Rising from the ashes

Moira Baird
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What downtown St. John’s business owners learn from fires

Andrew Corbett was working in his downtown St. John’s shop last August when he heard the distinctive sound of fire engine sirens at about 5 p.m.

Roebothan McKay Marshall suffered a blow June 12 when its law office was destroyed by fire.

Steve Marshall still can’t bear to drive past the burned out space next to the War Memorial that housed his office at Roebothan McKay Marshall office for 25 years.

On many mornings, he drives toward the old law firm building  out of habit.

His office was in the east-side building that became a pile of smoldering rubble June 12.

In it was a collection of photos of his dad, a paper weight his son made at age three, framed degrees, diplomas and thank-yous from clients, and his grandfather’s pen set from his days as president of the provincial PC party.

“I tried to make my office as homey as I could,” said Marshall. “It’s horrible, but I keep going with the brighter side … no one was hurt. This fire is an inconvenience. People have suffered real losses and we didn’t. It was bricks and stone.”

Marshall said insurance companies regularly send notices to their clients suggesting new coverage options or meeting with their broker to review policies.

“My suggestion would be do it. But don’t live your life in fear and don’t wrap yourself in bubblewrap. You’ve got to get out and enjoy life.”

In the hours after the fire, Roebothan McKay Marshall (RMM) took steps to be accessible to their clients — setting up new Google e-mail accounts while the firm’s servers were down, ramping up their 24/7 phone service, and equipping key people with pagers.

Since the bulk of the firm’s practice is personal injury law, duplicates of legal documents were available from other lawyers and medical reports were available at doctors’ offices. Wills survived in a fireproof vault in the basement.

RMM also set out to reproduce paper documents using ProLaw software, a data management and storage system located off-site.

“We knew exactly where to look for copies of documents that we didn’t have on hand. I’m not going to say it was simple or easy, but there was a method that quickly kicked in … to start reproducing paper.”

This week, RMM expects to announce its new, permanent location — effectively replacing its 10,500 square feet of office space previously spread over two buildings and four storeys on Duckworth Street.

The new, bigger office space comes with more parking and an elevator.

“We feel very confident that we’re about the secure a permanent location in the downtown core.

“There’s no stairs for our clients to climb any more.”

Marshall said the details are still being worked out, so he wouldn’t comment further.

These days, Breakwater Books president Rebecca Rose is more knowledgeable about her insurance policy than ever before.

Her building suffered smoke and water damage in the same fire that destroyed half the Roebothan McKay Marshall offices in June.

At one point, there were four feet of water in her basement as firefighters tried to douse the flames next door.

Unfortunately, that’s where many of Breakwater’s best-selling books were stocked. “The ones in the basement were all completely lost.”

Those books have been re-ordered and are expected in the next couple of weeks.

“The newer ones were already out to market in most of the stores, thankfully.”

Rose’s advice: thoroughly understand your insurance policy.

A portion of her policy, for instance, allows some flexibility in applying insurance dollars to either repairs and cleaning or to the replacement of new stock and equipment.

“What I would recommend to anybody is … take pictures of the property as it looks right then and there. Do that every year when you renew your insurance, so that if something happens you have something to say, ‘Yes, my house looked like this … before the fire and now it looks like this.’” — Rebecca Rose

“Know the limits of your policy on all the sub-categories … and what movement you have within each one.”

Rose has also become an advocate of keeping photographic records of what you insure.

“What I would recommend to anybody is … take pictures of the property as it looks right then and there. Do that every year when you renew your insurance, so that if something happens you have something to say, ‘Yes, my house looked like this … before the fire and now it looks like this.’”

Rose also plans to take photos of stock when books are inventoried annually.

“It certainly would make the process a lot easier.”

Moving through the insurance process, having damages assessed, getting quotes from professional disaster and restoration companies, and finally moving forward with the cleanup and repairs takes time.

“It’s a lot more time-consuming than I thought it would be.”

Breakwater has temporarily relocated at the corner of Water Street and Harbour Drive in a building that once housed Piper’s.

“There’s still no real set timeline of when we can go home.”

She hopes to be back at the Breakwater building by the end of November — that’s when the lease expires at the temporary location.

Bob Barbour, co-owner of Ches’s Fish and Chips, recalls the rebuilding process after a fire started in a fat fryer one June afternoon in 2004.

The family managed to complete repairs to the one building that didn’t burn and re-open on a smaller scale in about four months. Luckily, that building also housed the office and business records.

But it took two years to completely rebuild the rest of the shop that was spread over three other buildings. Two were gutted and the third was extensively damaged.

The family experienced a one-year rebuilding delay because of unexpected environmental issues.

“We struck oil,” Barbour said.

When the burned buildings were excavated following the fire, fuel oil was discovered in the ground — and there was no way to know where it had come from.

“That caused us quite a few problems. We had to dig it all out … and backfill it.”

Since the fire, Ches’s has changed how often it re-evaluates its safety plans — and Barbour advises other businesses do the same.

“At least once a year, rethink your safety policies.”

Ches’s has also revamped those policies.

“For example … we used to train our staff how to use a hand-held fire extinguisher and we used to teach them how to use it on a fat fryer. If that didn’t work, then we taught them to manually set off the system that was in place over the fryers.”

Ches’s now teaches staff to put out fires the opposite way — immediately activate the fire-suppression system for the fat fryers.

“That shuts down all power to the fryers,” said Barbour.


Organizations: Maverick Sports Collectibles.Smoke, The Sports Shop, Google ProLaw

Geographic location: Duckworth Street, Water Street

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Recent comments

  • Craig Lee
    August 08, 2010 - 10:09

    I wish Andrew all the best. I have enjoyed Maverick Sports on my visits home and look forward to finding them again this year