When Disaster Strikes: Lessons for the Alarm Industry

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

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.