When treacherous weather, poor quality of conditions or plain old accidents happen, well-managed contracting firms have a plan. The well-prepared contractor doesn’t just have a plan, but the company has practiced implementing it and designed the response plan with great flexibility, as no two crises are identical.

One of the basic concepts of disaster planning is inverse proportionality, which states that the less likely the crisis is to occur, then the higher the magnitude of the crisis’ effect and vice versa.

In practical terms, what this means to a contractor is that time spent (and who among us has an excess of time?) thinking about and planning for disasters is best spent planning for the lower impact disaster or emergency that is more likely to occur.

For example, an airplane falling out of the sky onto the jobsite would have catastrophic consequences, but there’s a low likelihood of this event happening. Planning for this type of event is probably not a great use of a manager’s time. However, the likelihood that a contractor using a screwdriver slips, injures himself and requires stitches at the emergency room is far greater. Scenarios like this might merit an hour in planning a standard procedure to handle such emergencies.

The second key concept in disaster planning management is the “commonality of disaster.” Coined by the host of The Survival Podcast Jack Spirko, the commonality of disaster considers the inverse relationship between impact scale and disaster probability when evaluating potential hazards.

By examining low risk, yet highly probably scenarios, the manager then filters possible disaster scenarios to develop a reasonable list of issues to address and looks for commonalities in these situations. In other words, a jobsite injury and an equipment failure are two different emergencies, but they share some common responses for a flexible disaster plan.

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Both injuries and equipment failures will require some paperwork to be completed, so ensure that copies of incident report forms, accident report forms and insurance forms are in a binder in each fleet vehicle. Both may require potential first aid, so make sure at least one guy on each crew has Red Cross First Aid certification.

Both scenarios might require a management representative to be dispatched to the jobsite, requiring a plan for dispatchers to escalate these calls and deploy personnel, as well as notifying executive management subsequent to the dispatch. In Spirko’s philosophy, the best use of time spent planning for disaster is time spent on the elements that are common across all likely to occur scenarios.

Best ways to handle emergencies

Ed Dory of Stanton Mechanical Inc., Elk Grove Village, Ill., encounters emergencies on a daily basis. The service crews at Stanton Mechanical run around the clock emergency services on behalf of clients, from HVAC to plumbing to refrigeration. They work daily with homeowners, building managers of commercial properties and businesses owners, dealing with emergencies that could have been prevented or mitigated.

The availability of Stanton’s services is critical; keeping Stanton’s crews operational, keeps Stanton’s customers operational. From a management perspective, Stanton’s business is setup for mission critical uptime at its very core.

“Every manager from a crew leader all the way to ownership has a complete phone list of all service employees, and when the customers demand it, particularly after hours or on holiday time, we (as managers and customer points of contact) are empowered to go directly to the technicians and bypass their managers if circumstances dictate,” Dory said.

This focus on uptime for clients, translates to managers being able to find deployable resources crossing day-to-day normal areas of responsibility.

Paperwork is also key to Stanton’s uptime and ongoing quality improvement program. Keeping a well recorded description of events not only helps relieve possible liability, but it helps in crafting a better response for the next emergency. At Stanton, record keeping is a priority.

“We have very formal documentation requirements for reporting accidents, incidents and injuries. All of these are forms that are required to be with all technicians and in all vehicles and jobsites,” Dory said.

He adds that Stanton doesn’t just submit the paperwork to the insurers, lawyers and union reps, but actually does take the time in management meetings to review and learn from the reports, which leads to changes in future processes and methods.

“This makes business sense; we save money and work better, but we also keep our guys healthy,” explained Dory. “They know we don’t cut corners on safety, which makes them more loyal to us and happier to work for our clients, knowing they will be thought about prior to an emergency and taken care of during and after.”

