while time is being wasted thinking about last years holiday party. The damage assessment process needs to be quick. Some things will be missed on the first walk-through but a determination can be made about the classification of the loss and where the various ER-Teams should start. If the basement is still full of water (that is where the really good stuff is) - it's OK to get mobilized on the other floors and then change direction as more of the loss is revealed by the receding water or access is allowed by the fire department.

Damage Assessment, especially on large losses is a continuing process and new problems are discovered on a daily basis. Damage assessment may be new to your Disaster Response Director but it is not a complicated procedure. It will be necessary to know as much as possible about the disaster recovery plan goals for the damaged part of your facility. What the condition of and where the important items such as vital records, magnetic media, micrographics and items of high intrinsic value are.

Classification of the Loss--Category “I” - is a loss where the personnel on site are able to handle the loss initially or in total.

Disasters come in all sizes. If you are part of a small staff or an organization that employs a large number of people the probability is that some disasters are dealt with regularly. If one or a few boxes of files gets damaged, that problem can be dealt with and managed by the in-house staff. A loss may require the services of a magnetic media recovery specialist, an art curator, a book and paper mass freeze dry and cleaning team but the size is small enough for the staff to box, handle and ship to an organization that specializes in the type of services needed. It is prudent to remember that in an area wide disaster such as a hurricane, many of the staff have personal losses and they may not be available on a 24 hour emergency basis. Additionally, travel may be restricted and supplies limited or unavailable. With a limited work force, the continuing damage to moisture-time sensitive items becomes an important factor in classifying the disaster. A prolonged delay could cause unnecessary severe damage. Also consider the time required for completion of the recovery effort. Your staff may not be able to dedicate the time for dealing with this project before they are required to resume their normal business activities.

Category “II” - is a loss where the services of a company specializing in disaster recovery are needed.

Disasters come in all sizes. When initial damage assessment reveals conditions that appear beyond your staff's ability to meet the disaster recovery plan goals, it is time to use the resources of a qualified restoration company. Calling in another company does not relinquish or relieve the management of the recovery project from your staff. The addition of an objective, disaster recovery work force that is sensitive to your needs but not emotionally involved in your organization will mitigate the loss and speed up the work flow. A restoration company's experience, creativity and manpower to deal with the surprises that develop in a major disaster and your staff’s knowledge of the facility and the disaster plan goals combine to make an efficient recovery team.

** Note: Determining the classification of a loss can be difficult under normal conditions. With the electricity off and the strong smell of smoke in the air, the situation may not look too bad, maybe grim, but manageable. On the next walk through with the lights on the look changes, - a small, hard to extinguish fire in a single room may have put thousands of gallons of water on the floors below. The loss has gone from a manageable “Cat. I” to a definite “Cat. II.” Restoration companies welcome your initial questions because they are alerted to the possible need to mobilize and they can help you with things to look for. It is better to alert them and not need them than to wait and lose reaction time.


Larry Wood is a founder of Disaster Recovery Services, Inc., in Fort Worth, Texas.

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