Safeguard Your Site: Planning And Preparing For Disasters

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Editor’s Note: This story was written prior to the coronavirus pandemic challenges. The sidebar in blue at the end of this article was added afterward to provide readers with pandemic-specific information.

It is an unfortunate part of life and business. Disasters happen, whether it be a robbery, break-in, hurricane, flood, fire, tornado, or some other disaster.

The key to getting yourself, your staff, customers, and your facility through the “storm” is having a plan.

“People always think they will get to the planning and they put it off,” says M. Anne Ballard, president of marketing, training, and developmental services for Universal Storage Group in Atlanta, Ga. Ballard has seen her share of disasters in the many years she’s been in the self-storage business. “Only those who don’t have a plan suffer more when disaster strikes.”

While there are many disasters to prepare for, many also have overlapping preparedness plans. We’ll take a look at some of the more common disasters and what experts do in order to prepare their facilities for the best possible outcome.

Disasters Covered In SSA Manual
The national Self Storage Association (SSA) publishes an Emergency Preparedness Manual that allows self-storage owners and operators to fill out information for their particular location. “We gather the content and professional experts to the table to help educate our members and attendees at conferences,” says Mike Blackett, senior vice president of marketing and communications for the national Self Storage Association in Alexandria, Va.

The manual, which was written in 2005, helps owners/operators plan what to do to prepare for a disaster, what to do during a disaster, and what to do after disaster has struck. The manual currently outlines 11 disasters in which owners/operators may need to prepare their locations. Blackett says the organization is in the midst of updating the manual, which will likely contain other possible disasters. While the first four may not be something you’d typically encounter, they’re just as important.

  1. Active shooter: “That will be a personal safety situation,” says Blackett. “It’s really hard to plan for something like that, but people can outline personal safety and shelter-in-place policies.”
  2. Biohazard: Some things Blackett says owners/operators may be able to do for this planning include how to receive alerts from authorities on phones, contacting authorities, and shelter-in-place procedures.
  3. Cyber-attack: This is something many more companies are encountering. Company websites can be hacked, and if there aren’t proper security measures in place, hackers may also be able to highjack personal customer information and hold it for ransom. “You’re responsible for your customers’ data,” says Blackett. “There are a lot of requirements, according to local, state, and federal laws.” Basic tips include making sure your security software is current and updated regularly and your software runs regular scans to detect any suspicious activity or malware. “You should also always have backups on the Cloud,” adds Blackett.
  4. Nuclear threat: Again, owners/operators and managers should have local emergency alert apps on their phones, be aware of warnings, and know where to tune in for further instruction and shelter-in-place orders.
  5. Robbery/theft: Of course, the best protection against this sort of disaster is investing in high-tech security, including state-of-the-art entry pads on gates and doors, as well as limiting access to floors/areas where customers don’t belong. Facilities should also invest in the best camera/monitoring equipment an owner can afford and keep the property well lit. Moreover, according to Blackett, managers should not have a lot of cash on the premises. Emergency preparedness plans should also include instructions for managers in the event of an armed robbery.
  6. Earthquake: These plans are typically used more in California, but seismic activity has been increasing across the country, with some of it linked to fracking in areas that previously didn’t see much earthquake activity. “If building in California, there’s typically specs developers have to follow,” says Blackett. “If you have a multi-level facility, you really have to make sure you’re following the emergency plan.”
  7. Fires/wildfires: California once again is the hot spot for most wildfires. “I know of a couple of operators who have insurance for their properties,” says Blackett. One of the contingencies operators must prepare for is the possibility that their area may be locked down and access may be blocked to the facility. “It could take time to get back in and find out what was lost,” he notes.

Fires can happen anywhere, so it’s important to follow local, state, and insurance guidelines with regards to sprinkler system and fire extinguisher requirements. “It’s important for those sprinklers and extinguishers to be inspected every year,” says Ballard. “February is National Fire [Safety] Month, so that’s a great time to do it.”