The Polar Vortex

This year’s chilling winter, the Polar Vortex that has affected about a third of the country, was one of those obstructions that limited service to clients, and had it been predicted within ample time, this disaster could have been planned for in advance. With wind chills as low as -30 degrees below in some areas, almost every call was an emergency in the HVAC business. At Krystoff HVAC in St. Louis, Mo., the company addressed the situation with just a little bit of prior planning, and that planning proved fruitful.

“We had guys who had taken home service vehicles that would just not start the next morning,” said Bob Krystoff, owner of Krystoff HVAC. “They didn’t even have to call into the shop. They knew in advance and were reminded the day before the weather hit that they were to be in the field servicing our clients who were without heat. To accomplish this, we informed all employees that they did not need permission to transfer gear to their personal vehicles, and they would receive reimbursement for mileage, as well as wear and tear.”

When planning for these emergencies, it was imperative that the employees at Krystoff HVAC were taken into consideration as well.

“We settled on a [reimbursement] number slightly higher than IRS reimbursement, as most of our guys drive pickups that get less mile per gallon than a standard car, and we wanted to be fair to our guys, who were working in some really poor conditions,” said Kyrstoff. “Ultimately, we wanted to be operational. Our guys knew all they had to do was report in their mileage and show up on the client site somehow.”

Disaster planning, in addition to human safety and wellbeing, also cuts to the heart of the contractors’ bottom line. Bruce Pinsler of Regency Home Remodeling in Chicago, Ill., handles both commercial and residential construction as a general contractor, is well aware of the dangers posed by weather.  

“We use weather radio and Internet for summer storms. We are particularly cautious about lightning and thunderstorms, as we not only don't want our guys hurt, but we’re also worried about the customer site and exposed roofs and property. It takes at least two hours to get an initial cover on the average roof, and if a storm surprises us because we weren’t paying attention, our client may lose their interior possessions,” Pinsler said.  

Pinsler also said that his crew is not asked to fill out a form prior to beginning an underlayment job, but they would have no excuse whatsoever if they had not checked the weather radio that each of his trucks has as part of its standard equipment package.

Pinsler, like many contractors, recognizes that keeping an eye out and planning three to four steps ahead is the best insurance policy. He added that once he threw a guy off a jobsite a few years back, because the worker refused to wear his safety gear.

“At some point it’s not about liability and insurance; it’s about not having one of our guys get injured and having that on my conscience,” Pinsler added. “You can imagine I feel that way one hundred times over in regards to our customers’ health and wellbeing.”

Another important strategy, and perhaps the best, to ensure disaster response and mitigation is by running occasional drills. Planning without proof of concept and some level of practice is only half the job. Learning from mistakes that happen in practice is far easier, cheaper and healthier for all involved.

Dory reports that each of his project managers and account representatives are required to perform spot checks of every item on every job site, and they are empowered to take immediate corrective actions as necessary. They also ask the technicians to demonstrate proper use of safety gear and show it to be in good repair.

According to Dory, this is generally done in constructive fashion and not in a punitive manner. Overall, the company strives to work together towards the common goal of customer satisfaction and all-around wellbeing for everyone.

Pinsler echoes the sentiment, “Yes, we sometimes have to make changes, but it’s normally our guys who are coming to us saying ‘I need a replacement safety harness, or, hey if we do [the job] this way, we will be working better or cheaper or safer.’ They [Pinsler’s employees] know that it is in their best interests. We have paid for them to go to the training classes, and they have their weekly job site safety meeting where we practice one emergency procedure per week, and we remind them of the bonus we offer for new ideas that lead to better job sites, and new safety or cost cutting measures.”

Adam Fridman is the founder of MeetAdvisors. Coined as "Yelp for entrepreneurs" by Forbes, MeetAdvisors is a social network for entrepreneurs that allows for professionals to give free advice to those seeking help with their business ventures. Most recently, Fridman founded Mabbly, a Chicago digital marketing agency. Armed with a Master of Science in Finance and experience in corporate finance and investment banking, Fridman spent the past 10 years focusing on business development and strategy.