From seasonal weather events like hurricanes and tornadoes to heat waves and wildfires, builders and propane professionals need to be prepared when disaster strikes. Ensuring customers know what to do during an emergency can help mitigate damage. And when carried out strategically, doing so can provide additional opportunities to position your company as top of mind for customers.
“We have an obligation as propane professionals and builders to educate and warn our customers and employees about hazardous conditions,” says Scott Weatherford, director of safety and compliance at Blossman Gas. “It can be coupled with a company’s duty-to-warn materials, but it’s our job to get the word out.”
While making sure customers know what to do before, during, and after an emergency is crucial, safety experts say the first step is to plan for the safety of your own employees. That means having a disaster plan in place, practicing it ahead of time, and implementing it when the need arises.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has disaster-planning resources that are catered to businesses and cover hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, flooding, and general power outages. The Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) offers an array of safety and training materials for propane professionals, builders, and emergency responders.
“Equipment can be replaced, but people can’t,” Weatherford says. “There’s a time to take your people off the road for their own safety. Then, you want to have a communication plan in place to get them back on the road to respond to customers’ needs as soon as it’s safe to do so.”
Here’s how to keep your customers safe before, during, and after a natural or man-made disaster.
Before the storm
Safety experts stress disaster preparedness should start early — ideally before a tank is placed on a property. Approaching equipment installation at a propane-powered home with safety in mind can provide additional sales opportunities as well.
“Builders should talk to their customers about the possibility of installing a standby propane generator during construction,” says Stuart Flatow, vice president of safety and training at PERC. “They can partner with a local propane retailer for sales and installation.”
Other site considerations include taking into account the predominant weather direction in a given area and placing tanks on the protected side of a structure, if possible, while providing flood strapping or tie-downs. Also, ensure at least 10 feet of defensible space around tanks is cleared of underbrush and other fuels, creating a barrier to reduce the risk of further damage. In flood-prone areas, place tanks on the highest practical elevation at the property.
Reaching out to customers ahead of impending storms is also important.
“We ask our customers to make sure they have plenty of propane on hand at the beginning of hurricane season,” says Artie Cole, general manager of the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, office of Ferrellgas. “We encourage them to schedule a bulk delivery and to consider having a full 20-lb. cylinder or two on hand as well. Our experience tells us those who have a full propane tank are best equipped to handle a storm.”
Consumers should also know where their shut-off valves are and how to safely turn the propane supply off.
Construction and propane professionals can communicate much of this information through PERC’s extreme weather brochures, which can be customized with company logos and contact information.
“Preparation is key. Cover the basics, and make sure you have a good communication plan between the customer, builder, and propane professional.”
Current brochures cover thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, extreme heat, wildfires, earthquakes, flooding, and winter storms, as well as general power outages. Those resources allow companies to educate customers while providing another touchpoint to market additional services, such as strapping or underbrush removal.
“I’m a big believer that propane professionals and builders can carry safety messages to propane customers while using it as an opportunity to promote their business,” Flatow says. “Propane suppliers can also link to our consumer safety videos on their websites and social media, or include it in an email, with a separate note from themselves to highlight their latest in-house promotions.”
Ferrellgas, for example, leverages PERC-developed online consumer learning modules to educate customers located in areas at risk of hurricanes.
“We have all those modules on our website,” Cole says. “We direct consumers to them via email and social media in advance of any named storms and other weather emergencies.”
Cole also recommends customers label tanks with contact information in black permanent marker to help identify them if they become dislodged.
During the storm
Make sure your customers have contact information for their propane retailers and local emergency response crews — which they should contact ahead of time if they plan to ride things out — and that they stay indoors. Even in the digital age, it can be helpful to have a battery-operated radio in case prolonged power or internet outages prevent accessing information online.
“[Customers] should be tuned in to their local radio stations and stay abreast of mandatory evacuations,” Flatow says. “If they have to leave, they need to know to turn the propane off to provide an extra level of safety if there’s a leak or damage to the system, or if first responders have to get into the home.”
After the storm
If high winds, heavy flooding, or other potentially damaging conditions have affected the home, customers should not turn the propane supply back on until the system has been evaluated and given the all-clear by a professional, Flatow says. “Whether that always happens is a different question,” he says.
Let customers know that propane leaks, water intrusion, or a damaged back-check valve that leads to their propane appliances becoming over-pressurized can be dangerous.
And, of course, ask them to inform you or their propane supplier of any obvious damage when they return so it can be serviced quickly. “When our customers return to their propane-powered homes, we ask that they check to see if their tank has been displaced by wind or water, if propane appliances have been under water or damaged in any way, and if they detect the rotten-eggs odorant added to propane,” Cole says, which indicates a leak.
For builders on the job site, ensure someone is designated to prepare the site when extreme weather approaches. Consider installing a cage to store smaller tanks in during an emergency or strapping them to fixed structures. Once the situation passes, make sure that same person accounts for all equipment and does a damage assessment. (Check out additional propane job site safety best practices here.)
“Preparation is key,” Weatherford says. “Cover the basics, and make sure you have a good communication plan between the customer, builder, and propane professional.”