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Human Volatility in a Pandemic World: Personal-Safety Advice for Self-Storage Facility Staff

The odds that something violent will happen to you while working at a self-storage facility are low, but not zero. We’re living in times of political, mental and physical turmoil, and many people are at their breaking point. This article will help you recognize signs of danger and prevent or neutralize potentially volatile situations.

Amy Campbell

May 18, 2022

11 Min Read
Human Volatility in a Pandemic World: Personal-Safety Advice for Self-Storage Facility Staff

When self-storage veteran Susan Haviland was a facility manager, she had a horrific experience no employee should ever endure: A female tenant attacked her. The unexpected assault occurred while Haviland was alone at the property, and it was so severe that she had to be treated at an emergency room. The tenant was upset about a domestic situation and accused Haviland of providing her ex-husband access to the rented unit.

“The reality was that she had broken into his apartment, stolen items and stored them with us. He watched her and figured it out, so he broke into our site and stole his stuff back,” says Haviland, who now owns Haviland Storage Services, a California-based consultancy and management firm. “I was taken by surprise and afraid at the time that if I fought back, I would be fired.”

Few people think of being a self-storage facility employee as dangerous. In many ways, the job is incredibly safe. Our properties use a variety of security measures to curtail crime and other negative incidents. But people are often unpredictable and can pose a risk to others anytime and anywhere. The pandemic has only exacerbated this. We’re living in times of political, mental and physical turmoil, and many people are at their breaking point.

“Most storage facilities have hundreds of units on a property, which allows an operator to be exposed to hundreds of stressful people throughout the year,” says Chad Case, a regional manager for Storage Asset Management, which operates more than 450 facilities. “Any time an operator is dealing with hundreds of people, there’s a risk that someone within that group could cause a threat. These threats could be verbal, physical or psychological.”

Customers often seek storage when in the midst of a life transition, such as a move, losing a loved one or going through a divorce. All these events can be extremely stressful. “You don’t know the potential customer’s mindset when they walk in the door and you show them a unit, or what’s going on in their lives,” says Kathleen Jacobs, the resident manager for U-Store Self Storage in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Moreover, many self-storage managers spend large portions of their day alone, which can make them vulnerable. While most tenants present no threat, some abuse drugs and alcohol or have mental-health issues. Sometimes it’s simply an angry tenant looking to vent. Any of these situations can spiral out of control.

“There have been instances where customers became belligerent, verbally abusive or even attempted to become physically hostile toward the staff for reasons they deem justified their actions,” says Kevin Briones, a regional manager for Apple Self Storage, which operates more than 40 locations in several Canadian provinces. “Most of the time, it’s a dispute over rent fees and late charges, but there are times when it could be unrelated to our services.”

The possibility of finding yourself in an unsafe situation at work isn’t limited to customer interactions either. Coworkers, past employees and even supervisors can also pose a risk. Threats come in a variety of forms, including active shooters, riots, physical attacks, harassment and intimidation.

“Internal threats are rare but can still occur in the workplace, and can range from disagreements between a manager and their staff or between the staff and owners of the physical space in which we occupy and manage,” Briones says.

To protect yourself, it’s imperative to be prepared for any situation involving other people. Company policies and training can help you recognize warning signs and potentially diffuse tense moments. There are even measures that can prevent incidents from ever occurring. Consider the following to keep yourself safe at work.

Incorporate Policies and Training

One of the best ways to prepare is to adhere to company policies. Employees who clearly understand safety protocols and operational procedures will be better equipped for something out of the ordinary, such as a tenant who’s angry about a late fee or a coworker who made threatening statements against them or someone else.

“Companies should understand the potential hazards for employees and customers, and then work to provide policies and procedures in a digestible way that helps promote safety for all,” says Cris Burnam, CEO of StorageMart, which operates more than 200 locations in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. “A well-written and continually managed protocol is the biggest preventive measure to maintain safety at all levels.”

Of course, just having policies in place isn’t enough. Staff need to be trained in and adhere to them. “Safety training is paramount to the self-storage industry. Operators should be trained to prevent physical harm to themselves and the tenant,” says Valerie Buchanan, a regional manager for Spartan Investment Group LLC, which operates the FreeUp Storage brand.

Knowing how to handle a variety of incidents will help guide your actions. Sometimes you can manage a problem yourself. Other times, you’ll need to call for help, whether that be a coworker, supervisor or law enforcement. “If there’s a situation that’s escalating, it’s best that someone outside of the situation is aware and can provide assistance over the phone or even go in person, if possible, to de-escalate the situation,” Briones says. “This also ensures that someone is kept in the loop in case there’s a sudden loss of contact with the individual on the forefront of the situation.”

Employers and staff have a role to play in ensuring workplace safety, Burnam notes. “We must continuously train our staff, update safety procedures, and help ensure everyone is aware of how to react in the event a safety situation occurs.”

Look for Warnings

Sometimes you can spot danger before it walks through the door. It might be a couple arguing while still at their car, a person who’s clearly inebriated or even someone wearing a scowl and walking with a huff directly toward you. It might also be a problem customer who’s previously made threats or someone who gives off a bad vibe.

“There’s almost always a buildup or escalation of events that tend to naturally lead to unfavorable or dangerous situations,” Briones says. “Being able to read their emotions, both in how they’re speaking to you and the body language they adapt, as well as their actions is key. Hostility could already be brewing before they even come through the door, so being able to recognize it quickly is essential in preparing to deal with these types of people.”

But danger can still catch you off-guard. Just recently, a self-storage manager conducting a routine property check had a gun pointed at her when she opened a unit door that was missing a lock. Another was robbed at gunpoint while working alone in the front office.

