Lessons learned under "fire"

William Miles
Deputy Superintendent
Department of Public Services
City of Madison Heights, Michigan

"Fire!" In a busy room this call can mean panic. In a deserted Department of Public Services (DPS) garage, it can mean the total destruction of rolling stock, tools, and the incapacitation of the office that ensures that your citizens receive effective, timely service. On April 17 at 10:00 p.m. a fire started in the DPS Streets Division garage. The fire (which is still under investigation) raged within the building, undetected, for at least two hours until motorists passing on I-75 reported smoke billowing from the building.

Administrative staff were notified, and by 1:30 a.m. on Good Friday morning all were there to lend a hand. Initially, we all experienced a sense of shock at the sight of the place we call home for more than eight hours a day. As we walked around we tried to find some way to assist the firefighters from Madison Heights, Royal Oak, and Ferndale. Aside from smashing in overhead doors with an End Loader left outside, the best we could do was remove vehicles from the Water/Sewer Division garage, which received only minor smoke and structural damage thanks to a firewall.

  Pickup "512" Exterior

By 7:00 a.m. the fire was finally out and we could get into the affected portion of the building. We found four trucks completely destroyed and twenty-six trucks heat damaged and melted to the point of total loss. For the next hour we tried to prioritize what needed to be done. In the meantime our Treasurer had been notified and she contacted our insurance company. By 8:00 a.m. the insurance adjuster had arrived with a representative from a fire restoration contractor that they use. It soon became apparent that we were in capable hands.

For the next eight hours a fire reconstruction crew worked to provide a temporary gas hookup that powered our generator for electrical needs. They also secured all doors and built a temporary wooden door to replace one of the powerless overhead doors. The efficient way they handled the basics allowed Motor Pool Supervisor Terry McGran and his staff to work on the fire-affected vehicles, removing all from the garage except the four most severely damaged units.

  • The first and most important lesson we learned was that we were not alone. Our insurer provided us with experienced professionals that would help us solve the key problems that faced us.

On Monday, April 21 at 7:00 a.m. we held a briefing with all Public Services employees. We needed their thoughts and ideas and they didn't let us down. The Water/Sewer Division moved to the basement of City Hall. The Parks Division moved to a park building at one of the city parks, with their offices moving to the Senior Citizen Center. At 8:00 a.m. a meeting was scheduled with representatives of many of the subcontractors employed by the reconstruction firm. They were introduced and allowed to describe their areas of expertise which ranged from building reconstruction to cleaning and refurbishing hand, power, and data processing tools, to cleaning uniforms, furniture, and paper files. Literally every affected area was covered in one way or another.

Frequent meetings were held that involved the Director, Deputy Director, Motor Pool Supervisor, and affected Division Supervisors. Often the City Manager and Finance Director were in attendance to stay informed about decisions that affected the financial well-being of the City.

  • The second lesson learned was that by getting ALL key people involved in the process from the beginning, the faster things get accomplished and the more effectively work assignments and other information can be dispersed.

We chose a proactive approach that began with employees completing an inventory and storing all affected items by division in trailers provided by the reconstruction firm. And who would be better qualified to catalog a division's items than the division itself? Our work in this area was charged back to the insurer enabling us to keep costs down. It also allowed us to eliminate items that were no longer of use.

We were able to clear out the building in record time. The empty building allowed contractors to work on all facets of reconstruction in a timely manner. From start to finish it required four months to renovate a fire-damaged, burned-out hulk with fire-related structural problems, install a new roof, and bring several other areas up to current code standards.

  • The third lesson learned was that by doing things ourselves we maintained control and shortened the process. In addition, the employees felt like they had a hand in the rebirth.

Local press covered our efforts. A local business, Peoples State Bank, gave us lunch for a week, and a hefty donation. In the end, the citizens knew we were making every attempt to get back to the business of serving their needs. Neighboring cities offered temporary use of some of their equipment.

