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HR Magazine - December 2000: Fighting Fire with Teamwork

By Bill Leonard  12/1/2000
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HR Magazine, December 2000

Vol. 45, No. 12

 Even in the best times, the month of May poses a tremendous logistical challenge to the team members in charge of the student program at the Los Alamos National Laboratory when nearly 1,200 students arrive to work for the summer. But this year, that annual challenge nearly became a nightmare as a wildfire raced through the city of Los Alamos, N.M., and threatened to burn the laboratory to the ground.

If not for the hard work and determination of eight dedicated human resource professionals, the whole student program might have gone up in smoke. According to Carol Trask, the laboratory’s team leader for workforce planning, the student program team stays busy the year-round processing applications and interviewing students, but crunch time really comes in mid-May when most of the students report for work. This year, nearly 900 students were returning, and more than 300 were new hires.

Trask also says the beginning of this year had gone fairly smoothly, and the only thing out of the ordinary was that the winter and spring had been extremely dry. But New Mexico has an arid climate, so no one paid much attention when officials with the National Park Service announced they would perform a "controlled burn" to clear away underbrush from the Bandelier National Monument—about 10 miles south of Los Alamos.

Park Service rangers started the fire Thursday, May 11, but something went terribly wrong as strong winds whipped the "controlled burn" into an uncontrolled conflagration. By Sunday, the fire was racing toward Los Alamos, and a "state of panic" had engulfed the town. By the evening of May 14, it had become abundantly clear that "the fire would severely disrupt operations at the laboratory," according to Melissa Velarde, director for the student program.

"We were just gearing up for the new hire orientation, when suddenly we had to close the offices. And we had no way to contact all these students who were on their way to start work that week," Velarde says.

On Monday, the laboratory closed and wouldn’t open again for several days as the conditions worsened. Several of the program’s team leaders attempted to reach their office and retrieve needed paperwork, but security turned them around, saying it was too dangerous.

The team members then moved quickly to update their voice mail messages with contact information and an explanation about what was happening at the laboratory. From a home-based computer, one team member also placed a message on the laboratory web site about the status of the student program.

By Tuesday, the team members had set up a makeshift office at a Red Cross shelter site at a local high school. The "new office" had the basics—a couple of laptop computers, plus applications and tax forms for the new hires. In all, team members were able to process about 80 student employees there. Later that day, the laboratory security force allowed managers from each department to enter their offices and retrieve any needed files and documents.

"Security would only allow one person from our team 30 minutes in the office to get what we needed," says Velarde. "So we wrote a list of what we absolutely needed and then drew a map and diagram where the files were located. The manager who went said it was very smoky and very hot since the electricity had been off for a couple of days."

By Wednesday, May 17, the student program team had located to another building on the grounds of the laboratory, but away from the threat of fire, and it would be two weeks before they could return to their usual offices. Even through all the turmoil, the team processed most of the student hires and made certain that everyone received paychecks.

"We wanted to make sure that everyone was paid for the days that the laboratory was shut down," says Trask. "These students don’t have much money, so they really appreciated that we could get the paychecks to them."

The fire damaged several team members’ homes but, according to Trask and Velarde, these HR professionals came to work every day and put in extra hours to make sure the students were cared for and had a place to stay. One member of the HR information systems team lost his home to the fire—"his house was literally burnt to the ground," Trask says. Yet, he still came to work every day and made sure the computer system was operating and that the team was able to process the students.

"That kind of dedication to your job and to helping others just motivated the rest of us to work harder," Trask says.

Weeks after the fire, the team members gathered to assess what they could do better and to discuss the lessons learned. Velarde says that while they did have contingency plans in place, it was teamwork and dedication to a job well done that got them through.

"I think that we were well organized, but I also think that no formula or contingency plan could fully prepare you for a crisis of this magnitude—it really was overwhelming," Velarde says. "But we did learn that with hard work and a team of dedicated employees, you can survive anything."

Bill Leonard is senior writer for HR Magazine.

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