When Disaster Strikes: Lessons for the Alarm Industry

New Orleans, La. -- I write this "Live" from the 10th Annual Trade Show, Convention & Golf Tournament of the Louisiana Life Safety & Security Association to let you know that New Orleans is open for business and looking for a few good technicians. I ventured south in November to attend the show, and to visit with some dealers, manufacturers, distributors. I wanted to hear about business in Louisiana, to see what the alarm industry had become a little over a year after Hurricane Katrina made landfall and flooded the "Crescent City".

Travel is always better when you are with a native who speaks the local lingo. That's why I teamed up with the Ragin' Cajun himself -- Merlin Guilbeau, executive director of the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA). Guilbeau hails from Lafayette, La., which he affectionately calls the Heart of Cajun Country. It's an appropriate description. I met plenty from our industry who were evacuated to Lafayette, and to hear how the residents welcomed them with open arms; I quickly realized just how big Lafayette's heart is.

What also became evident was how our industry implemented evacuation and business continuity plans as well as banded together putting aside competitive issues. One security dealer that was significantly affected by the destruction of Katrina was Spencer Smith, president of Alarm Protection Services (APS). The company, based in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, is a First Alert dealer.

Smith's building was severely damaged by what is believed to be a microburst that blew his roof off and forced the back wall of his building to collapse into the parking lot. Smith was in the planning stages of a major renovation and an addition just before the storm hit, so needless to say the plans were already drawn up.

Smith, with family in tow, evacuated to Houston like they had done so many time before. By Sunday at 9 a.m. he instructed all employees to leave the office. On Monday morning reports were coming into to Smith that his building was destroyed. During this time, Smith was in constant contact with long-time friend Larry Comeaux, chairman of Acadian Security Plus, a First Alert dealer whose business operated out of Lafayette, La.

Comeaux immediately called a real estate agent and secured a four-bedroom home for Smith and his family. He provided his conference room as a private office and ordered five additional phone line systems so that Smith could get back to business. Comeaux's generosity and support came through when needed the most; however, for Smith the worst was yet to come.

On the first Tuesday after the storm, reality had fully hit home. The APS building was heavily damaged. Employees were scattered with no way to reach them and the customer base from New Orleans to the Mississippi Gulf Coast was, for all practical purposes gone.

Over the next few days with the help of only four techs in the field, Smith was able to dispatch crews via text messaging. Prior to the storm Smith had 50 employees, but with their homes flooded and belongings soaked, 17 did not return. Five vehicles were lost to flooding. Over a third of his customer base was gone.

After evaluating all the devastation, Smith felt it would take at least a year to get back to where he was before the storm hit. Now a year later he talks about some best practices that came out of this disaster: a better plan to transfer lines before a storm hits, taking and keeping a more accurate inventory of what you have and what it would cost to replace. Smith and Comeaux note that they are working closely with MicroKey; they offer emergency central station switching and are also an associate member of the NBFAA.

By leveraging his existing relationship with another First Alert dealer and his relationship with the NBFAA, Smith was able to rise above the storm. "First Alert also came through for us; they drop shipped as much product as we needed," he said. "Other vendors bent over backwards to accommodate us as well. A local GM dealer replaced our vans. Nextel was lenient on billing and banks worked with us on our loans. It's taken nine months to rebuild the building from top to bottom."

His new building has a metal roof rated for wind speeds of up 140 miles per hour, and it is insulated with foam. He has installed new technology in his building including new cameras and automated lighting. But it was the support through it all that really counted.

"The support that we received was overwhelming," Smith concluded.

Recreating the Business with a Small Workforce

Another local security veteran that Merlin and I spent some time with was Bill Hattier, the president of Sonitrol of New Orleans. With cell phones knocked out, land lines non-existent and the water rising, Hattier and his employees prepared for the worst. Hattier printed out their database so that they would be able to start calling accounts immediately after the storm had passed.

"We essentially became a power monitoring service to our customer base," said Hattier. "With two technicians in the field we mostly replaced standby batteries and upgraded customers to the latest version of Sonitrol panels. Luckily we had a natural gas generator circa 1972 that kept our lights on and the coffee hot. The natural gas was great because it's part of a closed system, and gas and diesel fuel was hard to find and at a premium.

As far as installations today, Hattier says "business is booming" and that the company is able to keep several dozen jobs in the pipeline. "We are installing more new system enhancements as well as access and CCTV monitoring."

