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Preparing for Hurricanes

It’s hurricane season again and rental companies, from the small to the large, are making preparations to take care of their employees, facilities and assets as well as serve customers in a time of extraordinary need. RER’s Michael Roth caught up with Paul McDonnell, senior vice president of the trench safety, pump, power and HVAC division of United Rentals, as well as Kenny Perkins, vice president of customer service operations, to talk about United Rentals’ preparations and activities in response to Hurricane Gustav and other hurricanes and tropical storms.

RER: Can you tell us how you prepare for hurricanes?

Perkins: I basically head up the disaster response team for United Rentals. What we do, three to five days in advance of the storm in this case, I put together conference calls with the team, which consists of the senior vice presidents responsible for the area that is potentially impacted, the regional vice president in that area, the vice president of sales, also security personnel, our Customer Care Center, in Tampa, Fla., our risk management department, and our real estate group, which is responsible for helping with any facility damage. Also the fleet managers both at the region level as well as corporate level, and branch managers who play a huge part in what’s happening in that particular market.

We’ve got a hurricane protocol and checklist in place and we go through that entire process. We start with branch employees and their families, making sure they are safe and secure, we check for any property damage to them personally. Did they have to evacuate or are they still in the area? Obviously if there’s a mandatory evacuation, we support our employees to get out of town and get their families evacuated. We can worry about other issues at a later time. Our Human Resources department is also involved in the call to help to take care of HR-related issues for our employees, and that includes everything from payroll — some people have direct deposit, some don’t so we have to make arrangements — that’s one of our first issues that we address. Managers have a list of contact information for all our employees as do the HR managers.

The next issue is the branch facilities, as soon as somebody can get back in and evaluate, all the branch has to do is call our 800/URRents phone number and basically tell them “I’ve got facility damage” and whatever extent of the damage they can let us know, that’s all they have to do. They hang up the phone and they deal with business at hand and at that point the call center notifies risk management, security and our real estate department. We actually had some damage in our Baton Rouge area locations. I got a call at 9:30 the night before, and they called the call center, we notified all parties and we had contractors in the facility the next day in the Baton Rouge area. All in all facilities came out relatively unscathed with the exception of some of the doors and windows in a couple of locations in the Baton Rouge area and one branch lost its sign. I haven’t heard of any rental equipment or transportation assets that have been damaged, so I assume we’re ok there.

How do you deal with transferring fleet?

The next issue obviously is fleet movement. Some of our highest-requested assets during these times are generators, light towers, and material-handling equipment, those are probably the key cat classes. We have relationships with our GSA group, with FEMA, we have national accounts, we have disaster-recovery companies as well as our local contractors. We bring fleet in from surrounding areas to help support those needs. We also have employees volunteering to come to the impacted areas, we did not have to utilize those this time. We did during Katrina, we brought people in and provided temporary housing.

We have agreements for temporary housing, for RVs where we can stage them strategically to house the people to help support the branches. With Katrina there was a lot of duplication of efforts. For example, somebody from FEMA would say “I need 20 light towers and three generators, and we might have eight different people responding to that same order, so we have point people in the field so we can avoid duplicating efforts amidst all this chaos.

How do the call centers help in emergency situations?

Perkins: With the call centers in place now, the branches have the capability to call-forward their phones, either at the site or from a remote location, so that way at least the phones are ringing into our call center. We can take equipment off rent, we can book reservations, we can take care of emergency situations or at least notify the people at the branch level who can, that’s a service we didn’t have in place during Katrina. And every one of those branches were able to call-forward their phones until they could get back into the location so that helps out tremendously. And there’s a United Rental employee answering those phones in Tampa.

Are you already preparing for Hanna and Ike?

We have a call scheduled for Monday, looks like Ike will be a large hurricane, Hanna looks like not such a big issue but we’ve already involved the people in the Southeast region and everybody in the eastern seaboard is on alert.

How does the Pump, Power, and HVAC division come into play?

McDonnell: This is a specialty business segment within the company, focusing primarily on value-engineered solutions with large power, providing turnkey systems for contractors needing air-conditioning power or temperature control. We have a lot of strong relationships with disaster management companies that support both FEMA and different power companies. So ahead of the hurricane we actually secured about six turnkey projects, one in Port Allen, La., for FEMA, where they had to house 1,000 people, we had another in Beaumont, Texas, for a power company, where they set up a mini-camp to bring in people to support the utility companies getting up and running. We put up about a 400-person camp in Beaumont, Texas, and we have another one in Jackson, Miss., which has another 400 people for the power company, and we are currently in process in building one in Baton Rouge.

Because this is kind of our specialty, and because we have entrenched relationships with disaster-management companies, we were able to mobilize and deploy up to 400- to 1500-kVA diesel generators at 480 volts. We were able to pull power from all over the country and deploy those assets ahead of the hurricane before it impacted the area. The challenge is where it’s going to hit, is it going to hit in Houston, is it going to hit in Baton Rouge, is it going to hit in New Orleans? Readiness is important ahead of the hurricane, so we try to find a centralized location close to the impact areas. Then we are ready to deploy assets where they are needed the most and these temporary camps need to be set up to support FEMA and the power companies.

What kinds of equipment do you have prepared?

McDonnell: Certainly for these temporary camps, the needs are related to facility controls and security and food service, showers and toilets, so we really have to deliver primarily power and temperature control.

Perkins: On the general rental side, basically material-handling equipment, reach forklifts for material and debris removal, skid-steer loaders, backhoes, light towers, everything down to chain saws for cleanup and debris removal. On the general rental side, we typically deal with 100 kw and below generators, while the pump and power division usually takes it from that and above. We provide temporary power for small locations.

Where do you bring equipment in from?

Perkins: We shipped equipment in from all over. We have to be careful moving equipment from within the Southeast because we still have a couple of major threats out there, hurricane season will continue into November, so we try to move from other areas, and keep some of that equipment in the Southeast region for staging purposes in the event of more storms.

McDonnell: We have 14 locations from the Northeast to the Southeast on the pump and power side, every single one of those locations has delivered and deployed assets to support this effort. While general rental has more locations, the fact that we are the largest rental company in the world with the largest inventory, we have tremendous resources, we can pick and choose where it makes sense to pull assets. We have tremendous ability to deploy those assets on an as-needed basis.

Overall, we learned a lot from Hurricane Katrina and we were much better prepared this time. The federal government was prepared as well and we probably erred on the side of taking a much more proactive approach in preparedness and readiness, which has helped us.

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