Are You Prepared? - The Burning Question

Posted March 21, 2012, 2:42 p.m.
ARE YOU PREPARED – The Burning Question By Captain John Percival MRIN MNI On11th May 2010 at 0820 I arrived at our training centre in Hoylake (United Kingdom) to open up and prepare for the six classes that we were to teach that day. As I rounded the corner from where I’d parked my car I saw that the upstairs windows were wide open and I thought “the cleaner is in late this morning”. As I approached the building I realised that all the security shutters were closed. After crossing the road I could faintly hear one of our alarms going off. Not the one outside that wakes up the whole high street and surrounding areas but one that sounds internally only. “Funny,” I thought, “Why is that happening?” As I opened the security shutter for one of the doors I realised that the glass in the door was not clear but had become smoked glass. “Oh bugger I wonder what’s happened here” I thought. When I opened the door I found out. The ground floor doors had been kicked in and there was the unmistakable heat and smell of fire and arid smoke. The rear half of the building had caught fire and burnt out the Instructors office, ladies toilet, cleaners’ cupboard and seriously damaged the whole building internally with the heat and smoke. With many students due to arrive any minute for class, I asked myself “What now?” The answer was, engage the brain and put the emergency plans into action. I can tell you I was shaking, and in fact I could not face entering the fire ground, but I could start to make phone calls and text messages to start the ball rolling on a number of matters. Bear in mind that there was water running freely from central heating pipes, that electrical cables were hanging down from the ceiling area in the fire ground were the joists and floor boards had burnt through, so, in addition to sorting out training, the building had to be made secure and safe. Did I mention that the fire service had apparently been in attendance with three pumps from about 0300 to 0700? So where do we start? The answer is always start at the beginning! My emergency plans that were written, were somewhere in the mess that had been the Instructors and General Offices. So the memory kicked in – prioritise and delegate – that’s what I have always taught students when training them in Emergency Preparedness. Brian, our lead RYA Instructor arrived to do some general duties and so he was designated to be in charge of the building. I called Maureen (my wife) asking to find a training centre for the day and if possible for the foreseeable future. I also asked her to locate a temporary office. In the mean time I called the builder telling him to mobilise the trades and get to me pronto. Another one of the Instructors who was due to teach arrived and so I designated him to be in charge of the students as I wanted them to stay together. I spoke to Anna, our Managing Director, who was in Antibes at the Crew Show and marketing the business. We decided that she should remain there to quash any rumours that may begin to circulate. We wanted everyone to know that we would remain in business! When the administration staff arrived I asked them to take total charge of the administration, finance, course bookings and all the other things that weren’t covered by the Instructors, Maureen and myself. By 0900 the builder had arrived with plumbers to shut off the water, electricians to make all the power sockets/lighting and other circuits safe, joiners to put in new back doors. I had made contact with my Insurance Broker asking him to notify the Underwriters of a claim and to get approval for me to proceed to make the building safe and secure. By 0920 Maureen had secured the use of the local Community Centre, which used to be a secondary school, as a training centre and offered the use of the ground floor of our house as an office whilst she found a more appropriate location. Brian had collected together the training aids required for the courses and by 0930 all the students were in class in our temporary centre. After the initial shock of walking into a scene of total devastation it was then all about salvaging and clearing the building of all of our equipment, stores and training aids. Out of interest it took us just over three weeks to clear the building out, making sure that a log was kept of where every bit of kit was stored. After this initial rush of activity it all started in earnest. Some equipment, our computers, stock, stationary etc had been lost in the fire or was so smoke or water damaged that it was not usable. I knew from past experience that we would find out soon enough what was missing and what was not. Even now, eight weeks after the fire, we are still identifying things that we can’t find. What I forgot to mention is that I texted all the instructors who weren’t working asking them to come in to help out. Those that were in the UK and not on other jobs arrived post haste The Insurance Broker suggested that I appoint my own Loss Assessor to ensure that we minimised any problems with the Underwriters/Claims Department Loss Assessor and this I did. He arrived midmorning on the day of the fire and by 1500 we had covered a lot of ground and run through the procedures and processes. The next day was the turn of the Insurers Loss Assessor to call and put his thoughts forward. After walking through the building his first comments were, “I need the mains electrical test and portable appliance certificates together with the service history of both the fire and intruder alarms. In addition he required