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Natural and Man-Made Disasters

The following information is excerpted from a white paper produced by United Rentals Inc., Greenwich, Conn. The full text is available for free in English, Spanish, and French at

Business continuity and emergency planning is taking on a new urgency with the economic and human costs of the 2005 hurricane season just beginning to be understood. The equipment rental industry has an important role to play in the planning for -- and recovery from -- natural and man-made disasters. Government entities and corporations of all sizes can benefit from integrating rental equipment and contractor supplies with their disaster planning initiatives.

Hurricanes and weather-related emergencies are statistically predictable events, although their severity and exact areas impacted can vary widely from season to season. Such general predictability enables the creation and maintenance of an emergency response plan by the rental equipment industry (especially within larger entities) to mitigate the personal and business costs of emergencies.

Earthquakes, mudslides ,forest fires and brush fires, more typical of the West Coast, while not as predictable as weather on the East Coast, together occur with enough frequency to also enable disaster planning for business. Terrorism adds a new dimension in disaster and relief planning, including unknown risk of environmental contamination. Much of the planning, supplies pre-positioning and communications described in this paper are applicable to government and business response to terrorism.

The process of thinking through potential disruptions of needed resources, and working toward preparedness itself, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy • if you're ready, you're ready.

A five-level hierarchy of needs

In reviewing the emergency response needs of municipalities, utilities, business, and consumers, United Rentals has developed a “hierarchy of needs” that relates to the response of the rental industry to disruptive events. They are:


Level I • worker protection

Provide protection for emergency, utility, and construction workers. First-responders need to be protected from injury. Basic contractor supplies, including hard hats, gloves, respirators and dust masks, protective eyewear, outer wear, boots, etc., are needed.

Level II • traffic control and transport

Most disasters affect surface transportation systems. Roads become impassable, new routes must be established, rail and other transportation infrastructure must be closed, and traffic re-routed. Traffic control technologies, signage, and barriers are needed immediately to cordon off unsafe areas and provide alternative routes, where possible.

Level III • provide support, contractor supplies, and tools for relief and rescue

The next level needs are for support, contractor supplies, and tools to equip and feed teams providing relief and rescue services. Specific items including ladders, ropes, hand tools, dumpsters, gasoline and diesel fuel, chain saws, pumps, generators, lighting, portable heaters, water, food, first aid, and more are needed for the workers to do their jobs. During most disasters, these items are not very far away, but must be transported to the workers onsite in an organized manner and be available as needed.

Level IV • capital equipment to move mountains and save lives

Construction equipment, including bulldozers, dump trucks, loaders, rough-terrain forklifts, generators, pumps, light towers, and more are needed to facilitate recovery and rescue operations. In addition, specialty devices, such as diamond blade chain saws and hydraulic circular saws, may need to be airlifted in to support mass casualty situations.

Some needs cannot be anticipated in advance, and rental companies are among the first to get calls for the “unusual but needed urgently.” In addition to maintaining an inventory of capital goods and pre-positioning goods of all kinds in advance of need, the rental industry must work its supply chain.

Level V • information

Again, Hurricane Katrina has proven instructive. Information breakdowns affected the early FEMA rescue and relief efforts. Interestingly, consumer-generated media in the form of blogs often provided the best information as to where people were, what they needed, which neighborhoods were wet or dry, and which were intact or devastated. For the rental industry, how quickly needs can be matched to resources is a primary requirement. In addition, procedures are needed to ensure effective communication within the rental company (among its many people, branches, contractor supplies distribution centers, and corporate headquarters) as well as with its customers.

Disaster preparedness and the community

By building working relationships with the organizations, utilities, and governments that manage response to disaster, the rental industry can be a catalyst for superior results. United Rentals is an active participant within Florida Power & Light's power restoration planning and operations processes. Each year, FPL has a “storm dry run,” during which thousands of FPL employees practice procedures and simulate the stresses on people and infrastructure. Communications with United Rentals is an integral part of that initiative.

According to Jaime C. Holland, sourcing specialist at the FPL Group, “It is an operational relationship with strategic significance.”

In addition, United Rentals works closely with Oregon's Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue to enhance the department's ability to respond to accidents, fires, and natural disasters. According to Mike Duyck, battalion chief at Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, “United Rentals set up training exercises that have allowed us, through some trial and error, to figure out which tools have the best applicability to common rescue operations.”

Business continuity planning considerations

Emergency planning experts recommend that businesses in disaster-prone areas prepare to be self sufficient for at least 14 days • at home, that means having water, canned goods, and the ability to maintain some control of temperature. For office-based businesses, an alternate site plan may be necessary, where all essential services to run a business are re-created. For other premise-based businesses, the ability to maintain operations may hinge on stand-by power generation until utility services are restored.

Regional utilities and the rental industry can do more to mitigate the impact of large storms. One possibility is the creation of a cooperative equipment pooling arrangement that would pre-position trucks, generators, chain saws, traffic control technology systems, and more • and move them among regions according to anticipated need.

Man cannot yet control violent weather systems that threaten economic and physical hardship, but we can plan to mitigate the effects of storms on our cities, businesses, and homes. Through its ability to plan and pre-position needed contractor supplies and equipment, the rental industry has a unique role to play in the recovery from disastrous events.


Lift & Access is part of the Catalyst Communications Network publication family.