To minimize risks like these, be mindful of your surroundings. “The onset of danger is recognized by the tenant’s body language, damages to the property and suspicious vehicles left in the parking area,” says Danica Anderson, operations manager for Spartan. “[Staff] should also follow their instinct in emergent situations. Usually if something seems threatening, it’s often a warning to the employee to remove themselves from the situation.”

Sometimes, a person’s state of mind has nothing to do with you or your self-storage business. You might simply become a target for their rage. They might’ve had a recent spat with a family member, been let go from their job or are just spoiling for a fight. Anything could be a trigger, such as a late fee or difficulty gaining access to the property due to a forgotten passcode.

“Knowing what to look for is critical,” says Jim Mooney Jr., vice president of operations for Freedom Storage Management, which oversees more than 25 locations in several states. This includes people who might be illegally living inside a unit or using the space for some criminal reason, like illicit drug manufacturing or storage. “Remember, nothing good happens in a storage facility at 2 a.m.,” he jokes.

Mooney had a close call a few years ago after confronting an agitated man who was spending too much time inside his unit. Just 11 hours after the encounter, Mooney fielded a call from police, who told him the man had shot and killed a random person with a rifle. “It just so happens that earlier that day, when I confronted him, he was in the process of getting the rifle out of his storage unit to commit the murder because SpongeBob SquarePants told him to through the TV.”

If you suspect a tenant of sleeping in their unit, Mooney says you should never confront the person by yourself. “Always get a second person for everyone’s safety. Some local police departments will assist operators in checking on someone suspected of staying in a unit and when you issue an immediate vacate.”

There are also times when our body understands imminent danger before our mind does. “It’s very important to observe situations while remaining alert and listening to your gut. Early warning signs are those within your own body,” says Case, noting that self-storage employees might feel uncomfortable, unsafe or frightened. Physically, they could have sweaty palms, develop goosebumps, or the hair on the back of their neck might rise.

Take all threats seriously, even if they seem minor or unlikely. “Never brush it off or minimize the situation. No one should be in harm’s way in the workplace; so, if someone is threatened, tell someone. You should never deal with a threat alone,” says Case, adding it’s important to retain any proof of the incident. “Make sure to gather as many facts as possible and hold on to all evidence as soon as the threat occurs.”

Keep Calm and Carry On

While it’s become a popular meme, “Keep calm” is still the best advice if you ever find yourself in a perilous situation. “I know, easier said than done,” Jacobs says. “In a stressful situation, you have an adrenal response. Your fight-or-flight response kicks in, and often your brain doesn’t think correctly in these settings. Being able to think calmy and clearly is the key.”

How you react can also influence the other person—good or bad. “Once the individual posing the threat visualizes that you’re excited in the moment, it’ll trigger them to respond in a violent manner,” Anderson says.

In cases of potential violence, self-protection should be your No. 1 goal. This might mean escaping the area, dialing 911 or locking the office door. “Seek shelter quickly if you can, and call your local authorities. Most important, pay attention. Having the ability to report an incident through memory is key in solving incidents on the property,” Anderson says.

Also, try to be positive and speak to everyone with a respectful tone, Buchanan adds. “Always strive to de-escalate issues by listening to the problem. Lastly, don’t provide personal opinions. Remain professional and respond with procedural answers.”

Practice Prevention

As the pandemic has demonstrated, the unexpected can and will happen. Self-storage operators typically have a plan for natural disasters, such as fires, tornadoes and hurricanes, but they should also prepare for possible violence in the workspace.

“When dealing with a threat of any kind, the best response starts before the event occurs. With careful planning, documentation and training, self-storage operators can be prepared to deal with almost anything,” Burnam says. “Employees should also consider the various ways to ensure personal safety and how they can help maintain a safer environment at work. Keeping in close communication with peers, being prepared and using your best judgment in any threatening situation helps to best protect yourself.”

To begin, learn as much as you can about various dangerous scenarios and appropriate responses, then practice them until those behaviors become automatic. “It’s difficult to be trained in every emergency situation, and when we think we have a handle on things, the world shifts and things change,” says Jacobs, who recommends brushing up on personal-safety practices through seminars, industry resources and books that address how to handle threats and unexpected situations.

Security measures used to keep a self-storage property safe from theft can also protect staff. For example, video cameras in the office might compel some people to behave, while a hidden panic button and emergency escape route will aid staff in knowing they have an out. Company procedures, such as daily walk-throughs, can aid in spotting trouble before it begins. Adhering to policy for everyone can also provide a buffer.

“Many tenants are gruff when they first come in. Once they see it isn’t met with the same response, they usually mellow. If not, then following the lease and site rules will determine if they get charged fees, need their lease [terminated] or [they need to be] evicted,” Haviland says. “If the manager gets nowhere with a tenant, written and verbal communication from their supervisor often helps. Once the tenant sees the behavior will not be tolerated, they either leave or play nice.”

Above all, listen to your gut. If something feels off or you believe someone could be a danger, err on the side of caution. “You can never really know what sort of situation you’ll face on a day-to-day basis when it comes to safely handling your site and tenants in our business,” Briones says. “We often make a point to ensure our staff are prepared mentally for whatever comes their way and that they understand who to contact in emergency situations. This ensures that no matter what happens on site, the person is equipped with the knowledge to handle the situation as best as possible.”

Having clear policies and procedures supported by thorough company training can go a long way toward self-storage employee safety. Also, rope in your tenants to alert your if they spot a problem or potentially dangerous customer. “We always think things will never happen at our sites, until they do,” Haviland says.

About the Author(s)

Amy Campbell

Editor, Inside Self Storage

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