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Fire chief triggers county office closure

Contractors, staff working to clean affected equipment; damage expense unknown


by: MARK MILLER - Contractors haul equipment out of the Columbia County Courthouse on Monday, July 29.A firefighter responding to reports of a foul smell in the Columbia County Courthouse prompted county offices to close for a day after accidentally triggering a fire suppression system Friday, July 26.

While investigating an odor said to resemble rotten eggs in the courthouse Friday afternoon, at about 4:30 p.m., Columbia River Fire and Rescue Division Chief Ron Youngberg pulled a fire alarm to evacuate the building.

What Youngberg didn’t realize, according to CRF&R Chief Jay Tappan, was that pulling the alarm would trigger the release of a fine, powdery fire retardant that can damage electronics and act as a respiratory irritant if inhaled.

“Unfortunately, the activation of the ... suppression system caused more problems than the smell did,” Tappan said.

Tappan said the Portland Fire Department’s Hazardous Materials Response Team was contacted for assistance.

The culprit behind the odor appears to have been a malfunctioning backup battery pack, according to county officials.

The release of the retardant in the computer server room impacted county computer functions, including those of agencies like the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office that are housed in other buildings. By Monday, signs were posted in offices inside the courthouse warning employees not to turn on computers or printers due to the risk of “permanently damaging them.”

County employees were asked not to work Monday. Columbia County Commissioner Earl Fisher said that day will be considered paid administrative leave for the affected employees.

Fisher said Tuesday that it is unclear how much it will cost to recover from the incident, as well as how long it will take before everything is back to normal. He said it could take some time before it is clear how much, if any, of the affected electronic equipment can be salvaged.

“We’re not sure, at this point in time, of the actual degree of damage,” Fisher said. “It appears that it was significant.”

Commissioner Henry Heimuller said Wednesday that the county is submitting an insurance claim for the damage.

Columbia County commissioners held an emergency meeting over the weekend to authorize contractors to wipe down surfaces and clean walls, equipment and ventilation ducts throughout the courthouse.

Computer repair technicians and county staff will likely be cleaning and evaluating the courthouse’s electronics well into next week, according to Heimuller.

Both county and court offices have been forced to get by without much of their electronic equipment this week. Fisher said he brought his iPad tablet computer to work and has been directing email to his home email address.

Although the equipment itself has been damaged, the county’s data is backed up regularly to a remote location, Fisher said.

Despite the fallout, Tappan stood by Youngberg’s decision. He said he “probably” would have done the same thing in the division chief’s position.

“That was the right thing to do,” said Tappan, adding, “It’s not a good situation, but it’s one that we felt we had to do it to get people out quickly. The smell was pretty overpowering. We weren’t sure what we were up against.”

Heimuller agreed.

“I think they responded appropriately,” said Heimuller, who was credited by his fellow commissioners for taking a lead role in responding to the situation. He said CRF&R has been working with the county throughout the week.

“It was an accident,” Fisher said. “We had a new fire suppressant system put in a year ago, along with an HVAC system, and it is a type of system that hardly anybody is familiar with. It was a state-of-the-art kind of affair.”

Fisher and Tappan said that other fire alarm pulls in the building are not connected to the fire suppressing system that was activated. If Youngberg had pulled an alarm other than the one Tappan said was nearest to him at the time, the powder would not have been released.

On the plus side, Commissioner Tony Hyde joked during Wednesday’s meeting of the Board of County Commissioners, “We now have ... the cleanest building we have since its construction, or maybe before.”

Hyde and Fisher also observed that the incident, in which no one was injured, has provided the county with experience in how to handle emergency situations.

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