Natural disasters can strike anywhere at any time. Some of them are sudden and unpredictable, while others, like Hurricane Matthew, are meticulously tracked before the striking. Matthew killed 49 people in the U.S. More than half of the victims resided in North Carolina, where 28 people died, according to Gov. Pat McCrory. Weather.com reported that flooding from Matthew caused $1.5 billion in damage to more than 100,000 homes, businesses, and government buildings in North Carolina alone.
And Matthew is not a lone circumstance. In fact, according to Weather.com, there have been 18 major flood events since March 2015 in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.
Keeping this in mind, it’s extremely important for service contractors to have emergency preparedness plans in place so they can continue to serve their customers during their time of greatest need.
Dave Dombrowski recently assumed the position of general manager at Rapid Repair Experts in Raleigh, North Carolina. Just five weeks after joining the company, he lost everything due to flooding, courtesy of Hurricane Matthew.
“We had 6 feet of water in the office; it was a total disaster,” Dombrowski said. “Our whole business park was flooded. The drain broke and it filled up like a giant bowl. Everything in there was ruined. All the desks floated up, turned over, and emptied out. All the computers were gone. We lost seven trucks, three of which were brand new and had just been delivered two days before. We lost all the parts and tools that were loaded in the trucks. It was complete destruction.”
Dombrowski said he had always had an emergency plan in place at his previous company, where he spent 24 years as the general manager. And, while he had only been at Rapid Repair Experts for a short time, he relied on his knowledge and experience to handle the emergency situation.
“We intentionally kept everything off localized servers, so we had customer data on a portable hard drive, which unfortunately also was ruined because nobody took it home that night,” he said. “But we also had everything backed up in the cloud. The flood happened Saturday. By Saturday afternoon, the building was completely gone. But we were up and running service calls by 7:30 a.m. Monday morning.”
Dombrowski went out and purchased seven new laptops, while the company owner arranged to borrow a conference room in another building. “At 7:30 a.m., we had a dispatcher in here dispatching calls from laptop computers on card tables. That’s how we operated, and we did not miss a single call. The key is not panicking. I always tell people I’ve had last rites twice in my life. If nobody dies, it’s not a big deal. We will manage, and we will get through it. You just take a breather and say, ‘OK, what is my first goal?’ And our first goal was to run our service calls.”
According to Dombrowski, Rapid Repair Experts sustained between $400,000 and $500,000 in damages from the flooding. Some of which will be covered by insurance, but not all.
“The technicians typically always take their trucks home, but our delivery trucks were all destroyed,” Dombrowski said. “We were able to download our calls for that day, contact our people, and dispatch like normal. Some of them didn’t even realize how bad we were. For the installations scheduled that day, we contacted our vendor and said, ‘Hey, we need to come by and pick up equipment to replace what we lost, can you pull them and get them ready for us?’ We were running about an hour late on installations. And we just told our customers we were running a little behind due to the weather. They had no clue we were working from card tables out of a borrowed conference room.”
After a few weeks, conditions are a little better. Rapid Repair Experts has permanently moved to a new location about two miles from its former building.
Hurricane Sandy, also known as Superstorm Sandy, was the deadliest, most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season. The storm affected 24 states with particularly severe damage to New Jersey and New York. Mike Agugliaro, co-owner of Gold Medal Service in East Brunswick, New Jersey, went several weeks without power and phone service.
“What we didn’t know would happen is all AT&T cellphones were down,” he said. “We lost total communication with our people on cellphones. So, now, we have a plan in place to ensure we have as many backup resources as possible. We have our guys’ wives’ cell phone numbers because Verizon didn’t go down at that time. We also have landline numbers for those who have landlines. Secondly, we created a chain of command. We know where our people live and who lives next to whom. The reason that is important is because if something happens, as long as we get the message out to one person, that person can then drive over to the next person and kind of leap frog old school. The other thing we told our people is if communication goes down, as long as they are safe and can travel, then just come to our headquarters and touch base with us. Communication and how we communicate, especially with a company like ours pushing 195-plus employees, is extremely important.”
In addition to communication, technology played a large role in preparing for the superstorm. A large percentage of Gold Medal Service technicians take their trucks home. All of the trucks are enabled with GPS tracking, which allowed Agugliaro to view his fleet to see if any were in a flood zone and relocate them, if necessary. The company also was able to transfer all phone lines to its answering service. “If we didn’t have that call center, we would have lost millions and millions of dollars, and, even worse, there would have been tons of customers we couldn’t have served,” Agugliaro noted.
Storm surge from Hurricane Sandy hit New York City hard, flooding streets, tunnels, and subway lines and cutting power.
Sal Vigilante, owner of Vigilante Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning in Brooklyn, New York, had 6 ½ feet of water come through his front door.
