After last week’s Lincoln County Courthouse fire, government officials in Washington and Idaho imagined their own offices charred and buried in ash.
For some, the prospect was a minor inconvenience. They’d manage fine in makeshift spaces - a garage as a short-term building-permit office, for instance.
But a major fire that destroys a large number of records and documents is a calamity most officials are not prepared for.
“You bet it could happen to us,” said Stevens County Clerk Patty Chester. After learning of the Davenport fire, she quickly arranged with county commissioners to define a disaster-response plan - something the state encourages all government offices to have.
Most state, county and city offices don’t. More critically, said Washington State Regional Archivist Richard Hobbs, most offices would have a difficult time restoring key records if a major flood or fire hit.
In Davenport, the fire caused about $2.5 million in damage to the building, but most of its paper and microfilm records there were intact, protected inside fireproof vaults.
If they had not been, restoring county services would have taken longer and been trickier, said Lincoln County Clerk Joyce Denison.
Maintaining and providing access to records is one of the key services government provides to its citizens, said Spokane County Clerk Tom Fallquist.
Fallquist’s office on the third and fourth floors of Spokane’s towering courthouse hold hundreds of thousands of court files, each containing numerous sheets of paper or tapes.
If they were lost in a fire, the effect on citizens would be immediate, he said.
Those records are the key legal footprints of citizens’ lives - records of adoptions, divorces, sentencings, commitments, wills.
Their loss would cause problems for courtroom officials, attorneys, trust companies, businesses or individuals engaged in legal proceedings, Fallquist said.
Though much of the information is backed up on computers, electronic copies don’t make up the official record.
Computer or microfilm versions don’t include court reporter notes, depositions and other materials not usually transferred to electronic formats, said Fallquist.
“If we lose the court files, we’d have to go back to others who have copies of those papers. We probably could do a painstaking reconstruction. But it would cost us lots of time and money,” he said.
A major fire at the Spokane County prosecutor’s office would disrupt and delay court cases. Prosecutors and police would have to reconstruct lost notes, criminal histories and depositions.
“I don’t even want to think about what it would be,” said Deputy Prosecutor Patricia Thompson, in charge of the office’s major crimes group.
“We’d be in deep doo-doo.”
Like other government officials, Fallquist reacted to the Lincoln County fire with a grim foreboding.
“It reminded me that I’ve been dealing with this issue for a long time,” he said. He’d like to think the Davenport fire would prompt efforts to improve fire safety the way the Oklahoma City bombing alerted officials to courthouse security.
That won’t happen this year, however. Spokane County commissioners wouldn’t provide money Fallquist would like to install equipment and sensors to protect against fire or floods.
At the least, he’d like to add better smoke and heat detectors at three separate buildings that hold more than 150,000 court files, some going back dozens of years.
With more money, he’d equip those buildings with fire-fighting systems that don’t use water. Water from sprinklers can do nearly as much damage as fire.
Spokane County commissioners said they can’t afford the equipment - a response heard in government offices throughout Idaho and Washington.
The other major keeper of Spokane County records, Auditor Bill Donahue, said his office appears secure against fire or flood damage.
“All the paperwork we do every day is copied to microfilm, taken away for processing, and then copies are sent to the state archives in Olympia,” he said.
The papers that can’t be microfilmed - old documents, maps, special exhibits - are kept in a fireproof vault with walls 3 feet thick.
“At least it’s supposed to be fire and waterproof,” Donahue said.
“But they’ve punched in various holes to bring in electrical wires to the vault. How secure is it? We won’t know until it’s really tested.”
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