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.

This happened to the Chatham County Courthouse in Pittsboro, North Carolina, on March 25, 2010. The courthouse’s clock tower fell into the building and all floors collapsed. No one knew when fire inspectors could enter the courthouse to see if any records could be salvaged. Court records and other materials burned or were doused with water. The following day, cranes were rented to begin extracting records from the county’s courthouse.

Just weeks before the fire, Chatham County staff members had met to complete a P-COOP (Pandemic–Continuity of Operations Plan). The participants included Resident Superior Court Judge Baddour, the judicial assistant appointed by Judge Baddour to compile information for the P-COOP, the chief district court judge, the clerk of court, the sheriff of Chatham County, the district attorney, the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) staff, and the chief justice’s representative, who is responsible for coordinating COOPs throughout North Carolina. Chatham County was more prepared for a disaster than other North Carolina counties.

Judge Baddour further relates:

The Clerk of Court had been relocated to another building across the street years ago, so the majority of the critical files were never in danger. Many of the District Attorney and Probation files were saved, after being shipped out of state to be dried, dehumidified, and separated. All computer files were backed up off site and all electronic data (other than perhaps that day’s work) were saved.

As the AOC and Chatham County Manager’s Office rushed to assist us in setting up short- and long-term temporary solutions for offices, communications, electronics, and anything else needed to run a court system, the importance of Continuation of Operations Planning became evident.

It was an incredibly sad and scary day, watching the courthouse burn down. At the time, it was impossible to grasp the extent of the damage, physically and emotionally. Fortunately for Chatham County, we are a small county with good working relationships. We had everything we needed on a county and state level within a day, and we were running court again within a week.

Chatham County began to prepare for disaster when North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Sarah Parker realized that the courts should be proactive and prepare for the possibility of a bird flu pandemic. Flu was of grave concern to the public health community at that time, and it was predicted that bird flu could be similar to the 1918 flu pandemic that infected 500 million people around the world and killed up to 100 million of those infected. The focus of the template in the P-COOP planning was continuity of operation of our essential court functions in the event of a pandemic outbreak that could render an estimated 40 percent or more of the court personnel unable to come to work. Even if a court employee was not ill, that employee may have responsibility for sick or quarantined children, elderly parents, or a spouse. As will be shown, planning for one emergency led to effective planning for all emergencies. Although no bird flu pandemic arrived, Chatham County had prepared for fire.

The purpose of establishing a local P-COOP within the judicial branch is to ensure that the capability exists for each court office and the court system as a whole to respond effectively to a pandemic without interfering with the efforts of public health and safety officials. The key purposes of the local P-COOP are

1. Ensuring continuous performance of essentials functions and operations;

2. Protecting court equipment, records, and other assets;

3. Reducing or mitigating disruptions to operations;

4. Identifying and designating principals and staff to serve as the P-COOP leader; and

5. Training and cross-training all key personnel responsible for the execution of the P-COOP.

The judicial branch of North Carolina operates as a unified judicial system. The AOC, located in Raleigh, serves as the business and administrative arm of the judicial branch. Although it is a unified system, pandemic emergency planning is primarily a local issue. Local court officials have responsibility for local P-COOP planning and execution. Court functions are held in county-owned courthouses or other sites. Prisoners awaiting trial are typically confined in county jails. Therefore, good communication between state court officials/employees and local county officials is essential, especially during an emergency.

In August 2007, the chief justice addressed her request for completion of the P-COOP to the resident superior court judges and indicated that completing the P-COOP was mandatory, not optional. There were two parts to the P-COOP: (1) Getting Started and (2) Template.

Part 1 (Getting Started) required two things to happen: (1) The senior resident superior court judge should meet with the chief district court judge, the clerk of court, the district attorney, the public defender, the sheriff, and the county manager to adopt a memorandum of agreement (MOA). This MOA was to be signed by each participating official indicating a willingness to prepare a P-COOP. The chief justice requested that the signed MOA document be submitted within five weeks. (2) The senior resident superior court judge was to appoint a committee leader. This person could be the senior resident superior court judge or whoever that judge believed would be responsible and attentive to this undertaking. That committee leader would be the person with whom the chief justice’s designee would communicate with respect to the completion of the Template.

Part 2 (Template) was designed by a committee with input from judges, clerks of court, magistrates, the National Center for State Courts, trial court administrators, and AOC staff. This Template consisted of several forms to be completed by either the resident superior court judge or the judge’s appointee. The Template was put on the North Carolina court system intranet for easy access by the judicial community. The chief justice requested that this document be submitted within three months.

The Template consisted of the following parts:

1. Security notice. Due to the confidential nature of requested information such as home addresses, personal e-mails, and cell phone numbers, distribution of the completed P-COOP was limited to the chief justice and the AOC director.

2. Essential functions listed. These functions should include both those everyday functions that will need to be addressed despite the pandemic and those functions that will arise or increase due to the pandemic. Each court office should identify and prioritize the functions of that office; for example, search warrants, public health orders, writs of habeas corpus, and domestic violence issues.

3. Order of succession. Each office holder should designate the persons who will replace the office holder and temporarily have full authority of the office.

4. Alternative facilities. This template should indicate the primary location for each court office, plus two alternative sites that can be used if a pandemic or other disaster occurs. Alternative sites could include working from home and use of remote video testimony. This designation may be the most important part of the P-COOP. Identification of an alternative facility prior to an emergency is vital for a prompt return to execution of essential functions. As is often quoted: “After a disaster is not the time to be handing out calling cards!” The Chatham County district attorney’s alternative facility was a vacant home close to the courthouse. Superior court was held in the County Agricultural Center.