“It was like canal water, so the word water is a real loose statement of what came in through the door,” he said. “But, it was a blessing. It truly was because it changed how we do business. It changed how we connected to our staff. We called it baptism by filthy water.”
When the storm hit, Vigilante was woken up in the middle of the night by his alarm company saying somebody pressed the panic button. Right away, he knew two things. His company was flooded and the water was high enough to reach the bottom of the desks.
“The next morning, when we finally got in, the place was devastated,” he said. “But we did have a couple of lucky breaks. Our trucks weren’t on-site, so we had our vehicles. It came down to standing in front of our people and saying, ‘Here’s the deal, either we go out of business today, or we go make some money.’ And they just went above and beyond for us. We had this incredible culture change around here that was truly phenomenal. And since Sandy, we’ve tripled in size.”
Vigilante said his biggest break was the night before the storm, when he took his server out of the building — something he hadn’t done at all in the previous 14 years.
“We had the server with all of our data. By dumb luck, somebody mounted a telephone above the water line. We had one phone, one computer, and all the other phone lines were in the attic. We were washing desks and people were taking calls from lines we ran down from the attic. And the calls were coming in, because the whole coastline was destroyed. There were boilers and furnaces that needed to be replaced everywhere. That’s how we did it. We just went to work. Everybody worked all day and pushed so hard. Everybody got how important it was to make sure we did this right so we could survive.”
Unfortunately, Vigilante Plumbing is accustomed to operating in extreme situations. “We’re no stranger to disasters around here. During 9/11, we lost our telephones for a month. When the second tower fell, the phones just went out. That happened on a Tuesday. By Friday, we had a postcard in every single one of our customers’ hands with a cellphone number they could reach us on.
“These things are important, because you don’t want to miss a beat,” he continued. “Every lost day is lost income to the bottom line. Missing that revenue makes it that much harder to recover. It’s extremely important to make sure you’ve got backup systems in place. Sandy could have destroyed us. We could have been true victims, but instead it was quite the opposite. It empowered us to go on and make significant changes, not only in the company, but in the lives of our employees and ourselves.”
Vigilante also noted his prices remained the same during the disaster. “We were victims along with everybody else. We didn’t want to be gouged, and we didn’t want to gouge anybody else. We did have some suppliers struggling to get equipment in who bumped up prices very slightly. Any of that, we just transferred out to the customer. We didn’t raise our base prices at all.”
Integrity Comfort Solutions, located in Conroe, Texas, also experienced flooding earlier this year. A tree that blew over after a severe storm hit the building and caused the rain gutter to come loose from the roof to point directly at an upstairs window, according to Chris Crawford, general manager of the company.
“The entire roof was draining into the gutter and then smashing into the window. It didn’t take long before water started coming in. We had to tear up the carpet and sheet rock and pull all the insulation out of the walls. It was a mess. It took about two months to fix everything, and it’s no fun operating a business that’s undergoing reconstruction.”
The thing that really helped Integrity during this time was its technicians are dispatched directly from their homes, so the flooding didn’t upset any of the company’s major workflow.
“We just asked our call center to stay home that day and ran everything from our answering service,” Crawford said. “We were really only out of the building for about 24 hours, and it didn’t hinder our services to our clients at all.”
Integrity spent a lot of time working not only with its own insurance company, but with many of its customers’ insurance companies in order to get flooded units replaced. The company also suspended its $69 service call charge for six to eight weeks after the flooding and worked with manufacturers to get older, discounted units for customers in financial need.
“From an operational standpoint, when your customers need you the most is when there is a natural disaster of some sort,” Crawford said. “If you haven’t got your own operations in order so that you can continue to operate, there’s no way you can continue to service your clients when they absolutely need you the most. As far as doing the things we did for clients, like getting rid of the service call charge and installing used systems for those in desperate need, that, to me, is great customer service. I think if you can do those things — go over, above, and beyond what a normal homeowner expects — that increases your company’s exposure. As much as we love internet marketing, the best referrals are still word-of-mouth referrals. You can’t buy that kind of marketing.”
Rich Biava, vice president, GAC Services, Gaithersburg, Maryland, said the most common emergencies are standard power outages.
“We have a portable generator that we plug into the outside wall of our building to get the customer service area, phone systems, and internet back online,” he said. “We are prepared for that because we had an experience years ago where a storm came through and we were without power for two days. We were running around, trying to find a generator and cords to bring up through the windows. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.”
Being located in Maryland, GAC also sometimes experiences heavy winter snow storms.
