Disciple: Fire Watch
A community comes together to stand watch
By Christine McTaggart
Thunderstorms are a summertime way of life. In fact, the weather forecast through June, July and August is often the same every day: hot and humid with a chance of afternoon thunderstorms.
The glare of lightning and the accompanying rumble of thunder is a bit more rare in winter months, though, and for the families, parishioners and staff of Emmanuel and Episcopal Day School, Southern Pines, a single, split-second strike would impact their lives for months to come.
[Image: Workers test Emmanuel’s new fire system after four months of an around-the-clock volunteer fire watch. Photo courtesy of Emmanuel, Southern Pines]
In the early morning hours of January 4, staff of Episcopal Day School were arriving for a day in the fresh new year, while a meeting was convening in Emmanuel’s parish hall. Clouds were gathered in the sky, though no rain was falling. Winter thunder rumbled nearby. And then a sudden and unexpected clap announced just how close it was.
It was like a sonic boom,” said Jill Connett, head of school at Episcopal Day School. “I knew something big had just happened. It was that profound.”
“It was like a bomb went off,” agreed Mark Hamilton, junior warden at Emmanuel and present at the meeting that day. “We live near Fort Liberty, so occasionally you hear some artillery in the background, but that’s usually pretty muffled, and this was close. This was in our backyard.”
As the last echoes faded away, it seemed to be the end of it, and all those on the church and school campus took a breath and continued with their day. They detected nothing wrong—even the power had stayed on, something that often didn’t happen during thunderstorms. But the school’s technology coordinator determined internet access had been lost, and further exploration revealed that greater damage had been done.
“It fried our fire system,” said Hamilton.
WEEKS BECOME MONTHS
The Emmanuel fire system’s function is what one would expect: it detects and alerts those on campus, as well as the local fire department, to fire. It was several days after the strike that the church’s security system provider identified the fire system loss after investigating mysterious beeps. When they informed Connett the system was damaged and that the fix would be extensive, they told her she needed to contact the fire chief.
“The fire chief came over and was very matter-of-fact,” remembered Connett. “He said, this is going to take a while to fix, and in the meantime, you’re going to have to set up a fire watch. I had no idea what he meant.”
What he meant was that if a commercial property’s fire system is not functioning, a substitute system of humans walking the grounds must be implemented. If the church and school wanted to stay open, then until the fire system was fixed, the campus would have to have someone on site, patrolling the grounds and buildings at regular intervals, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
There weren’t many options. The school needed to stay open, and both the church and school agreed that to forgo the fire watch requirement created a significant liability if something should happen before the system was fixed, as insurance would not cover damage incurred by fire on an unmonitored property. Fortunately, the fire chief shared that many firefighters are willing to take fire watch shifts to earn extra income. One of those willing firefighters took watch that first night, and the leadership at Emmanuel and Episcopal Day School quickly sprang into action to implement a more long-term solution.
“We thought we were looking at a few weeks,” said Connett. “We had no idea what was coming.”
What was coming was not a system fix but a replacement altogether. The system had been in place since the 1980s, and even if it had not been damaged beyond repair, its age ensured there were no replacement parts to fix it. “Our old system had been grandfathered in when fire codes were updated,” said Hamilton. “The new system was going to have to include current requirements and technologies.”
The church and day school campus includes approximately 40,000 square feet of space and seven buildings. “Some of the buildings are more than 100 years old,” said Hamilton. “We had to run something like 15,000 feet of wire through all the buildings and install new sensors and speakers so we could contact each room in the case of a fire. It was a major undertaking.”
It didn’t help that insurance-related red tape impacted forward movement, delaying the start of repairs by more than six weeks. Luckily, the leadership team that had so quickly moved to put a coverage system in place had created one that was able to be extended. Fire watches require that all grounds and buildings be checked twice an hour. Staff at both the church and school were able to cover days, leaving their desks to complete the one-mile circuit, and others took care of the early morning, late afternoon and 12-hour overnight shifts. Though supplemented by the moonlighting firefighters and other security personnel, the bulk of the patrols were done by the more than 60 volunteers who took regular shifts to ensure the campus was monitored at all times.
“People really stepped up,” said Hamilton, “and it was well coordinated. Jill and Joanne [Davis, outgoing junior warden] came up with a protocol and instructions. There was a set of keys that had to be handed off. People took it seriously, since whoever was on watch couldn’t leave until the next shift got there. We had a system, and we got quite good at it.”
What was originally hoped to be a few-week inconvenience turned into a community journey that lasted four months. It was early May when the new system was finally installed, tested and deemed fit for service. For four months, the parishioners of Emmanuel, and the staff and families associated with Episcopal Day School, ensured their beloved space was watched and protected, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
It was a challenge, but one that brought with it many silver linings.
“A lot of parishioners are older,” said Hamilton. “They may have had kids or grandkids that attended Episcopal Day School, but they hadn’t been there in a long time. But being part of the fire watch really rebuilt their relationship with the school and an appreciation for what an asset it is to the community.
“And parishioners really got to know each other—people they didn’t know before. So this experience really built community and relationships within the church, too. People actually said they enjoyed it. Some have even said they miss it!”
“Parishioners I didn’t know before would stop by on their rounds just to say hello and talk,” said Connett. “Raymond Brown did an early morning shift for a long time. He had so many skills and talents, and he would walk around and say, ‘Hey, I noticed this at the school. You want me to fix that?’ He even started coming to chapel.”
Hamilton credits the duration of the experience with the depth of relationships created. “If it had lasted only two weeks, I don’t think it would have had the impact it did,” he said. “It would have been a little blip, and we would have moved on, business as usual. But it was so long, you really got to know people over a period of time. That was a big lesson. That, and being patient and flexible. Letting things happen on God’s time.”
“For me, one of the big lessons in all this was learning to look for the silver lining,” said Connett. “That, and Mark has the patience of a saint! And I learned that truly God will give you what you need if you’re in the right place and doing the right thing. God is there for us and will provide for us.”
“I wouldn’t want to go through it again,” said Hamilton. “But there were certainly lots of benefits gained from this. It was a catalyst for other things, like newcomers who took part who are now serving on committees. It really created a community and a shared experience among the parishioners, and a renewed commitment to the church.”
For Connett, the entire experience was a reminder of what happens when a community comes together. “If you’re in any organization, if everybody jumps in, there are so many benefits. Our job was made so much easier because so many people jumped in and said, ‘I’m going to do a little bit. I’m going to do my part.’”
Christine McTaggart is the communications director for the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.
Tags: North Carolina Disciple