Within 24 hours, the AOC had set up computers so that the court could conduct essential functions in temporary offices. Emergency access to local court-related judicial data was provided from the AOC Data Center in Raleigh. Communications among county officials, local judicial officials, and AOC officials were enhanced with the provision of additional cell phones for local court officials. Daily conference calls and web-based meetings were held. This process enabled local court officials to express directly to the AOC exactly what they required in priority order, instead of having to speak through representatives and e-mail. All support divisions such as information technology, court services, human resources, purchasing services, financial services, and AOC executive management were represented at the meetings. Additionally, a disaster response SharePoint site was utilized in real time to track the status of activities, tasks, requirements, priorities, contact information, and incident-related pictures and media.

This site was preserved for future planning and historical reference. However, along with the AOC’s assistance not only of manpower and equipment comes the delicate question of who is financially responsible to supply this equipment, the building, and the connectivity conduit. The county provided freezers that were brought in immediately to freeze documents and prevent mildew damage.

5. External communications. One person should be identified who will be responsible for disseminating information to people outside the court. This template also requested a list of noncourt offices related to pandemic, such as police, fire, public health department, mayor, along with the contact information for each.

6. Local records and local databases. All information about each court’s vital records, databases, and information systems should be recorded. As Chatham County District Attorney Jim Woodall said at the time: “I’m afraid all our records, all our files, all our computers have been destroyed. Copies of those documents do exist in other places. It may take a while. We’ll be able to rebuild everything.” Fortunately, North Carolina courts have a statewide data network and all court-related e-mail and files for judicial officials are backed up nightly to the Data Center in Raleigh.

After the Chatham fire, cellular and wireless data connectivity were put in place within 24 hours and DA/judicial laptops were replaced while the fires were still burning, allowing judicial officials to have full access to all digital data and applications. AOC staff worked with local officials to recreate paper records whenever possible. AOC also identified records that were not required to be retained, thereby limiting the number of records that were sent to a vendor to be freeze-dried and recovered at county expense.

7. Human capital. This template was for a family disaster plan and listed personal information for each employee. Each employee was required to provide this information, such as family, medical requirements, physicians, emergency contacts, etc.

8. Recovery and Reconstitution. The P-COOP leader and members shall review all court functions to determine if resumption of a function is feasible. When it is determined that the function may resume, the appropriate orders, notices, or press releases should be prepared and executed.

Since the first P-COOP was developed in 2007, it has evolved and the Supreme Court/AOC C-COOP Committee (SCAOC) has learned that the P-COOP, originally designed to ensure that courts always remain open and accessible for business should a pandemic occur, can be used for other emergency situations. For example, the P-COOP has been used after hurricanes, tornadoes, a water main break, bomb threats, gas shortages, MRSA outbreaks, courthouse movings, and even bed bugs! Therefore, in 2011, the P-COOP was revamped and renamed C-COOP (Courts–Continuity of Operations Plan).

SCAOC learned that a plan for emergencies of all types was needed for each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. SCAOC further consulted with the AOC court services officer, safety and health manager, communication officer, legal staff, data protection manager, and other court officials for further input into revamping the Template. It was reduced from 39 to 26 pages. SCAOC realizes that this Template is a living document and will evolve as changes occur in personnel, in building locations, and in the types of emergencies facing courthouses. Each county is required to update its C-COOP annually and submit it to the chief justice’s designee. The plans are downloaded onto a CD that the chief justice keeps, and a copy is also given to the director of AOC.

Due to increasing caseloads that grow faster than judicial personnel staffing, it can be difficult for judicial staff to find extra time, in addition to their daily duties, to make annual updates to its C-COOP. This added duty is sometimes passed along to a new staff member, who needs training to successfully and effectively complete/update a C-COOP. Funds were needed to allow AOC staff trained in C-COOP preparations to teach those newly responsible for completing C-COOPs. Although it often seemed that requests from SCAOC were not acknowledged, SCAOC constantly stressed that when law enforcement is at work, the courts must stay open to accommodate the officers. SCAOC used the example of the Public Health Department imposing a curfew on a shopping center during a pandemic when social distancing is desirable. If a sheriff arrested a person for violating that curfew, SCAOC asked where that sheriff was going to take that person if the courts were not open or a magistrate was not available to perform his duties. Additionally, SCAOC used the example of when the Democratic National Convention was held in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2012—if there had been disturbances and the National Guard had needed to step in, where could they have gone if the courts were not open? These examples were eye-openers for other public safety organizations, graphically showing them that courts must always remain open. After several years of requesting grant money for SCAOC staff members to travel to the counties to meet with key judicial and county personnel to help them update and/or enhance their C-COOP, AOC was granted funds from the Fiscal Year 2011 State Homeland Security Grant Program. These funds have enabled staff from the SCAOC to travel to conferences for judges, clerks of court, judicial support staff, magistrate, and other judicial staff and stress the importance of completing a viable C-COOP. By obtaining these grant funds that enabled attendance at these conferences, SCAOC staff members were able to stress the importance of an updated C-COOP so that under any circumstances, our courts can remain open.

As Chief Justice Parker has stated:

The goal of the Judicial Branch as mandated by the North Carolina Constitution is for our courts always to remain open and accessible for business. In an emergency situation, whatever the cause, the difference between order and lawless chaos may well be the ability of the courts to continue to function. Planning and training are the keys to our ability to communicate and function appropriately in a time of crisis.

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