Before the storm Hattier had 33 employees, but after the storm only 23 returned. The employee shortage has changed how the company does business. Instead of running four 2-man crews, the company is making do with two 2-man crews. They've had to switch from scheduling three 8-hour monitoring shifts to using two 12-hour shifts.

"The cost to do business here in New Orleans has definitely gone up based on the lack of employees and insurance issues," Hattier said. But while employee staffing is hard to prepare for, the one thing which kept the business going and which worked extraordinarily was Sonitrol's disaster plan.

"It worked just as we had prepared; everyone knew where each other was," he said. "The core management was all in different places with different parts of the business. Whether it was databases, accounting information, printed customer lists, we had them all ready to go. Our technicians had their own vehicles with them spread out in different locations. We had made contingency plans for the following scenarios: ice storms, floods and fire. In addition, we had companies that provide portable buildings all lined up."

But even with the best disaster plan, there were lessons to be learned. "We will need to bring more cash reserves, [make sure we have] electronic access to banks for payroll needs and [we will need to] store more gas for our vehicles."

"As a business owner you have to be flexible and keep an open mind to changing your plan," remarked Hattier. "You have to update them regularly as some vendor numbers may change in the course of a year. The silver lining to all of this was text messaging. Key management was able to communicate via text messaging when all other traditional lines of communication were down."

Whether it's training staff on how to run the business via text message or ensuring that disasters supplies can be readily had, Hattier's strongest lesson is that businesses have to be prepared for the worst.

"Most people never think that this is going to happen to them, or they think that a disaster will be a single event as opposed to Katrina which turned out to be a regional event in which all resources were maxed out."

Distribution under Water

A trip to New Orleans would not be complete without a visit to the newly renovated ADI branch. Merlin and I were able to sit down with Sales Manager Alan Whitby, Branch Manager Dan Traugott and Regional Account Specialist Scot Sundquist to hear what the ADI team endured during the past year. When the storm hit, the entire team evacuated to Memphis. By the generosity of Tom Polson, backed by ADI corporate, six employees and their families were placed in fully furnished town homes.

The ADI branch in New Orleans was already about four feet off the ground, but that wasn't enough to get them above the flooded streets. They had at least six inches of water rushing through the location, not only damaging a lot of products, but also creating mold and mildew problems.

The amazing part of the story is that within 48 hours the branch was back in business offering curb-side service. In a trailer no bigger than a small school bus, five employees processed orders and went about the days tasks. According to Whitby, "the emergency plan that was implemented was simple: Family First. We located employees, secured our premise and then began to fill customer needs."

As soon as it was realized that all employees were safe, they turned their attention to getting back to business. Like Hattier's experience getting Sonitrol back up and running, Whitby said that text messaging was the key to communications.

"In business you learn that CEOs manage, but what Tom Polson demonstrated to us was what real leadership is all about and at a time when it was needed most," said Whitby "He was on the ground within two weeks assuring the entire group that he would do whatever was necessary to rebuild. Another great asset was that ADI's infrastructure was able to support distribution.

He said the storm taught the ADI crew what they would need to stock ahead of time in the stores that are located closest to landfall. It's the basic products like cable and wiring, and batteries, and even waterproofing products, that are most needed after hurricanes rip through an area.

"In terms of what we are selling, with homes being completely gutted structured wiring is a hot product," said Traugott. "Home automation and high end audio and video products are moving."

And while business is starting to get back to normal at ADI, Traugott and the rest of the crew remember the outpouring of support.

"During the aftermath of Katrina we never came into town without enough food, water and fuel," he said. "I want to personally thank all of the other ADI branches that overwhelmed us with boxes of new clothing for us and our families."

Getting Soaked in New Orleans East

A short trip over to New Orleans East had us visiting with Tom Pickral, founder and chairman of Home Automation Inc. (HAI). HAI had just moved into a new facility before Hurricane Katrina. What had struck Tom and HAI President Jay McLellan about this building was the brand new back-up generator and the five-acre lot next door for expansion possibilities.

But even with a new location, things still got wet. According to Pickral, "It took two weeks for the water to fully recede. Eighteen inches of water had come through the building with mold taking effect almost immediately. Everything had to be thrown out and all of the sheetrock had to be demolished and re-hung."

