An Overview of “Wildfires, Protests, and COVID: How Have Courts Coped with Compounding Crises?”

Podcast moderated by Peter C. Kiefer, Consultant, JPK Ventures, Inc., and Alyce Roberts, retired Special Projects Coordinator for the Alaskan Court System. Podcasts can be accessed through

Virtual Panel

Barbara Marcille, Trial Court Administrator in the Circuit Court for the Fourth Judicial District in Portland, Oregon

Elizabeth (Beth) Baldwin, Court Administrator for the Municipal Court in Seattle, Washington

Robert (Bob) Fleshman, Court Executive Officer for the Superior Court in Napa County, California (formerly with the Superior Court in the San Bernardino County, California)

Michael (Mike) Roddy, Court Executive Officer for the Superior Court in San Diego County, California

Elizabeth Rambo, Trial Court Administrator for the Lane County Circuit Court in Eugene, Oregon

2020 was unprecedented, involving multiple crises occurring at the same time over a long term. The input of this panel relates to how courts dealt with racial protests, fires, and a pandemic. Consider the impact on the:

  • physical and emotional effect on court personnel;
  • strain on traditional communication methods and the need to develop multiple methods, which would work when traditional means were inaccessible/destroyed;
  • search for creative answers; and
  • return to traditional, pen-and-paper solutions when none other exists.

Effect on Court Business and Staff

Elizabeth (Beth) Baldwin

During the summer of 2020 in Seattle, demonstrations were ongoing. The protesters established the “Chop Zone,” aka Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), which was across Interstate 5, seven-to-eight blocks away from the courthouse.1 While the Seattle Municipal Court was not in direct proximity to the Chop Zone, several times protesters passed in front of the courthouse’s civic campus. Some of the facilities were locked down. There was a time when the courthouse was not yet open to the public, but some staff were in the building.

Staff were concerned about their personal safety, as well as commuting. Marshals (which are court security staff) were in the building to keep people aware. For a time, the street in front of the courthouse was blocked off with cement barricades and law enforcement. While the courthouse was blocked, it still did not impede access to the facility. During two weekends, protesters were on the plaza and courthouse windows were broken. These were then boarded up, but vandalism continued. Many people were arrested and booked.

The effect on staff was profound. The court tried to keep communications going with staff, but it was a difficult summer. The court’s Race and Social Justice Change Team held virtual forums for employees to share their feelings and experiences and to discuss how the events were impacting them. In excess of 100 staff participated, and it was helpful.2

Barbara Marcille

At the time of the podcast, there were over four months of nightly demonstrations in Portland, Oregon. The Multnomah County Court is directly in the corridor where the protests and demonstrations took place. In total there are now three courthouses located in the downtown Portland Corridor, a six-block area containing the Justice Center, the historic courthouse, and a recently completed new courthouse.

The first weekend of the protests occurred at the end of May 2020. Many windows were broken at the Justice Center. The public entrance plate glass windows were heavily damaged by the protestors. Intruders set fire inside the building when they entered. This destroyed the public entrance and public access to the building. The Justice Center building houses the jail, the Portland Police Bureau Central Precinct, and four arraignment courtrooms. As of November 2020, the public could not get into the arraignment facility, and no out-of-custody arraignments had occurred.

The historic courthouse had over 30 windows broken. The first and second floors were boarded up for months. Other damage included nightly graffiti on boarded-up windows and buildings, excrement and garbage in the doorways where fires were set, destruction of monuments in the area, and chopped down decorative trees. Both the Justice Center and historic courthouse remained open the entire time.

There was a huge encampment in the park between the court buildings. While protestors were primarily targeting law enforcement, court employees frequently walked back and forth between the buildings while people were shouting. It created a very hostile environment. The primary difficulty for the court was the lack of recognition by city, county, and state leadership. The court was being impacted by protesters, but most attention was given to what was occurring at the federal courthouse.

Amid the pandemic and protests while operations were restricted, two jury trials were conducted, and multiple grand juries were empaneled. Members of the public were lining up to come into the buildings. As graffiti was being cleaned off the building walls and excrement removed from the walkways, Barbara stood on the sidewalk directing people where and where not to step to avoid the debris in their path. Neither the Justice Center nor the historic courthouse closed.