Ballard recalls a facility in which a tenant had a domestic dispute with his wife. The husband went to the storage unit and set himself on fire. “It burned the entire building, office, and manager’s apartment,” she says. “Thank heavens the manager knew what to do; we called the owner from the site. They had their own insurance advocate and they were called immediately.”

  1. Winter storms: Winter storms may not seem too devastating, but they can be depending on the amount of snow or ice. Two of the most important things for owners/operators to do is have a snow removal company on retainer and possibly having a generator on site in case the area loses power. “It’s important to make sure there are safe entrances and exits to the facility,” says Blackett, “and make sure the roofs are secured.”
  2. Hurricane: Hurricanes are one of the most common disasters for properties on the southern and south eastern coastal areas. March Chase, president of Southeast Management Company in Columbia, S.C., manages 750,000 square feet of self-storage, largely in coastal areas, and has weathered Hurricanes Matthew, Irma, and Michael.

“We typically have a lot of time to prepare, but the main thing is to keep supplies on hand so we’re not out trying to get supplies when everyone else is,” says Chase, who added his company takes a look at their basic supplies twice a year to ensure the facility is prepared; if they are not prepared, the items needed are included in the budget.

  1. Flood: Flooding can happen anywhere, but it can also be one of the most damaging aspects of a hurricane, depending on the facility’s location. “We had a 900-unit property around Fayetteville, N.C., that was hit by Hurricane Matthew,” recalls Chase. “We couldn’t really sandbag a 900-unit facility, so we notified customers in advance, secured the office, and then worked diligently with customers to file insurance claims.”
  2. Tornadoes: Tornadoes can have the least amount of warning, and a direct hit on your property can inflict maximum damage. “A tornado is very different from a hurricane,” says Matt Van Horn, co-founder of Atomic Storage Group in Port St. Lucy, Fla. Van Horn has been in the self-storage business for 20 years and has managed facilities across the country. “You have little time for warning; it’s like a blitz and then everyone is in shock.” Van Horn managed a property in Joplin in 2011, when an F5 tornado ripped through the town. “It wiped out almost the entire town,” says Van Horn. “Three of our competitors were completely destroyed.”

Preparing Before An Event
The experts agree that the first thing you must do is put a contingency plan in writing to cover all kinds of possible emergencies. “The preparation is so important,” says Van Horn. “Nothing may ever happen at your store, but that only gives you a false sense of security and will make you complacent. That’s the one thing that can hurt you the most.”

According to Ballard, Universal Storage Group uses the Emergency Preparedness Manual as a guide. “It’s great because it allows you to fill out all the information for your particular location,” she says.

Chase’s sites have what they call “The Green Book,” an internal binder that contains all the information a fill-in manager or someone else would need in the event regular staff aren’t available. “It is the most important thing on site,” says Chase. “It has all the possible information necessary, so anyone can run the store.”

The binder contains information such as software instructions, banking information, and passwords. “It’s extremely helpful if the power is out or there’s a relatively new employee on site,” says Chase.

It’s also extremely important to have a layout of the property on hand, along with blueprints of the store and storage areas. “This should show where the electric, gas, and water cutoffs are located,” says Ballard. “In case of a hurricane or tornado, you’re definitely going to want to turn off the gas.”

Van Horn adds that these maps should include layouts of the HVAC system as well as fire escape routes and where the sprinkler systems and fire extinguishers are located.

Another important item some managers forget is to keep a list of important city and county offices and officials with the hotline numbers. “You need to have these numbers at your fingertips,” says Ballard. “During an emergency, you get so stressed, you forget all you thought you knew.”

The numbers to have on hand include:
• Non-emergency numbers for police and fire departments
• Local emergency management office
• Local poison control office

Other steps to take before an emergency strikes, adds Chase, is to make sure all customer information and software is backed up on a flash drive or to the Cloud. In the event of hurricane or impending flood, these steps are also important:

• Make sure all electronics are off the floor.
• Secure paper leases and customer files away from the office (this needs to be done in any event, such as a fire, for example).
• Protect gate equipment and shut off battery backup (as the gate can get stuck in vertical position).

