IH Newcastle: A phoenix rises from the ashes
When a fire broke out in the building adjacent to our student accommodation, we were shocked, saddened, and in a bit of a panic in the immediate aftermath. We had 95 students who had been pulled from their beds in the wee hours of a cold winter’s morning; most of them weren’t able to access their rooms for at least a week, and none of them even had proper clothes to get them through till the next morning!
Our first focus was the students: evacuate the building, get them to a warm, safe place and keep them calm. Luckily, none of them were injured but the majority were tired and groggy - looking to us for guidance. Our goal was to stabilise the situation for our current students as fast as possible, and keep a level head as we already had a strong healthy and safety plan in place which proved invaluable for this situation and the task ahead.
We realised that it was unlikely that Charlotte House, where our students were staying, wouldn’t be liveable for some time to come, so we needed both a short- and long-term solution.
Thankfully, International House Newcastle took the issue of risk management and compliance very seriously, and that enabled us to avoid disaster.
There is no doubt that the weeks and months following the fire tested our resilience, yet we overcame the challenges thanks to our team and the support of the local community.
While we can never forget the tragedy that occurred on our doorstep, we were able to find a silver lining: about six months after the fire, we signed a new partnership for a brand new housing development. The rooms are booked solid (we are actually overbooked!) and our students couldn’t be happier as they now have en suite facilities, state of the art common areas, and even a super gym to use - and still within a 5 minute walk from our school!!
Here we are, almost a year later, and like a phoenix that has risen from the ashes, we have a whole new accommodation option which has even helped us redefine our brand offering and reach out to a new market of executive-level students.
December 1st, 2015. It was a dark, cold Christmas morn… until the fire lit up the dawn!!
No one could have seen this coming. The fire was here and gone in … maybe twenty minutes, but its effects would linger for months to come.
Charlotte House, our student accommodation, had 95 students sleeping soundly that night. When the fire alarms went off and we evacuated, some students (thinking it was just a drill) had come outside without shoes or a coat! In the midst of the crowd and confusion, we learned that our dear friend and neighbour Brian had tragically lost his life in the fire that erupted inside his home next door.
That night we ushered our students from the street to inside our main school building. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, these were our main areas of concern:
- Find accommodation for 95 homeless evacuees (our students!)
- Acquire food and drink for all students
- Obtain access to vital personal belongings (i.e. medicines, etc.)
- Gain access to washing facilities (we went to nearby hotels and neighbours so students had a place to take showers)
- Keep agents and parents in the loop
- Create responses for social media
- Anticipate possible negative effects (i.e. stigma, media coverage)
Were we able to find immediate housing for about 30 students, and then we created makeshift sleeping areas for the remaining 65 students in our school classrooms. We contacted the Red Cross, who were kind enough to provide bedding and stayed overnight to help us, too. We called Domino's Pizza to get some comfort food for the students, and they even gave us several freebies to ease the pain.
Sometimes a crisis can bring people closer and our team truly bonded over this experience. We also briefed the staff and students on what to do when the media came calling, because naturally the press was interested in covering the story and our priority was to protect the students from a ‘media frenzy’. In order to keep the situation under control, we cooperated with the media to ensure they received accurate information from our side and respected the students’ right to privacy.
We wanted to make sure that students could always find help so we had signs up throughout the premise with a 24-hour emergency phone number to call, and our staff even wore themed tee shirts!
Here’s a quick overview of the time scales we were dealing with in the aftermath:
|No access to the accommodation building||1 week|
|Deep clean of Charlotte House||4 weeks|
|Stigma||6 weeks, possibly longer|
|Flooding in the basement each time it rained (where laundry facilities were located)||3 months|
|Limited access to Charlotte House||4 months|
|Potential crime scene area||4 months|
|Urban search and rescue||4 months|
|Rent Deferral||4 months|
|Insurance Claims||5 months (ongoing)|
|Loss of income||circa £75,000|
We learned many lessons from this ordeal. Here are some of the ones that stood out:
- Having detailed protocols for contingency planning is essential.
- Having health and safety documentation and compliance in practice is a business necessity. It could have been far worse if we hadn't made sure we had full compliance in all areas; the potential litigation if anyone had been injured could have put us out of business. We were able to avoid disaster because we had followed health and safety codes (i.e. fire escapes, written documentation of fire drills, up-to-date electrical equipment, etc.) and we were up-to-speed with all governance, risk management, and compliance.
- It is vital to keep agents, parents, etc. updated several times a day.
- External players will potentially look for someone to blame; protecting our staff, students, and brand is crucial.
- Having a team with emotional attachment to the students and IH Newcastle is so important in terms of positive outcomes. We made the best of it because of the enthusiasm and adaptability of the team.
About six months later, we decided to relinquish the lease on Charlotte House in order to find a higher quality accommodation experience for our students. We partnered with Newcastle 1, a brilliant new alternative with ensuite facilities, studios, social areas, and even a fabulous gym. This new building is only a short walk away from IH Newcastle and rooms are already fully booked up!
Below are a few ‘before/after’ photos to showcase our brand new offering.