The Challenges of Calamity

Providing waste services in the wake of a natural disaster means addressing numerous obstacles.

When a natural disaster strikes, many questions arise for a waste services provider: Are its employees safe? How does the company communicate with them if the infrastructure is destroyed? How does it pay them? How does it protect its assets? How does it service customers?

The key objective is to ensure the safety and protection of employees while working as quickly as possible to safely serve customer needs. Establishing one command center within the impact area and one at the corporate office can allow for streamlining corporate approval processes and can bolster employee support.

One thing is certain: if you’re a waste management company, responsible for the protection of human health and the environment, a quick response to a natural disaster is critical. However, mounting a quick and effective response involves meeting a number of challenges, including:

Food, housing, clothing and financial relief for employees. While meeting the devastated community’s needs and re-establishing business operations are priorities, neither can happen until a company takes care of its employees who live in the disaster area. Employees in damaged areas likely will need special assistance to go about their lives and return to work. Waste firms should develop programs to help with temporary housing and financial relief, which should be implemented immediately after the disaster strikes.

Health and safety. Consult with the Centers for Disease Control on vaccination recommendations for crews working in areas with contaminated flood waters and hurricane debris. Ensure that employees preparing to work in disaster-affected areas are provided with survival response kits, and educate them about avoiding exposure to contaminated debris, hazardous drinking water and threats such as snakes and alligators.

Communication. Downed cell phone towers and utility poles can cause sketchy telephone and cell phone connections, and eliminate Internet connectivity for weeks. It is imperative for the waste company to get Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) certification categorizing it as an official critical services provider. Among other things, the certification provides priority repair status with utility providers and other service companies.

Take advantage of long-term relationships with local utility providers to arrange for installation of needed new equipment and new lines in the disaster’s aftermath. If you are aware of an impending disaster, store and protect necessary equipment. Otherwise, reorder computers, monitors, phones and other technical devices immediately, and be prepared to locate temporary workers to staff the phone inquiries from area business owners and residents.

Infrastructure. In addition to communications difficulties, interstates may be closed. Routes may be impassable due to fallen power poles and trees, and congested traffic leading to and from the company’s command centers may create logjams. Furthermore, when vehicles can move, they may face limited fuel resources and curfews.

To obtain driving permission past curfew hours, get certified as an essential carrier by FEMA and display FEMA-issued permits. Partner with cities and governmental entities to define your role and develop solutions.

Servicing customers. After employees are taken care of, the company must quickly begin meeting customer needs. While all customers are important to the company, servicing essential service providers such as hospitals, food providers and non-profits performing rescue and relief functions should be the first focus.

Reopening company facilities is a priority. In some cases, temporary, authorized sites at existing facilities, such as landfills, may be opened to accept the massive amounts of additional waste that will be produced. Also, a waste firm may need to operate some facilities 24 hours a day to meet the customer needs of area customers.

Re-establishing routes presents additional challenges. In many instances, areas simply are not accessible due to poor drainage of floodwaters or debris blocking the roads. In such situations, drivers are forced to use alternative routes, consuming additional time during a period of high-volume requests. Moreover, many commercial and residential routes may be lost and not considered recoverable.

Other lines of business, however, may continue to grow daily. Requests for roll-offs most likely will increase as residents and business owners begin their clean-up efforts. Since roll-off operations account for the majority of clean-up work, consider cross-training drivers on vehicles they don’t typically operate, and pair garbage truck operators with experienced roll-off drivers.

Staffing and security issues, as well as the need to obtain governmental permissions for most activities, will create additional operational challenges and the need for flexibility. The potential deficit in staffing levels may necessitate recruiting efforts in the midst of clean-up and may be addressed by bringing in outside support personnel for relief.

Security will be another consideration in returning to normal operations. To protect employees and assets in situations of potential chaos, the company should staff each of its operation areas with 24-hour security staff.

A key component of re-establishing operations involves obtaining permissions and critical services provider certifications from FEMA. Without FEMA letters, equipment deliveries will be delayed, fuel cannot be purchased and operations will slow significantly. Once these letters are obtained at all levels in the organization, the company can play a critical role in the removal of contaminated trash that could affect the safety of workers and residents in the area.

Equipment. Natural disasters can place pressure on a hauler’s equipment. Gridlocked traffic and impassable roads mean that trucks might find it challenging to make it back to a centralized fueling station and maintain efficiency. In these instances, a fuel truck with both diesel and gasoline capacities can be deployed.

Furthermore, a company’s fleet may be damaged in the disaster, which requires repairs and impedes the return to business. Plans to borrow additional equipment from nearby company divisions should be made in advance if possible.

Because equipment will undergo extended use during clean-up efforts, pay close attention to maintenance schedules, noting that oil changes and other routine work may be accelerated. Develop creative solutions like rotating different vehicles among operators so that each vehicle receives the proper servicing.

Each disaster presents unique circumstances that may require flexibility and creativity, but expect to confront the general challenges outlined above in the event of a hurricane, flood, earthquake or tornado. By preparing for these challenges, your waste operations can mount the quick response necessary to protect human health and the environment.

Lang Herndon is the vice president of national accounts for Phoenix-based Republic Services. Chris Hill is the director of operations, national accounts, for Republic. Mitch Noto is the general manager of Houston post-collection services for Republic.

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