Fire! Disaster Planning and Response in North Carolina

Vol. 52 No. 4

In 2007, Susan Owens was appointed by the Chief Justice of North Carolina to coordinate continuation of operations plans for the 100 counties in North Carolina in preparation for emergency situations. She has 40 years of work experience with the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and the Administrative Office of the Courts of North Carolina.

You are sitting in your chambers preparing for court and the fire alarm sounds. Have you thought about where your staff are located and if they can safely exit the building? Do jurors, empaneled and hearing evidence, have any idea where the fire exits are located? As you hurriedly exit, do you have a predetermined location where all employees meet so there can be a head count? Have you considered the many files, exhibits, evidence, and other documents that could be destroyed? Here is a quote from Judge Allen Baddour, resident superior court judge, District 15B, North Carolina, who experienced such a disaster:

The fire alarm sounded, but that wasn’t unusual. With renovations proceeding daily, workers accidentally tripped the alarm with regularity, so we had all become somewhat numb to its sounds. Court had finished for the day and the building was largely empty. As the alarm continued, I realized it probably made sense to leave the building, if only because continuing to work over the din was proving difficult.

As I stepped out the door and for whatever reason looked up and behind me, I saw the entire courthouse clock tower was engulfed in flames. I immediately ran back into the building, with another person, to quickly locate others and get them out as well. Fortunately, we all got out safely.

I remember wondering, as the fire trucks began arriving, whether I’d get back in my office before 5 p.m. that day. As the extent of the fire became apparent, and the roof began caving in, it became all too apparent that nothing from my office on the third floor would be salvaged, and that the files from the offices of the District Attorney and Probation might also be destroyed.

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