At a little after 8 a.m. on November 3, 2004, Kristine Beck, an administrative assistant at the Prince George’s County Office of Law, was looking out of the fifth floor window of the County Administration Building across the government campus from the courthouse complex, when she observed smoke rising from the roof of the old part of the courthouse. Initially, Beck wondered what the workers, who were renovating that part of the courthouse, had done to cause smoke to rise from the roof of the building. Immediately, she went to the nearest desk, picked up the phone, dialed 911, and reported that there was smoke rising from the roof of the courthouse. In response to a question she replied, “No, I do not see fire.” As she hung up the receiver, she was reminded of the saying: There is no smoke without fire. Beck’s call was one of several calls received by 911 operators regarding the smoke emanating from the roof of the historic wing of the Prince George’s County Courthouse. The 911 center alerted the fire Emergency Medical Services center and it sent the alarm to Engine Company 20, which is located about one block east of the courthouse complex. Engine Company 20’s engine and truck arrived on the scene about five minutes after the first call was received. From the time that the first equipment arrived on the scene until the conflagration was knocked down, there were a total of six alarms for what was reported as the largest structural fire in Prince George’s County’s history.
The call to the Prince George’s County Emergency Center triggered the courthouse internal emergency evacuation plan. That plan was formalized as a result of the events of September 11, 2001 (9/11). Prior to 9/11, the Prince George’s Courthouse operated on a loosely defined evacuation plan that provided that upon the activation of a fire alarm, employees and visitors, with deputy sheriffs shepherding them, were to exit the building in an orderly fashion and report to various predetermined locations. However, there was no one ensuring that the employees actually reported to those destinations. As a result of that concern, the administrative judge of the Prince George’s County Circuit Court decided that the court desperately needed a continuity of court operations plan. Understanding the dire need of a plan that would provide for an orderly process in case of a true emergency prompted by a catastrophic event or critical incident, the administrative judge established a Court Continuity Planning Committee consisting of judges and other courthouse stakeholders. In establishing the Court Continuity Planning Committee, the administrative judge issued an order that included the following language:
It has become necessary for the Prince George’s County Circuit Court to consider the issues involved with keeping the court open or reopening the court after a catastrophic or critical incident. This court can only continue to operate after such an event if it has formulated a plan prior to the occurrence of an event that will allow the court to pursue its goal of providing equal justice under the law. In adhering to that mandate, the court will rely upon the knowledge and experience of court employees prior to turning to outside sources. Therefore, initially the court will establish a committee dedicated to providing information on court continuity to the Administrative Judge of the court as well as to the Clerk of the Court and the Sheriff of Prince George’s County. After the initial committee has established a list of priorities for the court to address in case of a catastrophic or critical incident, the committee will then be expanded to include justice system entities whose missions are ancillary, but important, to assisting the court maintaining daily court operations subsequent to a catastrophic or critical incident. Those entities, it is trusted, will participate with the court in developing the type of catastrophic or critical incident response plan that will insure that Prince George’s County will continue to provide needed services to its citizens.
Included within the order was a paragraph that ordered the committee to provide the definition for a catastrophic event or critical incident. The original committee1 did in fact return its interim report to the court in June 2003 after several reports for extensions. Suffice it to say the interim report established basic guidelines by which the court was to operate upon the occurrence of a catastrophic event or critical incident. Of course, the catastrophic event and critical incident arrived at the roof of the courthouse on November 3, 2004. Ultimately, with the plan that the Court Continuity Planning Committee established and the lessons learned from drills, the evacuation of the courthouse went smoothly.
A smoothly run evacuation was by no means a fait accompli due to the configuration of the courthouse. Permit me to describe the courthouse from which the employees were evacuated. A building (or the old part of the courthouse, as Kristine Beck referred to it) has occupied the courthouse site since approximately 1721. But the building that was under renovation in November 2004 was built in the 1880s and expanded and rebuilt in 1939 with small additions added to it in 1947 and 1969. That building was approximately 151,000 square feet. In the early 1990s, a new courthouse was established behind the old courthouse. The new courthouse, composed of the Marbury and Bourne wings, was completed in 1991. The new building occupies 360,000 square feet and is connected to the old building by walkways at the first- and second-floor levels. Also, the basement level, which has a prisoners’ sally port, allows for lockups on both the old and new parts. However, at the time of the fire in the old building, or Duval Wing, as it was named after the new building came on line, it was unoccupied because it was being renovated. Significantly, the building was to be reoccupied in January 2005, which was approximately two months after the fire of November 3, 2004. The county had expended $25 million in renovating the old building and we were all anxiously awaiting the opportunity to reoccupy it.
The evacuation of the Bourne and Marbury wings required the cooperation of all employees and members of the public who had arrived early on November 3, 2004. It is probably fortuitous that the fire occurred on a Wednesday, because the next day, Thursday, has fewer jury trials scheduled of all the days during the week. There are fewer jury trials scheduled on Thursday than are scheduled Monday through Wednesday, resulting in fewer jurors needing to be rescheduled than if the fire had occurred on a Monday or Tuesday. Furthermore, because of the time of day, there were fewer members of the general public in the building at the time.
