When Disaster Strikes: Lessons for the Alarm Industry

Louisiana dealers, distributors and product vendors talk about lessons learned, one year after Hurricane Katrina


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."

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