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At approximately 9:20 p.m. on Tuesday, August 31, 1994, a spectacular fire destroyed the 3000 m2 ground floor of Knox Civic Centre.

The City of Knox is one of Melbourne’s largest municipalities with a population of approximately 130,000. It is located in the outer eastern suburbs and is responsible for an area of 11,000 hectarcs and an annual expenditure budget of around $60 million.

The building provided approximately 3000 m2 of office space; 1300 m2 of storage, and an 1100 m2 Council Suite. Approximately 160 staff were accommodated in the building.

City of Knox Mayor Cr. Tom Blaze described the fire “as a great tragedy,” but added that “it was fortunate no injuries occurred on what was a busy Council meeting night.” He praised the fire brigades and other emergency services who attended the scene and said he was overwhelmed by the offers of support from neighboring municipalities.

Chief Executive Officer Bob Seiffert was extremely pleased with the disaster recovery plan, which although only in draft form, proved invaluable in providing a “step by step” implementation strategy. Mr. Seiffert described the initial recovery phase as a real challenge which was successfully overcome due to the clear understanding of delegated responsibilities.

“Everyone was able to swing into action immediately in a coordinated and calm manner,” said Mr. Seiffert.
Peter Marke of Fire and Recovery Planning Pty. Ltd., who had previously conducted a disaster exercise for the Council, was contacted immediately (during the fire) to assist with the initial stages of the recovery phase. Mr. Marke commended the Council’s executive personnel and staff for the expedient initiation of the plan and described the progress made in the first 20 hours as “outstanding.”

“For example, we had a specialist restoration and recovery company on site and an initial briefing of Councilors and senior personnel was conducted before the fire was extinguished,” said Mr. Marke. “Mr. Seiffert had also contacted the Loss Assessors and Security Company during the fire.”

Mr. Seiffert recalls how one of the managers had the foresight to collect his copy of the disaster recovery plan while collecting files, etc., during the evacuation. “This was obviously beneficial as we would have been working from memory, because the plan was yet to be approved by Council - hence copies were not distributed.”

“A more detailed strategy was formulated early the following morning which included: salvage; alternative accommodation (immediate and long term); insurance liaison; communications; press briefings; EDP assessment; cost monitoring; trauma counseling; staff and union briefings; and restoration of full service deliver and business resumption,” said Mr. Seiffert. “It was also very impressive that a reduced telephone service and many counter functions were restored in relocated facilities by 9:00 a.m.”

Emphasis was given during the management and staff briefings of the likelihood of delayed reactions to the fire and typical stress situations that would be encountered. Details of crisis counseling arrangements were outlined during encouraging addresses by the Mayor and Mr. Seiffert.

Peter Marke also commended Mr. Seiffert on the manner in which tasks were allocated. “Tasks were delegated to the personnel who had the relevant experience or were familiar with what had to be done,” he said.

An interesting observation was the continual frustration because of the inability to gain access to the building due to safety reasons. “Managers and staff alike were understandably anxious to ascertain the fate of their files and equipment, etc,” he said.

It was therefore decided that once relevant approvals were obtained, (re OH&S matters) a team of executive’s would conduct an audit of their respective areas and document what they found to be safe or retrievable. This helped to allay concerns and plan the salvage operation in more detail.

A nearby office building of 3,000 m2 was leased after Council approval was obtained at a special council meeting, which convened at 6 p.m. that day to provide a briefing to the Council and to obtain delegation approvals for the CEO to continue with the restoration strategy.

“Everything was so well organized that by 10:30 a.m. on Thursday my task was completed - only 36 hours after the fire started,” said Mr. Marke.

Council were totally relocated in the new (temporary) building with full EDP support by the following Monday (Sept. 5) and demolition arrangements were being made.

A reassuring observation was made by Mr. Seiffert on the stress management and behavioral characteristics of management and staff. “There was only one incident where tempers started to fray and that was seven days after the fire. Even then it was only a minor situation. It certainly justified the priority we placed on our counseling and related welfare strategies. We ensured as much information as possible on symptoms and solutions for stress relief were given to everyone.”

Mr. Marke described the recovery and restoration project as “a great operational and logistical success.” Approximately 4,500 - 5,000 cartons of files; documents and records, plus the main frame and associated peripheral equipment, were transported to a warehouse and laboratory for decontamination and cleaning. Numerous other cartons of material and “work in progress” documents were treated “on site” in addition to the cleaning of furniture etc

Peter Marke is with Fire & Recovery Planning PTY. Ltd. in Australia. This article was submitted by Mark Fischer of the Disaster Recovery Journal Editorial Advisory Board.