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Before It Strikes: How to Brace Your Self-Storage Facility for an Incoming Disaster

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Self-storage operators often live blissfully on the assumption that a disaster will never strike at their property, but calamities can and do happen—everywhere. It’s important to be prepared with an emergency plan. Here’s guidance what it should include and other steps to take.

We have certain vulnerabilities in the self-storage business. For one, facility operators often assume they’ll never be hit by a natural or man-made disaster. But no matter where your property is located, you could. In fact, 2021 was a catastrophic and deadly year in the United States, with 20 separate incidents, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In December alone, tornados left a trail of devastation across six states, killing 92 people, while a fire in Colorado destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and caused tens of thousands of residents to evacuate. Earlier this year, motorists were stranded for hours in the snow and freezing temperatures on a Virginia interstate after a tractor-trailer jackknifed. The snow fell at a high rate of two inches per minute. One traveler reported that his two-hour commute into Washington, D.C., turned into 27 hours. There were so many cars and trucks on the interstate, the authorities couldn’t even get to stranded motorists in dire need of help. Many were without food or water, a way to charge their phones, or anything to keep warm.

Weather isn’t the only problem self-storage operators might confront. We’ve also experienced crime, vandalism and accidents we didn’t see coming. That’s why it’s so important to create a plan for how you’ll deal with these emergencies, whether from nature or people. Consider the following to keep your employees, tenants and property safe and ready for a variety of calamities.

Plan for Various Incidents

Disasters come in all shapes and sizes. They’re often unpredictable, can devastate a business and can even be deadly. You may look at the following list and think, “Oh, this won’t happen to our storage property,” but I’ve experienced all of these at my sites.

  • Earthquake
  • Explosives
  • Fire
  • Flooding
  • Tsunami
  • Hazardous chemicals
  • Storms
  • Volcanic eruption
  • Break-ins
  • Vandalism
  • Car accidents
  • Terrorism

If you think that last one is a stretch, bear in mind: The devices used in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center were made and stored at a New Jersey self-storage property! Here are a couple of other examples of incidents at self-storage properties:

In 1989, I was managing a facility in San Francisco when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit, and the freeway collapsed nearby. This damage happened in only 15 seconds! One of our owners was under the collapsed bridge and made it out alive to tell his story. He’s one lucky guy!

I live in Tucson, Arizona, so we don’t see a lot of extreme weather (other than heat). However, during our summer monsoons, we have major lightning storms and flash flooding. In the early 1980s, it seemed like one of our self-storage facility gates would get hit by lightning at least once a season, which would fry the electrical components. We decided to install lightning rods at each of our locations, which provided a path to the ground for discharging the dangerous electricity.

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Damage to a Napa Valley, California, self-storage
facility following an earthquake

These are good lessons on the importance of always being prepared. One way to do this is to create a checklist of items you’d need to effectively handle each type of emergency. The U.S. Small Business Administration offers a variety of preparedness checklists for earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and winter weather.

Have a Strategy

So, what does emergency planning in self-storage look like? It means being aware of what could happen, having a preparedness handbook and making sure everyone is trained on what to do. Here are some pointers.

Find out which disasters could occur in your area. Of course, there are many types of natural and man-made disasters that could affect any storage facility. These might include a fire or flood, a break-in or vandalism, or even a car slamming into one of your buildings. Take a moment to consider what could happen, so you can prepare.

Know which authorities to call. This includes learning your community’s evacuation routes and triage (what should be done first), and who to call for emergencies—that is, if phones are working. Your community can also be a great resource.

Write an emergency manual. You can use local or self-storage resources to assemble it. Either way, you need to customize the information for your own sites and keep it up to date. Here are a few items to include:

  • Local agency phone numbers (police, fire, ambulance, hospital)
  • Company emergency contacts in order of priority
  • List of emergency procedures for a variety of incidents
  • A location map for utilities
  • Escape routes (e.g., office, site, apartment, etc.)
  • Incident report
  • Tips on how to maintain calm under stress

Schedule regular training. Simply expecting your self-storage staff to read your manual isn’t enough. They must be trained in how to react in certain situations. Work with your property managers on the premises. When necessary, explain how to use equipment and where to find the following items. I’ve also brought in experts to these meetings.

  • How to maintain and use fire extinguishers (local fire department can give demonstrations)
  • How to find and shut off necessary utilities for gas, water and electricity
  • How to us the fire-sprinkler system
  • Location and use of common emergency equipment

Also, identify escape routes and show staff how to use them:

  • Make sure you have a primary route and a secondary, in case the first becomes unusable.
  • Install emergency signs and lighting per your building codes.
  • Designate a shelter area in or near your facility.
  • Have an emergency kit ready (especially for resident managers).

Decide if you should stay or go. Your emergency plan should address whether staff, tenants and guests can remain on site during a disaster or should evacuate the property. The best way to do this is to monitor the news to determine the extent of the disaster and whether it’s safe to leave your location.

Any staff who live at the self-storage should also have a plan for home evacuation. If you only have an office, you need to know where the safest place is inside it based on the type of disaster. Follow these guidelines:

  • Choose your shelter location in advance.
  • The best location is one with as few doors and windows as possible.
  • Stay away from large plate-glass windows.
  • A large room, preferably with a water supply, is desirable. One connected to a bathroom is good.
  • Assemble a disaster-supply kit that includes emergency water and food.

Ultimately, you need to think ahead and make plans. If there’s a problem, you need the essentials to stay safe and survive.

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Damaged units following the Napa Valley earthquake

One time, my son and I were packing our vehicle for a trip. I made sure we had a bunch of survival gear including a case of bottled water, blankets, sleeping bags, a first-aid kit, toilet paper and nonperishable foods that would last a week. He thought I was out of my mind! When we arrived home safely, he casually exclaimed, “See, we didn’t need all that extra stuff.” I smiled and said, “Until we do … and then I will be prepared!” My hope is that you’ll always be ready for a disaster at your self-storage property, no matter what comes your way.

Carol Mixon-Krendl is the owner of SkilCheck Services Inc., which provides self-storage auditing, mystery shopping, development and operations consulting, and sales training. She’s owned and managed more than 35 storage locations in the West and is a frequent speaker at industry tradeshows. She’s also written more than 100 articles for various publications and has served on state and national self-storage association boards. For more information, call 800.374.7545; email [email protected].

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