ACHRNEWS

Are You Ready to Weather the Storm?

July 3, 2006
The recent flurry of news about the arrival of hurricane season in the Southeastern United States is a reminder that a contractor's business can often be at the whims of a natural disaster.

But contractors in other parts of the country know they are not immune from dangers over which they have little control. In the past few months, heavy rains resulted in wide scale flooding in the Northeast. In the Midwest, tornado watches and warnings frequently pop up. And Californians almost subconsciously make sure they have solid footing under them, knowing an earthquake could strike at any moment.

Every report of hurricanes, heavy rains, tornados, and earthquakes can create nervousness but can also result in contractors redoubling efforts to do everything possible to mitigate damage to their businesses, assure the safety of their employees and be able to rapidly respond to the needs of their customers.

Over the past several weeks, The NEWS has been talking with trade associations, contractors, and consultants about the industry's preparedness for potential natural disasters. In general, contractors are dealing with those issues in increasing numbers, but there is still a way to go. Katrina jump-started a lot of those efforts, but no effort is ever really finished.

An online NEWS survey drew a few respondents all of whom felt they had adequate insurance, evacuation plans, and rapid response procedures to reach customers.

But many of those involved in the process say contractors should not take it for granted that all that can be done has been done. They say contractors need to be looking through insurance policies to see what coverage might be available for natural disasters and then do a risk cost analysis.

They say contractors need to be regularly going through a long checklist of things to do when a potential natural disaster looms, with part of that checklist including such basic things as keeping service trucks filled with fuel and having some alternative communication plans should cell phones fail. And they say contractors need to be sure they have a rapid response plan in place, once the crisis passes, to come to the aid of customers as well as those most in need, even when they may not be one in the same.

Dealing with natural disasters is both pragmatic and emotional. There are an expanding number of sources to guide the contractor through all aspects of the process. But the final decision rests with the contractor.

MAKING GUIDANCE AVAILABLE

Jay Masuret is director of business continuity planning for EMCOR Group, which is involved in mechanical and electrical planning, construction, operation, and maintenance for a wide range of facilities. In that capacity, Masuret offers guidance for individuals within the EMCOR Group including contractors and facility managers. Much of that guidance relates to dealing with natural disasters. Because the company is nationwide, it has components of the company that have - and will - experience most every type of natural disaster.

He noted EMCOR has created a large database that includes risk mitigation strategies. "We want to provide a template document and help them carve out a plan," he said.

Part of the equation involves risk weighed against cost. "If something has a low probability and a high cost, that may be a no go. But if there is a high probability and a low cost, that can be a go."

He noted that by and large, those in the EMCOR group "have plans in place and embrace the plans."

Sometimes those plans can get quite specific. "Fuel is of paramount concern," Masuret said. "That includes making sure backup generators are fueled, up and running, and trucks are topped off."

He said contractors and facility managers need to adhere to state mandated evacuations and have a plan in place to, for example, tie down a construction site. After the danger has passed, contractors and facility managers are urged to check on employees.

And, said Masuret, "Always have a current copy of the written plan in the event of a crisis."

SEEKING ANSWERS

Jessica Rosenstrauch with St. Louis-based Alro Heating & Cooling Co. is in a part of the country that is susceptible to both hurricanes and earthquakes.

"I recently attended a seminar, put on by SkillPath, called Emergency Response Planning. My husband and I own a small company with less than 20 employees, and we were concerned after the New Orleans disaster with all that could happen." She said one focus was on "dealing with smaller stuff that is in our control ... such as making plans of escape and obtaining aid."

Insurance is also important. "We have the insurance that is currently available such as fire, flood, and for terrorism. But in the seminar they stressed you also need to figure out how long you can afford to be down before you wipe the company out."

The geographical part of the country where the company is located "is just an earthquake waiting to happen. At the seminar we were told to keep backup computer data offsite."

Keeping track of service trucks in times of an emergency and in response to customers is another priority, she said.

"We have nine trucks on the road and no way to know which roads will be passable or bridges will be standing. So we are looking into several options such as satellite phones that would work even if the radio or cellular towers fell down."

To keep track of employees, Alro is looking at an 800-number for employees to use; customers may be offered a Website with updates.

Should evacuation in times of natural disaster not be possible, Alro has assembled three days worth of water, food, and first aid supplies and is storing them in a large bin at work.

"We definitely feel that some sort of plan needs to be constructed, tested, and refined ... it may just take us a while," she said.

GETTING HELP

Even as contractor organizations and contractors themselves are stepping up efforts to deal with natural disasters, sources to obtain guidance continue to grow. Surf most any HVACR trade association Website and you will come across links to natural disaster assistance.

Much of that relates to Hurricane Katrina, but that proved a springboard for expanding topics in a broader range of dangers. The list is extensive, but here are some examples.

A Disaster Control Network Website (www.dcnonline.org) has been created in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida to "facilitate information sharing and resource matching among government, the construction community, home and business owners before, during, and after disasters strike," according to organizers of the site.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is providing information (www.epa/gov/hurricanes) for people, businesses, and state and local governments on preparations to make before hurricane force winds or storm flooding may occur. That site can also be formatted to have updates automatically sent to individual e-mail addresses.

The organization providing the seminar Rosenstrauch attended, SkillPath, has a daylong program that talks about backup systems, record keeping and software, cash reserves, lines of credit, prioritizing business assets, fire detection and suppression systems, and overall emergency planning.

"Thinking that emergency situations ‘can't happen here' is a mistake you don't want to make," was how one official of SkillPath described the need to make plans to minimize a situation involving a natural disaster that one really can't prevent, but can prepare for.

Publication date: 07/03/2006