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Strong, coordinated efforts bring Milwaukee courts back on line after fire

Madison, Wisconsin - July 15, 2013

A July 6 fire in an electrical closet in the basement of the Milwaukee County Courthouse created a mess by knocking out power and causing extensive smoke and odor damage throughout the building. The courthouse was closed for a week, computer networks, including those that sustain court case management systems, were knocked offline, and judges were left without functioning courtrooms as cleanup got underway.

But the disaster also created some heroes among judges and court system staff, who worked quickly and tirelessly to bring essential court functions back online, said Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson.

“Our dedicated judges and staff made all the difference in the world to the people of Milwaukee County, who rely on the courts each day for everything from performing wedding ceremonies to  resolving criminal and civil cases of all sorts.” Abrahamson said. “Sometimes it takes a situation like this to appreciate and realize how much is actually happening in our courthouses and the work that is being done,” she added.

On the technology side, Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP) staff responded immediately when they got the call Sunday from Milwaukee Clerk of Circuit Court John Barrett indicating that the courthouse would be closed on Monday.

Because power was out and access to the courthouse was tightly restricted on Sunday, July 7, CCAP staff work remotely from Madison to redirect Milwaukee network users to a redundant server located in Madison. The re-routing made it possible for the staff of the Milwaukee Children’s Court to log in and function without disruption on Monday morning, said Jean Bousquet, chief information officer for the Wisconsin court system. CCAP has redundant databases located in Madison for each circuit court.

Eventually, CCAP staff was able to move court system servers out of the mezzanine area of the Milwaukee County courthouse to the Milwaukee County data center, where there was stable power and adequate cooling.  The mezzanine was too hot for server operations, power was unreliable, and conditions were dirty and smelly.

Meanwhile, Chief Judge Jeffrey A. Kremers worked with Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and county department leaders to forge a new way of doing business during the crisis, Kremers said.

Following a full assessment of the situation and projections from facilities managers and WE Energies, Kremers met with judges and court administrators to share his plan to keep the courts functioning, and he asked for their input and support.

“Everyone really pulled together to make it work. When a problem came up, a solution quickly appeared.  We can all be proud of the efforts of judges, commissioners and court staff in this unprecedented situation,” Kremers said. 

The plan included setting up master calendars in the criminal division along with a court to hear injunctions, firearm surrender hearings and serve as an overflow court for some cases. A decision was made that civil and small claims cases could not be heard, with the limited courtroom and office space available. 

Administrative staff was set up in two primary locations with operations of the clerk of circuit courts in a file room of the Safety Building. First District Court Administrator Bruce Harvey and Deputy Administrator Beth Bishop Perrigo moved into a large space in the same building to support Kremer’s plan and to make adjustments as needed. 

For example, when advocates from the Sojourner Family Peace Center, who had been displaced from their restraining order clinic in the courthouse, they were immediately set up in an office with a Family Court commissioner to serve the individuals seeking restraining orders. 

Deputy Chief Judge Maxine A. White and Judge Daniel A. Noonan, who served as daytime duty judge were on hand for situations requiring immediate judicial attention. Other judges checked in to assist where needed. 

Several weddings were performed in the office with Felony Court Coordinator Mary Jo Swider, a former deputy court clerk, checking the paperwork and often serving as a witness. Michelle Smith and Becky Dudzik worked on and offsite to secure court reporters from a pool that was diminished because most reporters could not get to their equipment from the courthouse. 

A portion of the courthouse re-opened for limited business on Monday, July 15, and criminal cases continued to be heard. Kremers was working with judges to restart operations in the civil division.

“It will take a little work to get everything back in order, but they did an amazing job to get these buildings back on line in a week. While I have not been in every room I have been on every floor both immediately after the fire and early this evening. The difference is dramatic,” Kremers said.

On Monday and Tuesday immediately after the fire, the Criminal Justice Facility, was the only court building with reliable power downtown.  Working closely with Barrett and Harvey, CCAP set up a wireless access point for users in the Criminal Justice Facility and provided laptops for staff to connect to the new Milwaukee database located in Madison.  Even if power was disrupted, the laptop batteries and the cellular internet connection would continue to function under this arrangement, Bousquet said.

Additional high-priority users were identified on Tuesday and Wednesday in the Safety Building in two locations and CCAP provided additional laptop computers and access through multiple channels (CCAP network, Milwaukee county network and another wireless access point) to provide authorized users with access to the database. By Thursday, about 100 people were able to use the CCAP network through the improvised system, Bousquet said.

Tom Sheehan
Court Information Officer
(608) 261-6640

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