Storm safety and evacuation is a matter of planning, preparation and communication.
Weather is a way of life in the tent rental and event industry. We are the “rain or shine” people. Tent and structure professionals deliver a finished product when most other people have decided it’s too hot, cold, rainy or windy to work.
When we deliver a well-designed and well-installed structure or tent, the customer wants to believe this is the answer to all their worries. The reality is far different.
Tents are temporary structures. No matter how intricate the design, how well-engineered the product and how flawless the installation, a tent is fabric and metal anchored with stakes or ballast. While the install may look like it will stand for years, an afternoon of bad weather can destroy it in minutes.
The most basic lesson is this: bad weather means get out of the tent. What defines “bad weather” and how people get out of the tent is where the lesson gets complicated.
There are dozens of instances where people have tried to wait out a storm or sought shelter in a tent. Many times they’re lucky and nothing happens. Sometimes they’re not so lucky and there is a failure of the tent or structure. Sometimes things go very badly, and there are injuries or fatalities.
That’s when the situation changes from an afternoon at a festival to years of pain, suffering and litigation. However, most of these situations can be avoided through planning, preparation and prevention:
Planning ahead for a weather event by using thorough contracts and managed expectations. These actions result in everyone knowing what to expect when severe weather hits.
Preparing the tent or structure. A tent company’s storm preparation plan may include steps such as increasing the number of stakes or adding ballast, or making sure there are enough crew or supervisors on hand.
Preventing injuries or fatalities by evacuating the tents.
Storm safety begins long before an event happens. One of the first steps in storm safety planning is thoroughly reviewing the contracts. At the very least, the contract should address these items:
- What are the failure points of the product being installed?
- What situations would make the tent or structure unsafe?
- Who is responsible for the people under the tent while it is occupied?
- What are the customer’s expectations for emergency response?
All these items should be clearly spelled out during the sales process. This is the responsibility of every tent or structure company in order to protect itself, the customer and the public.
An emergency action plan (or storm plan or evacuation plan) can be as simple or complex as the situation requires. For small events, the plan may be as simple as the renter getting everyone out of the tent and into the home or hotel. For a larger event, where the movement and protection of hundreds or thousands of people must be coordinated, the plan must take into account the risks, the management structure and the routes and resources available to the event organizer.
Who creates the plan and who is responsible for executing the plan should be easy to recognize. Who is in charge? Who has the authority and the responsibility for the safety of the people in the tent or structure? That is the person or entity responsible for the creation of the emergency action plan.
How are risks communicated? Over the last few years, tent manufacturers have begun including warnings on their tent tops and sidewalls that indicate the tent or structure must be evacuated in case of severe weather. However, “severe weather” and “unsafe conditions” are rarely spelled out and are left to the customers’ interpretation. Rental companies must define what is severe and unsafe, communicate that to the customer, and make sure the customer understands the risks associated with storms and severe weather.
Even when a weather event has passed and the skies have cleared, the customer must understand that just because the tent is still standing, it isn’t necessarily safe to use. Anchorage may have been compromised, the structure or tent may have been damaged, or electrical or other mechanical systems may be unsafe. Someone must have the authority and checklist to make the “all clear” call. This step should be spelled out in the emergency action plan.
Preparation is the nuts and bolts of tent operations. Preparing for any weather emergency starts with staying informed of what the forecasts are and knowing whether or not your installations are at risk.
Weather forecasting has become so reliable that being surprised by a weather event is inexcusable. Many large events even contract their own weather service for up-to-the-second, pinpoint monitoring of storm risks. Private companies such as Weather Decision Technologies (http://wdtinc.com/eventsafety/) have made event safety a priority.
Often the lead time from forecasters gives the tent or structure company enough time to get people and equipment into place to prevent damage to inventory. Things to have ready include:
- A plan to execute
- Trained installers ready to go
- Extra installation equipment and fuel
- Replacement vinyl and poles
- A way to reach the customer and gain access to the site
There are steps that can be taken to prevent the weather from impacting the lives of the public, damaging or destroying inventory or ruining the reputation or livelihood of the tent company. Orderly evacuation to a safe location, shutdown of gas and electrical systems and securing the tent or structure are some of the best ways to prevent damage and injuries.
The tent and temporary structure industry has always made changes based on tragedy or profitability. A tradition of being the last to adopt safety measures and adhere to regulations that other industries consider common practice has no place in today’s business environment.
Very few tent or structure companies committed to either worker safety or public safety in meaningful ways until the last few years. The few that have made the commitment have adopted practices and procedures that will soon be the standards in the industry. One of the biggest and most vocal champions of change is the Event Safety Alliance.
Storm safety and evacuation planning for tented events is a matter of common sense, good planning, preparation and communication. The tent rental company should take the lead to protect its crews, customers and inventory. We can never control the weather, but we can learn to manage and minimize its impact on our industry and our customers.