“We plan ahead,” Biava explained. “We typically see the storm coming three to four days ahead of time. We discuss what we are going to do, and we know the essential people who will be coming in. As a contractor, we need to think about this topic. There are some concerns, and it’s important to be prepared. There’s a relationship between doing what’s right for customers and the safety of your technicians. We have some 4-wheel-drive trucks and we’ve taken one of them to plow a path to a client’s driveway and up their driveway so we could actually get them heat that day. We also have some of our senior technicians take phone calls and try to explain how people can troubleshoot their furnaces over the phone, so they can at least get their systems up and running for the next day or two until we can get out there. Those are the stories people will talk about for years to come.”
PLANNING FOR THE WORST
Greg Crumpton, vice president of mission-critical environments for Service Logic in Charlotte, North Carolina, agreed there’s a fine balance for contractors during any kind of storm or emergency. Crumpton founded AirTight Mechanical, which has since evolved through a merger-and-acquisition process to become AirTight FaciliTech.
“You have to make sure you’re communicating with your team both internally and externally,” Crumpton said. “It gets really tricky when you have something like my old company, AirTight, where we always had two technicians on standby 24/7. You have to balance whether customers’ needs outweigh the risk of putting technicians on the road. You always want to default to what is safer for the technician versus what is better for customers. It’s a hard thing to do because you commit to serving customers at a certain level, and you want to have long-term, happy customers. Usually, when there’s a natural disaster or inclement weather, somebody high on the food chain needs to be involved to ensure company liability is understood. This ensures you’re not negating all the hard work you’ve done over the years to secure the customer. Part of emergency preparedness is having that call tree established.”
Crumpton said contractors should think through scenarios of redundant ways to allow customers to communicate if, say, the server handling voiceover internet protocol (IP) phone lines fails.
“The answer there is maybe sending out an email with impending weather stating if customers can’t get through our normal means of communication, here is an emergency cell number. You just have to think through the various steps.”
Communicating with employees is equally important, Crumpton noted. “It’s important to think about what we do internally to prepare for weather or emergencies, like an active shooter, which is a new one we have to be concerned about. We have to have a way of communicating in a quick manner to everyone. Let’s say we have an active shooter in downtown Chicago. Our office there is Midwest Mechanical. How do we communicate outbound to all of our technicians and our workers if they’re stationed in a situation area? That has to be thought through, and we’re in the process of refining all of this stuff. This is part of my role in coming on with Service Logic – to bring my mission-critical ideas and awareness of all our companies to the forefront and share what may or may not be good in certain tasks related to the mission-critical world.”
According to Dombrowski, it’s a manager’s responsibility to have a plan in place in order to serve customers and employees.
“We are responsible for serving the needs of our customers, especially during an emergency. HVAC, plumbing, and electrical companies are probably some of the most critical resources. If you’re having a problem, then they’re definitely having a problem, and we owe it to them to get out there and take care of them. We also owe it to our employees to make sure their jobs are secure. Employees and coworkers see how you react. If you’re not running around like an idiot, panicking over the situation, you’ll keep your people calm, and they’ll stay with you. Something is always going to go wrong. You need a plan in place to deal with emergencies when the time comes.”
Agugliaro agreed, saying, “The best thing a company can do is talk about worst-case scenarios.
“What is it they say, ‘Prepare for the worst, hope for the best?’” he continued. “As long as you think through the process and have communication with your people about it, you’ll be ready in that situation. And, let’s face it, most of the bad things that happen today are weather-related. Things are kind of shifting — we’re getting more hurricanes and storms. I’m a believer that it’s not a matter of if but when you will encounter something.”
Agugliaro noted that HVAC contractors are often first responders in emergencies.
“Our company drove right into the storm,” he said. “People were saying the only people on the road were first responders, police, and military. I was like, ‘Heck, yeah, and service guys.’ If you have no electricity and an elderly parent on oxygen, you better believe I’m a first responder.
“We stayed on the road,” he continued. “These types of situations allow you to come in, be a superhero, and really save the day for people during a really bad time.”
Gold Medal Service used email blasting before a storm to get the message out that the company is there to help if the worst does happen. It also does outbound calling to customers as well as a pre-recorded voice messages to all customers with company contact information.
“[During Sandy] we were getting about 600 calls a day,” Agugliaro said. “Imagine 600 calls a day of people crying on the phone about their houses being under water. That’s hard on your team. We did a lot of individual coaching with our employees and let them know we’re there to serve them and offer solutions to what they needed and what their families needed. Our employees were our No. 1 priority because we knew if we didn’t help them and keep them strong, they weren’t going to be able to help anybody else. Team building was huge during that time.
“I just want to tell people not to feel like it’s never going to happen to you,” he added. “Be prepared, talk about a plan, and have emergency measures in place. People always think it’s never going to happen. I believe in being positive, too. But I don’t know of too many people who cancel their car insurance because they’ve never had an accident. People need to be thinking about these situations now.”
Publication date: 11/21/2016