Hurricanes stop for nothing — and they certainly don’t schedule themselves around the work week. That unfortunate reality was proven in 2004, when two separate storms hit the Northbridge Center office building in West Palm Beach, Fla., just weeks apart. And in the time-is-money world of big business, a natural disaster can quickly turn into an economic disaster.

“Our tenants can’t make money if they can’t work. If they can’t make money, they can’t pay us,” says Bertie Russo, property manager for Gaedeke Group, which owns Northbridge.

Although the 20-story building suffered considerable damage from the hurricanes, the recovery period was quick thanks to an all-hands-on-deck approach that included all of the building’s service contractors.

Landscapers were on site first to clear debris from the parking lot. Next, the electricians and HVAC crew made sure the building was safe. Then it was the janitorial team’s turn to remove standing water, clean the interior and even help with painting.

“Everyone had to be a part of the team to get our building back online,” Russo says. “There’s no way we could do it without all of our vendors. I have a team of nine and there’s no way we could put this building back together. The most efficient way to do that is to bring in professionals who know their job and can get it done quickly.”

Like most businesses, Northbridge has a comprehensive emergency preparedness plan that covers almost any imaginable scenario, from hurricane to terrorist attack. Unlike many businesses, however, service contractors play an integral part in the plan from development to implementation.

Missing in action

Too often, contractors are left out of the emergency planning process. Few facility managers seek building service contractor input in the creation of the plan and some fail even to show the plan to their contractors.

“We service a university and I would imagine they have to have something in place,” says Valarie Dock, president of Bolana Enterprises Inc. in Beltsville, Md. “But I’ve never actually seen anything posted and I’ve never had anything handed to me.”

One likely reason for this oversight is the motivation behind most preparedness plans. Often called business continuity plans, they cover far more than how to clean up after a storm. The focus is how to most quickly return to business as usual after any interruption. It’s about protecting profits, not keeping the building clean.

Another problem is how the plans are written. Typically, a multi-departmental committee is formed to research every possible scenario that might result in work stoppages. Then the same people write guidelines for how to get the business up and running again. Unfortunately, this insular approach can overlook the role non-personnel play in the company.

“Everyone else was concerned about what would happen to the company but I need to know how to make the building work,” says Bill Archer, property manager for Washington Dental Service in Seattle, of his company’s planning process in the 1990s. “If something goes wrong with the HVAC equipment, none of us can fix it. If we need things sanitized, none of us can do that. But our contractors know what to do so it is logical to get them involved.”

Shared expectations

Failing to involve BSCs in emergency planning can have an unfortunate side effect when the plan is executed. If arrangements haven’t been made, the facility may be left scrambling to find help at the worst possible time.

On several occasions, Robert Viola, vice president of Genesis Building Services in San Mateo, Calif., has received frantic phone calls from customers with flooded buildings. Needing immediate attention, the facilities called their contract cleaning company for help. Unfortunately, they hadn’t involved the contractor in their emergency planning process and didn’t know that Genesis doesn’t do restoration work.

“We have helped them find someone but other times they say, ‘Another company can’t come for three hours — please help until they get here,’” Viola says. “We can stop the bleeding and put a Band-Aid on it, but we’re not going to repair things.”

Even very serious issues are not always communicated well between customer and contractor. For example, most BSCs know how to clean up bloodborne pathogens, but not all are equipped to deal with an outbreak of avian flu or other contagious illnesses. This is an important distinction that should be clarified before an emergency.

Last December, when a Florida hospital was overwhelmed by an outbreak of resistant bacteria, it called its contract cleaning company for help. But, again, because the BSC wasn’t a part of the emergency planning, the hospital didn’t realize the contractor didn’t handle that kind of incident.

“Typically we don’t get involved in this type of clean up,” says Tom Covilli, vice president of risk management for Mitch Murch Maintenance Management Co. (4M) in St. Louis. “We stepped in and took care of it to the best of our ability, but it was an exception, not the rule.”

Both customer and BSC would be better served if they were on the same page, with the same emergency plan in hand. At Washington Dental Service, every employee is given a booklet about what to do in an emergency. Its janitorial company’s president is also aware of the procedures and he shares that information with his employees. In fact, the same emergency booklet is posted in each janitor’s closet in the building. This transparent approach has paid off.

“Twice when we first opened the building in 1987 we had sewers back up into the main lobby of the building and [our BSC was] here within half an hour,” Archer says. “A year ago our board room was half under water from a leak. They came out and took care of the problem. Whatever needs to be done, they are right here.”

Custodial safety

Most unfortunate is that without BSC input, customers’ emergency plans may not address the safety of custodial staff. While every plan includes great detail on how on-site employees should react in a fire, tornado, or other life-threatening situation, this same information is not always shared with contractors who work in the buildings.

Many contract custodians work in the evening or overnight when buildings are vacant. What happens if a fire starts at 2 a.m.? Even in buildings with 24-hour security, can one guard find the janitor in time to help? And what about a worker whose first language isn’t English — can he read the signage or can the security guard communicate to him?

“Our day porters know what to do, but I don’t know about the night crew,” Russo says.

Instead of relying on customers to provide emergency plans, some BSCs have created their own. Bolana Enterprises offers general safety training to every employee and also provides evacuation plans for each building.

“I don’t think [the customers] think about us,” Dock says. “On 9/11 there were janitors who didn’t make it out. Everyone should be considered and sometimes it’s up to us. We should have plans in place too.”

4M covers emergency evacuation periodically in its Toolbox Talks, monthly safety meetings with all employees. Also, when Covilli conducts a facility audit, he makes his employees identify where they would go in case of an emergency.

Until he was interviewed for this story, Genesis’ Viola didn’t have a plan in place for his employees. His clients haven’t involved him in emergency planning and they haven’t educated him on evacuation routes or other safety issues.

“I could see myself making it a priority now that someone has brought it to my attention,” Viola says. “Knock on wood, we’ve been lucky. But this is something that is not just for the safety of the building; it could save a life.”

Take the lead

Being proactive about preparedness plans not only protects your employees, it also makes business sense. Because it requires urgent and sometimes off-hours response, emergency work commands top dollar. Plus, contractors have the skills and equipment to get the job done quickly and efficiently, which is critical in an emergency.

“We have a contract drawn up that says we will pay higher than normal in an emergency and because we agree to that, they will take care of us first,” Russo says.

At the beginning of a contract, ask about the client’s emergency plans. If they have one in place, ask what role they would like a BSC to play, and be sure to get a copy of the plan to share with staff. If customers don’t have a plan, see if they’ll let their BSC help them create one.

Another way to get involved it is through education. Remind customers how you can help them with emergency and safety issues. Six times a year, 4M sends out a safety newsletter that lets clients know how the BSC can help with such problems as pandemics.

“They have found some of the information we’ve provided in the past helpful and useful for their own internal programs,” Covilli says.

Continue to educate the client even after emergencies happen. Offer advice on what worked and what didn’t in the execution of their plan.

“They like to see that we are interested in what is going on in their buildings beyond the cleaning aspect and that we want to be a part of everything they’re doing,” Dock says.

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa, and is a frequent contributor to Contracting Profits.