Once the alarm was sounded, all early reporting court personnel sprang into action. On the district court side (the Bourne Wing houses the limited jurisdiction court), the bailiffs are charged with ensuring that employees and visitors are evacuated from the building in an orderly process. On the circuit court side, the employees designated as sweepers and floor monitors are charged with ensuring that employees are evacuated from the building in a rapid and efficient manner. The sweepers are responsible for ensuring that everyone has left a specific office and the building. The sweepers are also charged with identifying any suspicious packages in the area during an evacuation resulting from a bomb alert. The floor monitors are responsible for ensuring that anyone in their area of responsibility has been evacuated from the building. Sweepers report to the floor monitors. The floor monitors report to court administration and court administration reports to the administrative judge and sheriff commander responsible for operations.
On Wednesday, November 3, 2004, the practice sessions that the employees had begrudgingly participated in since September 11, 2001, paid dividends because no one panicked. In fact, the sweepers were extremely professional in making sure that everyone left an office regardless of the person’s title. The evacuation process went smoothly in that all the employees, all visitors, and the incarcerated individuals were evacuated from the building in record time. Although the fire had not invaded the new part of the building, there was a great probability that it could because the wind was blowing at above 20 miles per hour at the time that the smoke was replaced by a full flame. The presence of 20 mph plus winds shortly after the smoke became a flame generated concern among the firefighters because there was no guarantee that the fire could be kept from spreading to the new building. It was with this thought in mind that the fire department commander in charge, Lieutenant Colonel Marc Brashoor, now the fire chief, began to call in additional resources. Thankfully, due to the diligence of the fire department, the new building received significant smoke but no fire damage. As a result of the smoke infiltration, the administrative judges of the courts were required to cease operations until the Tuesday following the fire to allow the smoke to dissipate before the employees could reoccupy the building. The administrative judges were advised by the health department and by the Environmental Protection Agency for the county that they could not reoccupy the building until the air quality therein was breathable by employees with allergies.
As with any catastrophic event, a fire is something that one never expects to occur, especially in a courthouse setting. However, because of the evacuation drills that we had engaged in as a necessary component of a court continuity plan, the employees were knowledgeable about what they were to do and they followed the evacuation plan without hesitation. Admittedly, I and some others were concerned that there would be some employees who would refuse to report to assigned evacuation locations. This concern was based on the behavior of a few judges and elected officials during evacuation drills. It was a poorly kept secret that a few judges would use evacuation drills as an opportunity to collect their staff for an early lunch. That behavior made it almost impossible to say with certainty that all courthouse occupants were successfully evacuated. However, when the actual emergency occurred, employees and judges were so shattered by the destruction of an Upper Marlboro treasured landmark that it was important to report to an assigned destination to engage in “remember when” stories. We all wondered how the destruction of the building that gave the courthouse character would impact our lives. Happily, no life was lost and no files were destroyed in the fire, but our security of expectation took one hell of a beating.
Moreover, despite our angst due to the loss of a treasured building that was consumed by fire, we were able to ensure that statutory timelines were met and services to the community continued. During the fire, the cupola with the giant bell collapsed, but we were able to save the bell that rang every morning to signal the start of court. The Duval Wing was rebuilt and is now operational. However, I must report that a second fire occurred in the building in 2007, but it was quickly extinguished without loss of any files or materials. It is with the backdrop of a new Duval Wing reconfigured and seamlessly integrated into the Marbury and Bourne wings that the Prince George’s County Courts and all ancillary court service providers now operate.
We were very fortunate to have planned effectively for a catastrophic event and we also have some lessons learned as a result of those catastrophic events. We came to the simple realization that proper planning prevents poor performance and our reliance upon paper files would certainly result in poor performance. Therefore, the small steps toward electronic filing commenced as a result of the fire. Yes, moving from reliance upon paper to a digital record is a slow process because of a lack of financial resources. However, equally challenging is convincing the judges that a digital record is more reliable than paper. The importance of modifying judge behavior and expanding their comfort levels cannot be overstated, but we also learned lessons about storage of court information. Simply stated, servers should be located away from the court and electric closets should be above the ground floor to avoid water damage in the event of a flood. But the most important thing that one can do in preparing for a disaster is to rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse. No, the personnel will not appreciate the rehearsals, especially when they are impromptu. However, preparation requires repetition, which causes employees to voice concern about interrupted work time. But the benefit from repetitive drills will be successful evacuation when an actual event occurs.
Finally, we learned the obvious lesson of evacuation. With the catastrophic event, you have to be prepared to provide evacuation assistance for people with physical impairments who may not be able to walk down four or five flights of stairs. The court must establish evacuation personnel who are physically capable of handling evacuation chairs that are conducive to transporting people down several flights of stairs. Moreover, court administration should have a plan to ensure that the witnesses in highly charged cases are safely accounted for. To that end, the prosecutor must play a critical role in identifying witnesses for the state and the defense because judges will not know who are involved in cases. Neither will the sheriff department be aware of competing witness groups. It is the prosecutor’s duty to alert the sheriff that there are witnesses who should be isolated from a defendant’s family and friends when the building is being evacuated, based on possible intimidation or safety issues. At the end of the day, as I’ve stated before, nothing beats practice, practice, practice. Or, as John F. Kennedy, the 35th president, opined: “The time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining.”
1. The committee’s original report was due back to the court within 90 days of its June 2002 establishment date. The original committee was sunsetted in August 2003, over a year before the fire. In June 2005, the court reestablished the Circuit Court Continuity Planning Committee to incorporate lessons learned during the November 3, 2004, fire into the court’s continuity committee’s protocol.