Fire! – What to do if your office goes up in flames

Yesterday started just like any other day. I got the laptop started up, communicated with co-workers, answered emails, drafted a program plan, and …even ate lunch at 11:00 a.m. before the cafeteria rush.

Around noon, the fire alarm rang out.

We’ve had this before. A lot of false starts. The smell in the hallway just seemed to be a smell from a microwaved lunch slightly overdone. No big deal, right?

After the entire building was outside, we looked up! The gabbles on the roof had smoke coming out of them. Yikes! It took a couple of minutes, but the fire department did arrive and got as many trucks and hoses lined up as they could to squelch the flames.

Photo of a burned rooftop
Damaged roof of our building


Except, it didn’t die down. In fact, I found out today that they stopped working on it 11 hours after it started and the fire started up again around 10:30 p.m. at night.

So, what next?

We don’t have access to our office space. There was a concrete floor above our heads and so that most likely means no fire, but LOTS of water damage. Most of us grabbed personal items, but left our laptops. Ironic, since most of us carry our laptops everywhere. But, when push comes to shove, we are going to take a few personal meaningful items – phones, keys, wallets, a stray family picture, right?

So, really, what next?

What happens if your space goes up in flames? Do you have a plan? Will it have a massive impact on YOUR business?

Here are some tips to think about right now:

  • Back-up the Computer– Regularly – “regulary” depends upon how much you use it. I am on the computer all day creating, modifying, designing, organizing, etc. I should be backing up almost daily in some way, shape or form. There are a lot of services online that provide secure backup services. However, take a look at the next tip if you don’t want to tackle this today.
  • To the Cloud – You’ve heard about it on the news, in the blogs and at work. It’s actually been here for a while and you use it more than you think. Take Hotmail, Gmail or Yahoo – they are in the cloud. You may set up your computer to get them delivered right to your Microsoft Outlook, but they ultimately reside out there somewhere. If I edit an important presentation or document, I often email it “to the cloud.” That way, even if something happens to my computer, I’ve still got access to the document. It’s a big deal with photos! Scan in those old pictures and upload them to Flickr, Picassa and/or Photobucket. That way you’ve got three copies – physical, digital and online. We all know photos aren’t replaceable, like a laptop.
  • Keep the personal valuables small – Do you really need a lot personal stuff around the office?Most of us were able to put all of our personal items in a bag and walk out – within 5 – 10 seconds of the alarm. Would it take you longer? A co-worker brought in all his personal books and manuals he had collected over a period of 20 years to round out his office space. It is probably all damaged now. Would it have been safer at home? Maybe/Maybe not. Take a look at your space now and make that determination.
  • Damage Control & Contingency Planning – If you do own the space, have you thought about what could happen to it in an emergency? Does your building have cement walls and floors? Is there amble protection of your inventory if say a flame bursts through a door or water pours from the ceiling? How will damage impact your ability to meet customer needs? Will it be a minor inconvenience (e.g. system down for a day) or will it incapacitate your business (e.g. cafeteria closed, no other location) completely. Thinking through this before a crisis may avert a real crisis down the road. Some questions to ask:
    • Can those that support me do so at another location? with other computers/materials?
    • How will I prepare now to address customer questions? Facebook/Twitter announcements? Radio spot? Phone calls? Flyers?
    • Am I willing to change my business approach in order to meet both my employee needs and my own (e.g. willing to pay for telework vs. expecting everyone to stop work without pay)?
  • Create cheat sheets – Now is the perfect time to make a few simple lists and put them on a sheet or a credit card sized reference guide. Here’s a few suggestions:
    • Contact Sheet– Yesterday we used a small credit card sized laminated list to make sure everyone was out of the building. The card listed the name/phone/email of each person. These were alternative phone/email info, not our organizational info. Phone tree arrangements should also be listed.
    • Key Inventory Quick List– How many laptops, iPads, scanners, copiers or other equipment will need to be accounted for in case of disaster? Have a quick list available “in the cloud” and in hard copy to quickly access. Include on this list top items that should be picked up quickly on the way out if the need arose.
    • Emergency Sheet (from the business owner) – Wouldn’t it be nice if each person already had the emergency sheet/reference card on them? Whenever and wherever – they’d have info on what to do in case of emergency? Make your own to give out to the people you pay to support your business. It will remove a lot of the questions and worry that arise while in stressful moments. Note: It might be good to include any of the contingency planning details on that as well.
  • Discuss and Listen – Now might be the best time to set up an online space or a series of meetings for the different players in your business to work through “what if?” scenarios and to create a plan. Make sure to include all areas to gain greater insights into the impact an upset could cause. In DC, a derecho storm hit at the end of June 2012. Grocery stores lost power for days. It had a massive impact on the entire supply chain. They couldn’t buy groceries because they couldn’t freeze/refrigerate them which in turn meant that warehouses way out in the Mid-West couldn’t sell their inventories fast enough. A lot of business was lost in the weeks that followed as a result of a couple locations in DC being out of power.

Today I’m lucky. I’ve just lost the laptop and nothing else. I’ve got a paid day off as the powers that be work through the logistical and performance issues that the fire caused. I’m lucky. I’m an employee during the day and an entrepreneur by night. But, what about George? He owns the contract that runs the cafeteria. His workers have no where to go and most likely no benefits or vacation days. Hopefully they have backup plans. If not, some of us will step forward to help…and probably will anyway. It is the right thing to do.

Have more thoughts?

Please share.

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