Follow These Steps to Be Prepared When Disaster Strikes

Iowa’s Becky and Tim Peltzer benefited from cloud-based file backup and careful documentation of equipment and spending when fire took down their office.

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Becky Peltzer just got home from work when she received an emergency phone call. She needed to get back to the office right away. Waste Solutions of Iowa was on fire. The company, based in Des Moines, Iowa, provides portable restrooms, commercial grease and interceptor cleaning, and residential and commercial roll-off container services in central Iowa.

Becky and Tim Peltzer, owners of WSI, never expected a catastrophe like this. The singlewide job trailer that served as their office was destroyed in a fire in April 2021. The Peltzers also lost three heated and air-conditioned restroom trailers and two flushable toilets. Thankfully, the fire didn’t extend to the shop and the yard; other restrooms, trucks, trailers and equipment were spared.

A fire or other type of catastrophic event throws business operations into chaos. Stress goes through the roof as the company deals with the aftermath. Preparing for catastrophes before they occur makes disaster recovery easier.

WSI took a number of proactive steps so that the company could pick up and move on quickly after the fire. Most important, WSI had critical operating systems in place, limiting the impact of business disruptions. For example, the company used cloud-based bookkeeping software and a cloud-based dispatching and routing system with a customer-database component.

“The next day, we bought new laptops and the office was running as if nothing happened,” Tim says.

They forwarded their business lines to their cellphones, and customers saw no disruptions. All the employees came to work as usual, while office personnel worked from the Peltzers’ home until moving into a rented office space about a week after the fire.

The fire started when a person at a neighboring property cut down a tree, causing a power line to fall on the trailer. After Becky arrived at the fire scene, she began taking photos.

“Do not rely on others,” she advises. She documented as much as she could with her camera on the night of the fire. Her foresight was a godsend. “By the next morning, everything was cleaned up,” she says.

Document everything

The Peltzers also recorded the names and phone numbers of the fire chief and investigators. Additionally, Tim talked with neighbors and eyewitnesses, collected their contact information and wrote down their comments. Becky and Tim provided all of this information to the insurance company.

In addition to the photos from the fire, WSI was lucky to have photos from the inside of the office before the fire. They had recently rearranged the desks and took photos of the new workspaces. They shared these photos with the insurance company and referred to them often.

“We take for granted the power of the cellphone in our hands,” Tim says. “Take photos of your office once a month.”

“We’re not thinking about what’s in the closet, the drawers, the layout of the office and what’s on our desks,” Becky says.

In addition to taking office photos, they advise taking photos or videos of trucks, equipment and inventory. The company owns about 2,000 restrooms, five service trucks and two pickup and delivery trucks.

“Keep an asset list,” Becky says. WSI keeps essential papers, like truck titles, in a fireproof safe.

“Document. Document. Document,” Tim says.

Whenever he speaks with investigators and insurance representatives, Tim takes notes to refer to later. His notes include the date, people he talked with, the subject of the conversation and any follow-up that is planned. He also records phone conversations pertaining to the fire. Everything is stored in Microsoft OneNote, so he has one place to find photos, emails and recorded conversations.

“It helps because you’re constantly getting passed from investigator to investigator and insurance agent to insurance agent. I don’t have to recreate what they need every time,” he says.

“You are your own advocate,” Becky says. Even though their insurance agent had visited their office and used their services, he wasn’t aware of all their products and their uses. Following the fire, the Peltzers spent several days with their agent correcting deficiencies in their policy.

From the moment of the disaster, WSI used a dedicated credit card for purchases and saved all receipts. An ongoing frustration for the Peltzers is a shortage of equipment they desperately want to replace. Plus, the replacement cost is up to double what they originally paid. Months after the fire, WSI was still trying to replace its restroom trailers. Becky and Tim kept records of the replacement costs, plus the income lost from not having these restrooms available.

Along with the business challenges after a disaster, there is an emotional toll as well. Losing their office was devastating, and dealing with the aftermath was stressful. Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, the Peltzers forged ahead.

“You basically just pick up and move on,” Becky says. “We just made the best of it.”

“If you’re going to fall, fall forward and do the next right thing,” Tim says.

Becky and Tim kept their attitude positive, knowing that their employees looked to them for leadership and direction after the fire. They remained calm when interacting with their staff, knowing that hysteria wouldn’t help anyone deal with the loss.

Finalizing an insurance settlement is a lengthy process, expected to last 12-18 months for WSI, requiring a lot of back and forth with the insurance company and mounds of patience. Becky recommends not bearing every burden yourself.

“Let people know when you need help. They want to help and support you.”

Craft a plan

A solid emergency preparation plan can help companies pick up the pieces and recover quickly like the Peltzers did.

A major element of an emergency preparation plan is to identify risks, like floods, hurricanes or tornadoes, that may be likely to occur in your area. Companies often have advance warning of pending weather emergencies but WSI of course had no indication that a fire would occur.

You can still prepare by correcting fire and safety hazards. Regularly check your fire prevention and safety systems to be sure they’re operating correctly.

Create an evacuation plan to show exits, evacuation routes and meeting places to gather to make sure everyone evacuated safely. Sometimes it’s safer to shelter in place, and staff members should be ready to go to their assigned shelter at a moment’s notice. An emergency kit comes in handy. Equip the kit with bottled water, snacks, a flashlight and batteries, first aid supplies and a battery-powered radio.

WSI used cloud-based storage, which provided easy access to records and business operations the day after the fire. Businesses not using the cloud should create a backup of critical data and programs, then store the backup files in an offsite location. Vital business documents should be stored in a fireproof safe.

By proactively preparing for a catastrophe, companies who experience disasters face less disruption to day-to-day business. To prepare, write an emergency preparedness plan and asset list, protect critical documents and take photographs of the office, shop and yard. Document the aftermath of a disaster with photos and notes, and keep good records of the investigation and purchases made after the event. A successful recovery from a disaster takes time and patience. A positive mindset helps to lighten the mood, so you can calmly navigate the setbacks and challenges.

“Stay grateful and positive,” Becky says. “Know it’s going to be OK.”  


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