Small-Business Phoenix

Fire prevention efforts to the tune of $300 could have saved a vintage Vermont inn

By Greg Winson

Small Business Phoenix When Jerry Lavalley saw smoke rising mysteriously from under the floorboards of the century-old country inn he and his wife had just bought in Vermont, he assumed the motor of one of his appliances was burning out. "I thought, 'This'll cost me $300,'" he recalls.

If only that had been the case. In the end, the fire cost the Lavalleys the main building on their $4 million property. Ironically, a $300 industrial-dryer part would have saved them the heartbreak and headaches of rebuilding their 155-year-old wooden inn.

In October 2005, Lavalley traced the smoke to his natural-gas dryer in the basement. "I had a split second to decide whether to use the fire extinguisher on the wall behind me or go back upstairs, pull the fire alarm and call 911," he says. Lavalley chose the latter plan of action, and the decision saved his life - although it did cost him the inn and more than a year's worth of business.

The tragedy struck exactly one month after Lavalley and his wife, Liz, bought The Reluctant Panther Inn in Manchester, Vermont. It took eight volunteer fire departments, with more than 100 firefighters combined, nine hours to extinguish the flames.

After his initial shock wore off, Lavalley wondered if he should have tried to put out the blaze himself with the fire extinguisher at hand. The fire chief assured him that this would have cost him his life.

Had Lavalley opened the dryer to extinguish the flame, the chief explained, the oxygen-starved fire would have exploded in his face and killed him. Then he wouldn't have been able to call 911 or pull the alarm to evacuate the building, saving the lives of the inn guests. (Thankfully, no one was hurt, including rescue workers.)

It took almost a year, but The Reluctant Panther is again hosting and feeding guests in the main building. It might be more aptly named The Enthusiastic Phoenix for its impressive revival. Unfortunately, the recovery process between the fire and the reopening was anything but simple.

The Lavalleys didn't just file a fire insurance claim and cash a big check that neatly covered all their rebuilding costs.

The original inn had been grandfathered, and, as a result of the fire, all previously tolerated building-code exceptions also went up in flames.

Although the new exterior resembles the original inn, the Panther now has wider halls and an elevator and is constructed with more expensive materials.

With insurance covering only two-thirds of the rebuild, the Lavalleys had to fund the remaining 33 percent themselves. Fortunately, the inn's two smaller buildings weren't damaged, so the Lavalleys could run a reduced operation, albeit without a kitchen. The nearby Equinox Resort offered a breakfast service to the Lavalley's guests during the rebuild.

Almost half of small businesses don't reopen after fires

The couple invested much time, money and effort into finding the right architect, sorting through insurance red tape and redesigning the inn to be more practical while still paying homage to its origins. "If it wasn't for our previous business experience, we might never have reopened," Lavalley admits.

And, fortunately, Liz Lavalley, who has worked as COO for major corporations, knew how to handle high-level questions posed by their bank and insurance company.

That's not the case for many small-business owners, who are unsure of how to deal with financial institutions that get tough in times of insurance claims. That could be the reason, at least in part, that only 43 percent of small businesses reopen after a significant fire.

Like its previous incarnation, the new inn's basement houses industrial laundry facilities. But, while the new dryer is gas-powered like its flammable predecessor, the latest model sports a $300 feature that makes all the difference - the Combustion Auto Response Equipped (CARE) system, designed to extinguish a fire at its inception by automatically starving it of oxygen.

Thanks to financial know-how, scaled-back operations and a supportive community, the Lavalleys' inn has risen from the ashes, better than ever.

Could your small business survive a fire? Better yet, is there a way you can prevent a fire from starting or spreading?

The answer is yes; and you should learn all you can about workplace fire prevention.

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