In terms of personnel, HAI had 52 employees before the storm. Fifteen of those employees lost their homes and cars, and only 42 came back after the storm. But that didn't' keep HAI down long, and Pickral is enthusiastic about the future.

"Today we are back up to 63 employees and have returned to our newly renovated building," said Pickral. Now, he says, the company is focused on training dealers in home automation technologies and in becoming certified dealers. They're rolling out whole-house audio systems and new central lighting control systems.

How the State Association Stepped up to the Challenge

When state members were unable to connect with each other for news and information they relied heavily on the state association. The one person who manned the office, the emails, and the phones (when they worked), was Gwen Clavelle, the executive director of the Louisiana Life Safety & Security Association (LLSSA). Gwen was based in the LLSSA office located Lafayette, which is about 250 miles west of New Orleans, an area that was largely unaffected by the storm, but which was in the scope of the original storm trajectory.

In preparation of the storm, Gwen started making back-up copies of all the computers in the office. She unplugged all electrical outlets, moved everything away from the windows, filled up her car's gas tank and waited to see which direction Katrina would turn.

"Until a hurricane makes landfall, no one is safe," said Clavelle. "I remember watching it on the Weather Channel. It seemed to be more like a typical storm than a major hurricane. The news was reporting that New Orleans dodged another bullet. Everyone breathed a sign of relief and started unpacking."

"When I came to work the next day I noticed immediately that the phones were not working. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would lose phone service. I couldn't dial out and only occasionally could someone reach me. I didn't know it at the time, but this was happening throughout our entire state and continued for a good solid week. Cell phones were useless. 'All circuits are busy' is all you could get. The first day was horrible; I didn't know where anyone was. The news reports were getting worse. The images were heartbreaking."

"What many people do not know is that Louisiana residents immediately responded to this disaster. Father, sons and grandfathers hooked up their fishing boats and headed to New Orleans at the very first report of people on roof tops. Hundreds of boats were lined up ready and willing to help, but they were turned away. As each day passed, more volunteers drove to New Orleans only to be told that they were not needed. The loss of life could have and should have been prevented. We were there to help. We were willing to put our lives on the line. We could have have saved our own, but red tape stopped us."

"As the days went by, I would hear from one or two people and each had a report on a few more. It was horrible. What do you do when you have hundreds of people you know are missing? You pray. I suddenly knew what New York went through during 9/11. Disbelief, helpless, fear, grief, and anger -- all emotions were brought to the surface at the same time."

Clavelle immediately went into crisis management mode. She made lists of those she heard from directly or from second hand reports, and she made notes on where they were located. The NBFAA assisted by setting up a toll-free number hoping that people could dial in for information and their needs. During that time, Clavelle heard from many security companies in Louisiana and across the United States offering their assistance and for that she was grateful!

In fact, many were willing to provide jobs, homes and/or what ever assistance was needed. Clavelle was overwhelmed with daily emails offering assistance, however, with no phone service, she was helpless.

"During this tragedy, it didn't matter that you were competitors pre-Katrina," she said. "After Katrina, companies and individuals worked together to get the job done."

"The Office of State Fire Marshal, the licensing agency for our state, immediately took action to help us out. They suspended CEU requirements and allowed companies and individuals to obtain a license easier and quicker. [It was] a very rare move when you are talking about a governing agency, however, it is not so rare when you are talking about the people who work in and with our industry in Louisiana."

"There were many ordinary people who preformed extraordinary tasks during and after Katrina," added Clavelle. "Bonds were formed. Tears were shed. Hugs were available to strangers and friendships were sealed on the spot. This industry, as a whole, joined together, rolled up their sleeves and got busy rebuilding their lives and business one piece at a time."

"Our industry lost sleep, worked shorthanded and longer hours but we never lost heart. We can look back now and see that Katrina was merely a speed bump; the road block many feared never materialized and that I give credit to the people who live and work in Louisiana."

Ron Foreman, president of the LLSSA, said that this year's show was a sort of homecoming for many in our industry who lived through Katrina. He was excited about all the possibilities that the future holds for the LLSSA. The group isn't focused on the past. The LLSSA and its members are rebuilding for the future, and even talking about new ideas like an official ID card for central station operators that would allow them to return to work in the timer of disaster. If anything, it's ideas like that and the non-competitive offers of aid that prove that the people of our industry are stronger than any disaster.

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