Bob Fleshman

California experienced the worst wildfires in recorded history over the last four years. Statewide there were some 200 fires, 21 of them major. The wine country fires over three weeks in 2017 were very memorable and made the national news. The burned a quarter million acres and 9,000 buildings (most of them homes) and resulted in 44 deaths. The fires started overnight and covered 60,000 acres in the span of 14 hours. They were fueled by 70 mile-per-hour winds. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time because people were in bed. Smoke and ash rained down all over the Bay Area. Since fires have occurred every year for multiple years in a row in and around Napa County, efforts to respond have revolved around three areas:

  1. health and safety of staff (e.g., issuing everybody N-95 masks, being flexible with leave, and checking in with people);
  2. communication with employees; and
  3. planning (the State Judicial Council followed up with courts, providing tools, and options for continuity of operations, along with annual reminders to update their operations plans).

Elizabeth Rambo

Western Oregon is no stranger to wildfires in the fall season. The intensity and extent of the 2020 event, which started on Labor Day, was incredible. It affected all of Oregon from the most southern border. Smoke traveled as far as Seattle, Washington. By 4 p.m. on Labor Day, the sunset was obliterated by smoke and ash. Many employees in Eugene were evacuated from their homes, as occurred throughout every court in western Oregon.

Returning to work on the Tuesday following Labor Day included many human resource and communication issues with employees as they were being evacuated. People came and went from the court building as the evacuation levels would change in the area. This coincided with staff shortages resulting from COVID-19. The court was closed by Thursday because it was impossible to stay in the building.

Barbara shared that the Portland metro area was also greatly impacted by the fires. It is surrounded by forest and bordered by Clackamas County, where one of the largest forest fires raged. Staff had to be ready to evacuate quickly if the situation demanded it. Their new courthouse building is directly on the Portland waterfront, and she could not see across the river due to the dense smoke. She could not even see the bridges.

It was hard to breathe even with a mask. Employees were sent home if they experienced difficulty breathing. It was also during this time that the court offices/courtrooms successfully moved out of the historic courthouse into the new central courthouse. Employees and judges had to work on site in the facility, yet the court never closed.

About a third of the employees worked on site and two-thirds teleworked. About 100 employees worked downtown and came to the courthouse every day. The court remained open throughout the wildfires. The presiding judge decided not to close because the move to the new building was a few weeks out. With so many restrictions, any further closures would have exacerbated backlogs and made it even more problematic for the court to recover once they moved into the new building. They questioned the decision every day and wondered if it was the right choice. It was very difficult for the employees, because most of them worked in the historic courthouse, which has an antiquated heating and ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system. Morale had been on a slow decline and then rapidly plummeted. The new courthouse, where they are now, has a highly improved HVAC system.

Mike Roddy shared that while 2020 has been relatively tame for wildfires, in 2007, the San Diego area suffered a historic wildfire where hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated. Air quality was a big issue. There were times it was 90 degrees but the sun was not visible due to smoke. The court was closed for a week because they could get neither security nor deputies since they were all on the fire frontline. So much was learned from the experience that can be applicable going forward, whether it is to the pandemic, wildfires, or some other catastrophe, like an entire electrical failure.

Heating and Ventilation and Air-Conditioning (HVAC) Issues

Bob explained that issues with wildfire smoke and HVAC are complicated because the smoke does not have to be nearby to be a problem. Normally with fires, the dampers would be closed so as not to bring in outside air. Technically, you are supposed to keep it open about 10 percent because of air pressure. So, when a door opens, you are not sucking in smoke, you are pushing it out.

Part of the challenge with the pandemic was the HVAC was on 24/7 and dampers were 100 percent open trying to refresh air quickly and often. It was a delicate balance to accommodate COVID-19 policies and keep air quality indoors safe. Since some of their buildings are owned by the county and some are owned by the state, the court is a tenant. The building owners would insist the dampers be 100 percent open, while indoors they experienced an AQI over 400.3 When Bob stated he may have to close court, the facility owners closed dampers to 90 percent.

Bob said they brought in portable air scrubbers to help with the smoke and the pandemic. They installed about 12 in each courthouse and ran them constantly. They also performed mobile air AQI monitoring with small handheld devices that show the AQI and carbon dioxide levels in the buildings. There was never a time when the scrubbers ran that there were unhealthy ranges in the courthouses. The 400 AQI was reduced to 40 with the scrubbers. That was how the court could stay open.

Elizabeth said that COVID-19 has made them all reluctant experts on courthouse ventilation systems involving MERV ratings and fresh-air-quality mixes.4 Lane County was very proactive and reached out immediately asking what they could do. It felt like being inside a chimney. It was not just the smoke itself or the smell of smoke, but also feeling the grit coming out of the sky everywhere. The area where many employees lived was designated a level-two evacuation area. Staff became too uncomfortable in the building, and there were not enough people to run the court as the evacuation levels increased. So, the court had to close.

