Journalists adjust to fire drill that became real

Friday , July 11, 2014 - 3:58 PM

Andy Howell

When the fire alarm went off just before noon Monday, most in the newsroom figured it was just another drill.

Like the Eloi in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, we obediently rose from our workstations and marched outside the Standard-Examiner administrative building to our designated rendezvous point under a tree. A routine we have followed numerous times before.

Because many of us considered it another routine drill, we left our laptops, tablets, chromebooks, as well as keys and purses on our desks, figuring we would return minutes later to continue our work.

The first sign this wasn’t a drill was the plume of smoke rising behind our building from the adjoining Top of Utah Print Works facility. Luckily, visual journalists Brianna Scroggins and Kelly Keiter had their cameras in their cars. They sprung into action, capturing photos and video. Real time reporting was a different challenge.

Of course, in this day and age, even zombie-like people participating in a “fire drill” manage to bring along their phones.

So reporting was done using cell phones, through tweets and other social media postings, as well as real time updates on our website.

Multimedia reporter Morgan Briesmaster, who wasn’t scheduled to report to work until the afternoon, became central operations communicating by text with me and other reporters from home. Sonja Carlson of our digital team coordinated the social media efforts.

Even the pressmen got into the news act. Eddy Mesa took the initial photos of the blaze, and then texted them to me to be uploaded on our site.

In the printing business, there are all kinds of volatile material, so quick action is always important. The pressmen and the building’s sprinkler system helped contain the fire to the baling room before firefighters arrived.

The actions of everyone helped prevent what could have been a major disaster. No one was hurt and the newsroom responded well to the limitations and challenges that come from covering your own news event.

The newspaper’s marketing slogan is “The NewsStartsHere,” which became a running joke internally, as well as on social media, throughout the day. So much so, that it was an old gag by the time the print paper came out the next day.

Halfway through the event, my phone battery went dead and I “acquired” a laptop to coordinate, not only coverage of the fire, but other news. Just because the newspaper building is burning, doesn’t mean news elsewhere comes to a stop.

My office then became a booth at McDonald’s after fire crews closed the building for more than three hours to clear smoke and check for hot spots.

NOT A TYPICAL WATER BOY: Visual journalist Benjamin Zack is a durable guy.

Two weeks ago he and outdoors reporter Leia Larsen spent two days camping out with the Rainbow Family. And this week, he hiked up a steep Davis County mountain with a woman who wanted to visit the 1977 plane crash site where her father was killed.

Both efforts paid off.

Ben got stellar evening and twilight photos from the Rainbow Gathering that a lot of media missed because they treated the event as a day-only assignment. And he was able to capture the emotional and exhausted reactions in photos and video of Aimee-Lynn Simpson’s hike for closure.

The nine-hour trek with Aimee was especially grueling for the Chicago resident, who wasn’t used to the dry heat and elevation. Ben had to share his water on the way back down because the group had consumed so much on the way up to remain hydrated.

These aren’t the normal assignments for your run-of-the mill photographer. But Ben is not run-of-the mill. He is a certified forest firefighter and rugged outdoor enthusiast. We just have to make sure we don’t take him for granted.

Andy Howell is executive editor. He can be reached at 801-625-4210 or

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