Emergency Preparation

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Being Proactive Before And After Disasters

“Be Prepared” is the motto of the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts, and it should be yours, too.

Regardless of where your storage property is located, a disaster of some kind is a potential threat. It could be a blizzard, tornado, hurricane, fire (accidental or arson), burglary, or some other unwanted crisis. How well you, your business, and reputation survive that disaster depends on how well you prepare for it.

You have three major areas of concern. The first is your employees, then your property, and then your tenants.

“Luckily, we haven’t had to deal with such an emergency,” says Frank Certe, of Guardian Storage Property Management. Guardian has 16 properties (11 in the Pittsburgh area and five in Colorado), with an average of 90,000 rentables, or 700 units per property. Each property has a disaster preparation book in a red binder, containing a list of local contact numbers, including the police, other first responders, and the Red Cross. “We have an SOP on how to handle this type of thing. We have to let it happen and then sort it out afterwards.”

Admittedly, Pittsburgh isn’t in the usual focus for hurricanes, tornadoes, or earthquakes, but they do have snowstorms. Certe’s employees know that communication is of prime importance. As severe storms, including blizzards, are usually forecast several days in advance, there’s time to put their preparations into play. Certe tries to predict if they’ll need to borrow personnel from another office. After an event, they may cut open a locker, reorganize some contents, or put some items on pallets to keep them off the floor.

Many of their tenants spend the winter somewhere warm. “We want to make sure we have their contact information,” says Certe. “Our mangers know who’s out of town. Those tenants aren’t necessarily thinking about their storage locker.” Certe’s crews check the lockers and communicate with the owners to let them know everything’s okay. If there are problems, the owners are asked permission to take certain actions or are told that certain actions have been taken. “We know when there’s an issue. We’re not going to wait until an owner returns in six months and complains. “

Guardian has a contract with ServPro, the residential and commercial restoration services company, which comes in to clean or dry items if it’s rained heavily or a sprinkler system has popped. ServPro has an emergency preparedness training program to help storage facility owners know what prevention steps to take. It’s much easier to save something that’s wet and not yet destroyed.

Before a catastrophe strikes:

  • Keep track of any large trees on or near your property. Rich Redfern, a landscape professional, says, “Problems are caused when trees are downed by high winds or an earthquake. Most large trees weigh thousands of pounds and easily crush buildings or parked vehicles. Often, simply losing a large branch, which happens to land on (and total) one or more parked vehicles, will result in $20,000 to $50,000 worth of damage. And the tree in question might not even be on the storage site, but be just across the fence on an adjacent property. Solution: Be proactive. Ask a certified arborist for a free estimate. Then take any actions that could prevent a large weather-related loss.”
  • Walk the property and take pictures of the buildings, landscaping, fencing, guttering, and anything else that could possibly be damaged during a disaster. Keep a file (on a thumb drive or external hard drive) off premises, perhaps in a safe deposit box or in the Cloud, just in case your office is damaged or becomes inaccessible. The images should have a time and date stamp.
  • Create your own emergency notebook with essential contact information, including emergency personnel, insurance agent(s), employees, tenants, vendors, and any contractors (snow removal, HVAC, construction) you deal with regularly. Your book can also contain building plans (including electrical layout and the location of shutoff valves) and bank account records. Passwords to those accounts should be available to managerial personnel in case they don’t already have them. At least one copy of the book should be located off site. Make sure it’s printed and your employees know where it is, because you may not be available during the emergency. The plan should include the basics and be short enough that it’s easy to review and update on a regular basis. If it’s too detailed, the temptation may be to procrastinate until you or someone “has more time”.
  • Establish a relationship with essential contractors (electrical, snow removal, tree removal, etc.), so you will be a priority on their list. You might offer them free or reduced rate storage at one of your facilities if they don’t have enough room on their premises.
  • Create a telephone tree of who notifies whom. Don’t make one person responsible for calling everyone. Also, create an evacuation plan and a central meeting or call-in place so you know everyone is accounted for and safe.
  • Your office should have an emergency kit that includes basic first aid items and a fire extinguisher (check your local regulations for requirements), a blanket, a couple of days’ supply of non-perishable food and water, flashlights, battery-operated heater, a radio, phone, fresh batteries (check and replace regularly), and some basic tools. Do not rely on propane or other portable heaters that could be dangerous. You can find detailed descriptions for an emergency kit, food safety, and other preparedness tips at https://search.usa.gov/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&affiliate=ready&query=emergency+preparedness&commit=GO
  • Check your insurance policies (e.g., fire, storm, liability, personal), including your tenant insurance program. Have copies of the policies in the office and off site. You should review your coverage annually, both with your insurance agent and your attorney (who is a self-storage specialist). Determine if you need to update the contracts with your tenants. Make sure your tenants know that they need their own insurance and that your insurance does not necessarily cover their stored items.
  • Regularly (on January 1 and July 1 or when Daylight Saving Time changes back and forth) check your fire and smoke alarms and sprinklers, and replace batteries. Also, check your connections to your main office and other security office.
  • If you’re in earthquake territory, make sure everything is secured to the walls (bookshelves, mirrors, light fixtures, etc.), that cabinet doors and drawers have earthquake locks on them so items won’t fall out and be damaged or injure someone, and determine a sturdy place, such as a table or desk, to drop and hide under during the earthquake. Securing everything might be a good idea even if you aren’t in earthquake territory, so, for example, a flood doesn’t wash away everything.
  • Prepare a short list of things your tenants can do to minimize damage in their storage unit and their home and distribute it to your tenants. You can print these instructions and have them available at the office or you can email them when they renew their lease and as a reminder if you know a storm or other catastrophe is imminent.
  • Rent or buy generators, particularly if you’re in an area that has frequent power losses, so you can restore power where necessary. If you have climate-controlled units, have a back-up plan to restore power as soon as possible.

After a catastrophe strikes:

  • Contact all employees to determine if they, their families, and their homes are safe or if they need assistance. If an employee has been affected, borrow personnel from another location to cover his or her work shift(s) and offer whatever assistance is necessary to the affected employee. Offer temporary accommodations if they’re available so your employee and family members are assured of a place to sleep, shower, and eat.
  • Contact emergency personnel to determine when it’s safe to return to your property. Although streets and your neighborhood may look safe, power lines could be down, or upstream flooding may still be a threat.
  • Assess the damage to your storage property. Walk around the facility; take pictures and record what’s happened and happening. If you have the “before” pictures, you can show both to your insurance agent or a tenant in the off-chance that the tenant claims something was damaged in the catastrophe that was damaged prior to the event.
  • Contact necessary emergency personnel (fire, insurance, disaster relief) to implement whatever actions are necessary to restore your business.
  • Remove snow, ice, or debris from the driveways and from around the storage units.
  • Remove ice from gutters to prevent backups and thawing/freezing and potential breaks in the guttering.
  • Notify your tenants that your units did or did not suffer any damage. Let them know what measures you’re taking if there is damage.

And, remember what Benjamin Franklin said: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Judith Colbert is a freelance writer and editor based in Glen Burnie, Maryland. She is also the author of several books.

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