Communication Affects Everything

Barbara shared several ways to aid communication:

  • Know what rumors are spreading. Be as transparent as possible. Do everything conceivable so people do not get misinformation. Try to get in front of issues as quickly as possible.
  • As soon as the status changes, get information to staff so that they do not hear it from someone/somewhere else like social media, which may be inaccurate. Employees, judges, the public, and attorneys needed to do business in the court but were not able to get information or understand what the circumstances were downtown for court operations.
  • It is important to acknowledge that you know how bad it is. When the building is extremely smoky or employees are going to be directed around the back of the building because the front is inaccessible, share that you understand it is challenging.
  • Invite feedback. What can I/your supervisors/your managers do to better support you? Express openness. Ask for ideas and ways that the working environment can be improved.
  • Send a lot of emails. Their court uses the Everbridge notification system, which was already set up to frequently send out mass notifications to all employees, staff, and partners when necessary.5
  • Be present personally as the court administrator. On-site employees working in a tough environment need to see leaders at the courthouse.

Due to a budget shortfall, no merit increases were possible. Barbara related different efforts she used to show employees appreciation:

  • Get creative. Show them in as many ways as possible that there is not much that can be done to improve the circumstances, but leadership is trying to support them as much as possible.
  • Initiate a thank-you card campaign. Have judges sign cards for all employees.
  • Start a fundraiser to buy treats and snacks for the on-site employees.

Beth added to Barbara’s list. While the Seattle Municipal Court arraignment court was always running (it is located in the King County Jail), the courthouse was closed to the public for about three months. They did several things:

  • Used Alert SMC (Seattle Municipal Court), a text message system that employees can sign up to receive. Over the weekend, they often texted employees and made personal phone calls to employees to just talk with them.
  • They started their leadership team meeting every day at 9:30 to go over any kind of issue, e.g., COVID-19, impact of the protests, budget matters, air quality.
  • A couple of times a week, they had a follow-up conference call with the presiding judge and assistant presiding judge, to make sure everyone was in the loop.
  • The first four or five months they had daily town hall meetings via Zoom for all staff to join. The presiding judge spoke and provided updates.
  • They invited other speakers to give updates. Staff could text questions and have them answered right there on the spot or the next day.
  • Managers who might have unit meetings monthly were encouraged to have them virtually once a week. They found when employees were working virtually it was a good way to orient the day and to have something to look forward to. That has been very effective.
  • Supervisors were also asked to do one-on-one meetings with staff much more often.
  • Court security or marshals were always in contact with the police department and the city’s facilities management group, letting administration know when issues were happening or about to happen in the building
  • Several times they decided to close the building early for safety reasons.

Beth also added that doing the podcast had been a great support. It served as a reminder to care for herself. Reach out to others who have been through or are going through similar circumstances because you are not alone.

Mike shared highlights of the San Diego County Court communications plan that greatly helped with rumor control, particularly when they experienced protests.

  • Issue courtwide communications to inform all judges and employees via the court network and email system.
  • Use the RapidReach system to get emergency notifications out.

One of the unique characteristics in San Diego County is they have six major locations. Often, events can affect one location, and not another—for example, protests in the downtown area, which do not affect branch courts.

  • They have developed sub lists or sub menus, sharing facts and targeting communications to either the entire court, by location, or specific areas or groups.
  • Their new employee orientation process gathers all contact information so they can reach out through cell phones or email to share information or announcements. For example, they have multiple channels, which can be used (broken down by facility) to share wellness information related to COVID-19.

Bob related the concern of a presiding judge from a neighboring court. The judge could not account for their staff for four days after the 2017 fires because communications were down, and they didn’t have communication protocols of any kind in place.

Bob shared three things they implemented:

  • They secured Nixle, which is like RapidReach or EveryBridge.6 It is tied into the county emergency notification system.
  •  They set up an 800 number for employees to call, which contains a recorded message to help control rumors, to say report to work, to report if flexible leave applies, etc.
  • They set up website options or a landline for cell phone or Internet access. Any of those options can be used to check on the status of what’s going on and what you need to know.

The pandemic had already forced the court to use many communications options, but the biggest things Bob felt came out of recent events were:

  • Pivoting to a more digital environment involving remote proceedings and updating business procedures in the court.
  • Bolstering infrastructure and planning as the way of the future. This includes considering how a digital courthouse fits into a continuity of operations plan.

Changes Contemplated to Their Continuity of Operations Plans

Co-Host Alyce Roberts suggested creating templates, as these were helpful during the Alaskan earthquakes. When emergency situations arise, you can quickly access long-term or limited core operations using a template that addresses most of the key communication issues that you want to convey.

