Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online

In the eye of the storm

September 19, 2010

Hurricane Katrina left a massive job for JanSan professionals in her wake: Thousands of evacuees seeking refuge in shelters, airports acting as temporary triage units, and those buildings still standing soaking in toxic sludge.

Barely one month after the Category 4 battered the Gulf Coast and just weeks after Hurricane Rita made landfall, Tropical Storms Vincent and Wilma intensified to make 2005 the busiest season on record.

Along with these devastating storms, a plethora of other natural disasters — blizzards, fires, floods, earthquakes, landslides, etc. — and an increased threat of terrorism means the cleaning and maintenance community must prepare for the fallout.

Building service contractors (BSCs) and in-house professionals need to create a plan before catastrophe strikes, as every second wasted could cost property, revenue, and even lives.

To help you get the best possible results when facing a worst case scenario, leading industry authorities (see “Emergency experts” sidebar) offer the following advice for your disaster response preparation.

1. Participate in planning
Take part in the emergency preparedness development of every building you service and the surrounding communities.

When preparing your own business or department, first establish a planning team to identify and analyze possible emergencies.

This list should not only include regional disasters, but also universal threats to facilities’ well-being (see “A plan for everything” sidebar).

After determining and implementing the proper responses for each scenario, hold drills to test your plan and educate your employees.

2. Know who to call
Having a list of key phone numbers readily available can save precious moments in a crisis situation.

Along with contact information for emergency personnel and key suppliers, maintain a current directory of your staff, including:

  • Home and cellular phone numbers
  • Email addresses
  • Street addresses
  • Emergency contact information
  • A copy of photo identification and other documentation to help employees recover quickly

Consider creating a phone tree for disaster call-ins, complete with back ups, so you can assemble employees as quickly as possible.

To aid in regrouping employees following an internal emergency, define a common meeting place in the vicinity of your facility or contract.

3. Assign roles and responsibilities
Upon learning of a recent or potential catastrophe, call a meeting of key management and supervisors. BSCs should reach out to current clients to assure availability for post-disaster cleanup, while facility managers should determine if the job requires additional staffers. If possible, send a rapid response team — equipped with basic equipment and a vehicle — to assess damage and call for appropriate tools and personnel.

Having too many people on-site may only aggravate the situation by adding chaos to the mix.

Once on location, supervisors should explain priorities and employees should focus on the primary emergency.

4. Make safety paramount
While your job is to maintain facilities, your first responsibility is to keep yourself and your staff safe.

Always follow evacuation orders and demand your employees do the same.

When officials clear an area and response begins, don’t overlook safety issues in the rush to respond.

Failing to employ appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), lifting techniques, and chemical guidelines will only make matters worse.

However, as accidents can occur despite reasonable caution, employees should be versed in first aid and CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation) and carry necessary medical supplies.

Also, consider hiring a professional safety consultant beforehand to provide tailored manuals and training for any situation you and your staff may encounter — it may save time, money and lives if disaster strikes.

5. Train, train, train
Keeping your staff safe and effective requires teaching them the proper procedures and how to use equipment.

Utilizing more uncommon items, such as generators and heavy-duty pumps, requires a specific set of steps that employees should know.

Time spent fumbling to hook up hoses or turn on pumps will cost your client or facility money, and may cost you the job.

6. Stock the proper tools
Without adequate and operational equipment, even the most well-trained staff can’t effectively mitigate disaster.

When your department or BSC is called to duty, missing extension cords, mismatched hoses and wands, or empty generators are unacceptable.

Stock your emergency response vehicle(s) with wet vacuums, pumps, a generator, appropriate hoses and attachments, and other tools before problems arise.

Store additional equipment in a central location, and regularly test components and update inventory.

Also, realize a disruption in power may require additional generators, lighting systems, gasoline-powered pumps, and other items in short supply after a disaster strikes.

Your suppliers may also face difficulty delivering products following an external catastrophe.

To tide your organization over, anticipate by stocking at least two weeks worth of cleaning chemicals, trash liners, and PPE at all times — the week you run low could be when you need supplies the most.

Always store your reserves properly to prevent additional problems associated with chemical spills or mixing.

7. Know the facility
Obtain a building plan for every structure you service and review it periodically with your workers.

Any employee who works in the facility should know the location of power, water and gas shut-off valves, as well as how to operate them.

Your staffers should also understand how to operate facilities’ generators to provide emergency power quickly.

Finally, integrate an evacuation route and several alternatives into your plan, just in case.

8. Coordinate resources
A strong relationship with distributors can keep your operation running after an emergency.

To further strengthen your plan, integrate resources of local and national disaster response organizations, including:

  • Fire and police departments
  • Local emergency planning committees
  • The National Weather Service
  • The Red Cross
  • Regional FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) offices

9. Create a back-up plan
Following a disaster, JanSan professionals will often act as first responders, preventing further damage until mitigation specialists arrive.

True experts will know when to call for additional assistance, instead of tackling a job they’re not qualified for.

When drafting your emergency resp-onse plan, consider preparing by locating experts in water, fire and mold damage.

Inquire about preset pricing, response time, and experience when researching potential companies to (sub)contract.

10. Perform a post-mortem
After a disaster tests part or all of the plan, review each phase with managers and supervisors.

Discuss what worked and what didn’t, smooth out any rough spots, and brainstorm ideas for improvements once everyone has the experience under their belts.

Consider how management called-in and dispatched employees, how equipment performed on site, what supplies crews needed, and which ones never left the van.

11. Make sure your covered
Business owners should speak with an insurance claims attorney or public adjuster to ensure policies offer the proper protection.

Keep photographs and serial numbers of current equipment, vehicles, tools and computers in several locations — perhaps even out of state.

Also, store backups of electronic files in a secure area, and have all crucial data available on a laptop.

Other important documents to duplicate and secure include:

  • Employee records
  • Customer files
  • Insurance and tax papers
  • Financial information

12. Start now
Disasters seemingly occur when we are least prepared for them.

Even if you think your business is safe, never forget that a little anticipation could save lives and your livelihood.

The time it takes to create, implement and practice a plan for your operation could be the best investment you’ve ever made.