Supplies to have on hand for floods, hurricanes, winter weather, etc., include:
• Sand bags
• Plywood
• Bottled water
• Petty cash for extra items needed
• Batteries
• Flashlight
• Generator
• Sand
• Ice melt
• Shovels

These items should be budgeted for and stored in one of the storage areas for immediate access. The experts agree it’s better to be prepared before an emergency then to try to buy all these supplies when the masses are out.

If the disaster is predicted, sending emails to the customers to let them know when you will be closing, as well as other pertinent information, is always a good idea. Social media can also be used before, during, and after the disaster to keep customers aware of the situation, as you know it, on the property. Before closing the store, all phones should be forwarded to the call center or a designated employee’s cell phone.

The final thing to do before a predicted disaster strikes is to take photos of the property, inside and out. This ensures that all damage caused can be documented afterword thanks to pictures taken beforehand.

During The Emergency
When a disaster strikes, set up the lines of communication. first between the owner/operators and the managers still on site. If you have time to prepare, as in the event of a major hurricane or flood, you can also give your employees an idea of when the store should be closed and lay out an evacuation plan for themselves.

“I stay in touch with local government, who tells us when we should close the store,” says Van Horn. “They will tell us when they’re going to issue evacuation orders. The managers will begin to get edgy and want to leave with their families.”

Van Horn says it’s also important to keep in contact with the insurance carrier for the property.

The Aftermath
After the disaster is over, stay in contact with local emergency management agencies to determine when it is safe to go back into the property. In the event of a wildfire, for example, emergency management may not allow people to return to an entire area for several days or longer.

“One of the first things you should do is take post-disaster photos, even if it doesn’t appear your property has been damaged,” says Chase. “Make sure to take photos of each building inside and out.”

Once you and your staff make sure the buildings are secure and safe, establish a line of communication with other employees, customers, and other stores. Employees will want to know if they can return to work. Customers will want to know if there has been damage to their belongings and when/if they can come to inspect their property.

Van Horn adds that staying in contact with competition can create good will on your store’s part; you may be able to take in some of their renters if their facility is damaged. You may also have to collect on that same good will if your property is damaged. “Remember, it’s a good idea to have blank hard copy leases on hand; some people flock to storage to secure what they have left,” says Van Horn. “The power may still be out, and paper leases may be the only option for a time.”

It’s also wise to limit the number of employees speaking to the media. “Make sure your plan establishes a chain of command, who is allowed to make statements to who,” says Van Horn.

“During Hurricane Michael, we did pretty well with the press, but some competitors destroyed themselves in the local and national press. It’s important to put out a clear and concise message to your customer base,” says Van Horn. “If a local manager is giving the statement, it should be written in your plan that the statement needs to be reviewed or approved by upper management.”

Don’t forget to work with your existing customers; help them inspect their items and file claims with their insurance company. “Notify your customers in advance and work diligently to help them file claims by providing all the information they need,” says Chase.

In some cases, the claims adjuster can meet renters at the property at a designated time and help them file their claims in a timely manner as well.

One important thing to remember in the aftermath of a disaster is to ensure your employees are getting the support and help they may need, not only at the office but emotionally. Depending on the disaster, they may be suffering from post-traumatic stress and need additional time off.

“After the Joplin tornado, the town was so small that most every employee knew someone who had died,” says Van Horn. “Our company has a bereavement plan that typically covers close family members, but in the event of such a disaster, we had to have the flexibility to extend that.”

Pandemic Preparedness
As a result of the coronavirus, pandemics will be added to the SSA site, but Blackett isn’t sure when that information will be available. “Everything has taken a step or two backwards,” he says, adding that some information on pandemics can be found at www.selfstorage.org/About-SSA/SSA-News.

Universal Storage Group has taken many steps to add pandemic preparedness to their disaster plans. Although not all of their properties were in stay-at-home states, they implemented the following nationwide:

• Installed Ring doorbell cameras at the facilities.
• Issued a company cell phone and tablet to each manager at every location.
• Closed facility offices. Managers are locked inside the office; customers can call them or simply ring the doorbell.
• Instated paperless leases that are completely online.

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