the records of the annual servicing of the fire extinguishers and all the fire risk assessments.” Most of them had gone up in flames or were doused in water or burnt to a cinder. Fortunately we have always used contractors who meet the industry standards and who retain the records, so within a matter of a couple of days the Insurers had copies of all the documents they had requested. Once they had seen these they then said that we had met all the warrantees of the policy. In the mean time we officially set up the Community Centre as a temporary training centre obtaining the RYA/MCA/SQA approvals as necessary. Without these approvals we would be trading illegally if we delivered any of their courses/exams. You’d think that things would calm down a bit as we carried out the salvage work and started to strip the contents out of the building. Keeping track of what went where was critical as we have already found that we required items that had been stowed away. Delegating different Instructors and Admin staff to look after different parts of the business has worked extremely well. I took on overall command but focused on the insurance side, ensuring that whatever we did was acceptable to insurers or in their absence to my own Loss Assessor. I also dealt with the legal side of the fire arranging for tenancy agreements and similar contracts for the office and training centre. I also obtained the approvals from the RYA, MCA and SQA to use the temporary training centre for the courses they have accredited. Once she was back in Hoylake Anna managed the day to day operation of the company, as business continuity was critical for us and also all of our students who would have committed their leave, travel and future job prospects to us to provide their training. Paula, our Accounts and HR Manager who only started with us on 12th April, immediately took on board the whole accounts process and also logging all of the ‘fire related’ invoices so that we could at some stage put them into the claim that we would be making. Once the Insurance Company had agreed that the technical and computer equipment had been written off we were able to start sourcing replacements. So how does my experience help you be prepared on your yacht? Interestingly whilst thinking about this article someone emailed me about the fire in Florida that took another SuperYacht. This was followed within a matter of days by another report of the total loss of a 46m yacht through fire. I thought immediately of the training I received when I was an Emergency Planner. Simply put there are three stages to every emergency and they are the three M’s; Mayhem Mastermind Manhunt With the yacht fire the mayhem was the fire. The mastermind is going on at present with all sorts of individuals who are not directly involved with the investigation saying what happened and how it can be avoided in future. The last part, manhunt, normally waits until at least everyone who doesn’t really know what happened has had their say, however, on this occasion,the manhunt has started already. I suppose we had the three M’s as well. Mayhem was when I arrived at 0820 to find the centre unusable. Mastermind was something that the villagers of Hoylake fulfilled for us. There were also possibly others out there who ‘knew’ what had happened and why. Manhunt is something that has not and will not happen on this occasion The cause of the fire has been declared electrical by the Fire Service and also the Forensic Consultant employed by the Insurers. As the buildings will require rewiring there will be no need to try to find out what or who caused the fire so definitely NO manhunt. As I write this article we are moving forward with tenders for the rebuilding closing shortly, thus enabling us to select the contractor who will take on the rebuilding. Our communications, a critical part of our operation, are now all up and running effectively as are all of our training courses.The former did give me some sleepless nights initially, as we could not transfer all of our numbers as the switch board would not work after the fire. Following every activation of any emergency plan or exercise it is essential that the plans are reviewed and amended as necessary. This will be done with all of our plans especially those relating to communications and there will be more stringent measures taken with the computer hardware and software and we have already a plan to back up off site to protect our records. So will there be an official investigation into our emergency? No there will not, however what I can tell you is that a simple fire caused chaos and without formal and informal emergency plans this business would have had to cease trading for at last a week or so and that may have lead to it closing altogether. As a Captain you are also running a business so what emergency plans do you have, and have you tested them out or not? Have you reviewed them recently? Over to you Captain (or whoever is responsible for your yacht) and best of luck. Contact: [email protected] John first took command in 1973 and after a period of employment in Local Government as a Personnel and Emergency Planning Officer started Hoylake Sailing School Ltd/John Percival Marine Associates in 1996. During his employment as an Emergency Planning Officer John delivered a number of lectures at the UK Centre for Emergency Planning in Easingwold, Yorkshire. His audiences ranged from fellow Emergency Planners to Chief Police, Fire and Ambulance Officers, Chief Executives and Departmental Directors of Local Authorities and other people who had a need for Emergency Plans.