Elizabeth indicated that their continuity of operations plan was extensive but thought of creating tabletop exercises to practice an emergency situation centered around smoke, air quality, and fire because those issues were not really on their radar. They already have tabletop emergency responses to earthquakes and floods.

Beth shared that while the city has a strong emergency management department, two areas that her court needs to update in their plan are:

  • How to ensure public access during work hours. Guarantee safety for all when protests are outside the building or when there otherwise are security concerns for people.
  • The issue of access needs discussion with the leadership team. The immediate thought is to close the doors to keep the courthouse and people safe. But there is a duty to provide public access during work hours. For example, protesters want to come into the building to use the facilities, which was allowed, but they should not be allowed in the confidential or pay areas of the courthouse.

Mike suggested as a result of his recent experiences:

  • Have redundancy or backup capabilities if a sizable portion of the system goes down. There had been times vendor products were relied on heavily, like Zoom or Webex, but were unavailable or stopped working. Also, plan for the entire system being affected. Their plan contemplated one or two buildings going down but not the entire system.
  • Establish a command center in a central location to bring in management, security, and judicial leaders. They would meet daily or even multiple times per day to review new information.
  • Discuss the creation of an office of emergency services or emergency planning.


Court Leaders Can

  • Pivot to a digital environment.
  • Have tabletop exercises about environmental emergencies.
  • Develop plans for a long-term reduction in court operations.
  • Clarify procedures to maintain public access to the courthouse.
  • Be physically present to employees.
  • Consider portable air scrubbers when air quality is bad.
  • Understand major disasters have secondary impacts (cell towers destroyed, power grid goes down, rolling blackouts, etc.).

Lessons Learned

  • Recognize that you have to be flexible.
  • Be nimble and ready for “that next thing” (crisis/disaster).
  • Innovate and use technology to a greater extent.
  • Plan for the unthinkable very long closure.
  • Be resilient.
  • Exhibit leadership by being calm, honest, and straightforward and staying connected with people.
  • Have good teamwork between management and the judicial team.
  • Show compassion.

Communication Suggestions

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.
  • Be accurate.
  • Get information and updates out quickly.
  • Use any/all methods of communication for court personnel or those using court services (landline telephones, 800 number to call, cell phones and text messages, Internet, email and webpages, radio, etc.).
  • Acknowledge issues that staff may have in getting to work.
  • Do not sugarcoat the situation.
  • Invite specialists to speak to court personnel directly (perhaps over a Web platform).
  • Solicit employee feedback.
  • Make sure there are back-up methods in case any of the communication systems goes down.
  • Set up a command center for court leadership/judges to meet and discuss the multiple issues (in-person/Zoom/conference call).
  • Create a telework environment that includes security issues.
  • Have frequent, regular virtual conference calls with judges and employees.
  • Develop subgroups for targeted communications.

About the Author

Andra Motyka was a superior court administrator for the Pierce County Superior Court in Tacoma, Washington. She retired in 2015.

  1. The Chop Zone, aka CHAZ, was a roughly six-block area seized by protesters, including the Seattle Police East Precinct, to create an “autonomous police-free zone.” Sealed off from outsiders by barricades, and patrolled by armed residents, police were not allowed inside. Often, there were violent confrontations between protesters and police—ABC News, June 19, 2020.
  2. The Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) is the City of Seattle’s commitment to realize the vision of racial equity. RSJI is a citywide effort to end institutional racism in city government, and to achieve racial equity across the community. The Seattle Municipal Court had been planning this training since before the Chop Zone creation. RSJI builds on the work of the civil-rights movement and the ongoing efforts of individuals and groups in Seattle to confront racism. The Initiative’s long-term goal is to change the underlying system that creates race-based disparities in the community and to achieve racial equity.
  3. AQI—Air Quality Index. Think of the AQI as a yardstick that runs from 0 to 500. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern. For example, an AQI value of 50 or below represents good air quality, while an AQI value over 300 represents hazardous air quality.
  4. A MERV rating (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values) reports a filter’s ability to capture larger particles between 0.3 and 10 microns (µm). This value is helpful in comparing the performance of different filters. The rating is derived from a test method developed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE; see The higher the MERV rating, the better the filter is at trapping specific types of particles.
  5. Everbridge is a company that sells communications services for notifications of emergencies. In an emergency, Everbridge sends messages via telephone, text message, and email, but stops once they know that a person has read a message.
  6. Nixle provides an open communication forum that connects public safety, municipalities, schools, businesses, and the communities they serve. Nixle enables real-time, two-way communication through text, email, voice messages, social media, and the Nixle mobile app.