We made the decision to attempt to maintain the same high level of service our citizens have come to expect. The goal was achieved with the help of our Motor Pool Supervisor who searched high and low for the best possible rates on necessary lease equipment. Only those items absolutely necessary to maintain service were acquired. In our case it included the following:

  • Two Single-Axle Dumps
  • One Tandem Dump
  • One Loader
  • One Backhoe
  • Two Street Sweepers

It was, and is, our contention that the cost of leasing should be reimbursed in the same manner that the private sector is covered for loss of business. Suppose this occurred during snow removal season? The decision on this matter is still pending, but hopes are high that we will be successful. In any event, service did not decline in any division, which is what we had hoped to achieve.

  Street Sweeper "408" Interior

Once it was clear that building reconstruction was in good hands and well underway, and our level of service was being maintained, our attention focused on vehicle replacement. After speaking with our insurance representatives, we found that fire vehicles were considered emergency vehicles and, if totaled, would be replaced at full replacement value. At the time of the fire a new pumper was in the garage for repair. Once totaled, the fire truck was reordered and the cost will be fully reimbursed.

However, police vehicles were not considered emergency vehicles and a value was determined by the adjuster. Additional funds were required to replace these vehicles. DPS vehicles and Senior Citizen buses were also not classified as emergency vehicles. This required that we either accept the value assessed by the adjuster, or arrive at a fact-based value that more accurately reflected the care, regular maintenance, low age and miles of our fleet.

Our Motor Pool Supervisor spent hours contacting aftermarket suppliers, vehicle salvage authorities, dealers, etc. to gather input on the value of our fleet; many were higher than the insurance adjuster. This information, combined with a variety of published sources, allowed us to demonstrate that the actual cash value of the vehicles in question was significantly higher than the value assessed by the estimator.

The remedy for damaged off-the-road vehicles was pretty straightforward in our case. Loaders, backhoes, asphalt rollers, etc. were considered off-the-road, and if totally destroyed were reimbursed at their replacement value. If they could be effectively refurbished they were scheduled for repair.

The extra time and work spent on these issues was well worth the effort. Our City Administration was able to stretch the dollars in our revolving vehicle replacement fund and reduce the burden of replacing so many vehicles at one time. This experience taught us the value of staying involved. The insurer will work with you on replacement values if you can provide the necessary backup material. They will listen to your suggestions regarding reconstruction and vehicle replacement, but you must provide reasonable, logical arguments based on fact.

To date, all of our equipment has been evaluated and either refurbished or reordered. This process took every bit of the four-month time period required to rebuild the building. The real lesson here is that everyone should think about the unthinkable before it happens. Several things worked to our benefit in this situation:

  • The building, though severely damaged, was repairable saving time and money.
  • Our insurer and their contractors made every attempt to assist us, educate us, and get us back into business as quickly as possible.
  • Other City departments were supportive, providing space at City Hall and the Senior Center for the displaced Administrative Office and the Water/Sewer Division. They were willing to do all they could to get us operational again.
  • The City Administration, in an effort to maintain fiscal stability, had established an emergency fund for catastrophes such as this long ago. This fund, plus a revolving vehicle replacement system, made financing this project painful, but not disabling.

In closing, we strongly encourage you to become familiar with your insurance coverage now, not after a catastrophe has occurred. Meet with your administration and your insurance provider to clarify coverage, language, and what can be done to prepare for future emergencies. If you don't have a complete inventory, develop one. Reimbursement is based on your ability to provide information about all items in your department or division. Providing a detailed, up-to-date list of assets, when they were purchased, and at what cost will greatly improve the process for everyone.

  Garage Reborn

Make the time to sit down with staff and develop an emergency plan now! Ask where your department or division will go if your building is a complete loss. What services must we continue to provide during the rebuild? How will we accomplish that? Consider employee morale. The effect of a disaster of this magnitude can send everyone's spirits crashing. A simple coffee pot, a hot dog lunch, information, goals, direction, and a plan will keep everyone moving toward a common purpose, a new and improved building, and the necessary tools to do their job. As it turned out, we have a beautiful renovated building and our new fleet will be even better than ever. We discarded 40 years of junk and all are pleased to get back to a normal routine.

It is our intention to provide useful information regarding our unfortunate event with the hope that you will never need to utilize it. That being said, if you have any questions the entire staff of the Madison Heights Department of Public Services stands ready to answer questions and offer assistance. Feel free to access our Madison Heights web page at www.madison-heights.org.

William Miles can be reached at (248) 589-2294 or at billmiles@madison-heights.org.