Guest Blog: Spokane Chapter Celebrates 10th Anniversary with a Bang – Lessons Learned From an Unexpected Disaster

By Marie Rice, CFE, and Lenore Romney, CFE

Rice and Romney

Rice and Romney

(Editor's Note: When a powerful storm moved through the Spokane, WA area in November, the chapter's plans for three days of training were threatened. Rice, Romney, and the rest of the Spokane Chapter team moved swiftly to ensure that their commitment to provide local training for CFEs was fulfilled despite the unexpected circumstances.)

Last year, 2015, was supposed to be the Spokane Chapter’s most exciting year yet. We revamped our chapter membership benefits to include a minimum of four hours of continuing education credit included with the membership fee and increased outreach activities by creating a scholarship for local law enforcement to attend our annual conference. On November 18, we planned to co-sponsor a law enforcement training day with Gonzaga University for officers across the state of Washington. Finally, balloons, birthday cake, and an all-time high of 115 registered attendees signed up to celebrate the chapter’s 10th anniversary at our Spokane ACFE Annual Fraud Conference, November 19-20.

The chapter's 10th Anniversary Cake

The chapter's 10th Anniversary Cake

But on the afternoon of November 17 circumstances changed as Spokane was hit with the worst storm in the local utility company’s 126-year history. Packing near hurricane-force winds and toppling more than 800 trees citywide, the storm caused the loss of power to over 200,000 residents and tragically, but miraculously, resulted in only two deaths. 

The timing couldn’t have been worse for the chapter as both our 1-day law enforcement training and 2-day conference were in jeopardy. We hope our story will help other chapters plan for the unexpected.

Disaster recovery for event planning

Our conference and law enforcement training session keynote speaker, Stephen Pedneault, CFE, flew in to Spokane hours ahead of the storm’s start. He was scheduled to present the next day at the chapter and Gonzaga’s co-sponsored law enforcement training session.

On the morning of November 18, conference organizer and board chair, Lenore Romney, CFE, knew that there were many logistical details to be taken care of, the first of which was to determine whether Gonzaga University and the conference venue could accommodate both events. Unfortunately, Lenore’s attention was needed at her home which was partially destroyed by three large fallen pine trees, one narrowly missing her husband. Lenore turned to other chapter officers and long-time friend, Marie Rice, CFE, to handle the most pressing tasks – contacting registrants and speakers regarding the cancelled event.

Incident Response Part I: Taking care of people’s immediate needs

Because of the storm, Gonzaga University closed its campus on the afternoon of November 17 and the full day on November 18, leaving the training with a willing speaker but no venue. One of the attendees, Mark Richart, arranged to host the ad hoc training in a conference room at the Spokane office of the Washington State Gambing Commission. Marie proceeded to contact the nearly 100 registered attendees to notify them of the ad hoc training.

Thirty-three attendees were able to attend the training, and the show went on. Lunch was ordered from one of the few local delis with power, and coffee was provided by another chapter member, Stacey Carr. Although it was in a smaller room with fewer attendees and limited techology, those who attended found Steve’s presentation valuable and greatly appreciated the quickly improvised arrangements. 

Lesson learned – Dealing with a canceled event is NOT just about managing the details of that event, but it is dependent on enhancing the attendees’ experience. Use all your resources to ensure that you deliver the best possible experience for attendees.

Incident Response Part II: Managing the logistics of the conference

Due to the power outage and uncertainty of restoration, the conference venue attempted to find an alternate location for the conference. Coming up empty handed, the venue recommended canceling the event. Chapter president Reggie Rife, CFE, communicated the cancellation to attendees and soon received requests for the event to be rescheduled prior to December 31, 2015, as attendees were counting on the CPE hours. Reggie worked with the venue to reschedule for December 16-17 and 88 attendees enjoyed presentations on fraud in construction projects, situational awareness, true parties in interest in marijuana businesses, case studies from the FBI files, virtual currencies and block chain technology, ethics in social media, fraud in virtual worlds and cybersecurity.

Lesson learned – A strong partnership with your event planners minimizes the legwork needed if things go wrong.

The red notebook

With Lenore handling more pressing issues at her destroyed home, the team had to move quickly to plan the rescheduled event.

Each year Lenore maintains a three-ring notebook with tabs for each aspect involved in arranging the Spokane Annual Fraud Conference. That “red notebook” proved to be a valuable resource to the team for contacting speakers about travel plans and determining their availability for a rescheduled event. The extensive power outage made even cell phone and internet communication very difficult and unreliable during the aftermath of the storm, so it was very handy to have the conference details in paper form!

The Spokane Chapter has worked hard over the years to establish and maintain a network of contacts with Eastern Washington law enforcement agencies and other anti-fraud professionals. In this instance, our network quickly helped fill the empty time slots for speakers that couldn’t be rescheduled, while keeping the theme of the conference intact.  The chapter’s healthy balance sheet, built up over many years from profitable conference events, helped the chapter ‘weather the storm’ of additional expenses such as speaker fees, extra travel costs and refunds that were issued to participants who could not attend the rescheduled event. 

Lesson learned – Having conference details accessible even if technology fails, enables other team members to step in and take over when needed. Financial reserves ensure the chapter has the ability to cope with the unexpected.