An ERT command center at the United Rentals branch in Pensacola helped Tyndall Air Force Base pick up the pieces after complete devastation.
Andrew Bax remembers the moment the call came in requesting delivery of a dozen 60-ft. boom lifts to Tyndall Air Force Base as soon as possible. Hurricane Michael had roared through the Florida Panhandle at 150 mph, and the United Rentals branch in Panama City, closest to the base, had sustained too much damage to operate.
"We were the closest branch standing,” Bax says, Pensacola branch manager at the time in 2018. “In normal conditions, in a commercial vehicle, we’re about three hours from the base. But with no cell signal, no street signs, trees in the road — it took our trucks upward of six to seven hours to get there. Still, we had everything at the site within 18 hours of receiving the request.”
A clear difference
Bax, now a senior manager with the Customer Solutions Group, is no stranger to disaster recovery efforts. He spent several weeks in Texas when United Rentals responded to Hurricane Harvey in 2017. There was a desperate need for equipment in Houston’s heavily damaged commercial and industrial areas, and while United Rentals sent a robust response, this was before the company created its current Emergency Response Team structure.
“The main difference I saw was that command and control of the response operation with Harvey was not as uniform as with Michael,” Bax recalls. “A year after Harvey, the Emergency Response program protocols were established. It gives us clear communication across all business groups within United Rentals. We’re on the same page in terms of knowing what’s going on, who we should contact, and how the response is progressing. That’s been a big step forward. When Michael hit, we had those synergies and efficiencies working for us.”
He describes the company’s Emergency Response command center, set up at the Pensacola branch, as including, “half a dozen key operations leaders dealing with the logistics, local and national account requests and equipment sourcing. Then, we had technicians at the branch checking out the equipment before it went to the disaster area, and field service technicians based at Tyndall to inspect equipment on site, plus about a dozen drivers. The ERT team members came from as far away as California and Canada, and all the way up the Atlantic coast.”
Bax is proud that customers continued to be served throughout the disruption. With the support of the ERT command center, customer orders sent to the Panama City branch were routed to Pensacola and surrounding locations, where equipment was sourced and delivered. Once Panama City reopened, there was a smooth hand-off and extra staff helped the branch handle the influx of demand.
An eye-opening culture
As liaison between the two branches, Bax saw first-hand that the culture of United Rentals was bigger than any one location. “Our business culture is to say ‘yes’ to customers. Don’t say ‘no’ because it’s difficult. Make something happen. The strength of the company’s culture was an amazing and eye-opening part of the Tyndall response for me. The ERT employees who came in from across the country, who didn’t know each other, had never worked together — it was a seamless integration into our day-to-day operations. Everyone gave it their full effort to make sure things got done.
While not directly assigned to the ERT, Bax has continued to help with emergency preparedness since Michael, coordinating plans with Emergency Operations Center personnel in advance of Hurricanes Dorian and Sally. There’s also a debriefing process after each event to explore learnings and develop best practices.
“We’re always looking to improve a response process and make things more efficient and easier for everyone involved,” Bax notes. “Whether that means additional training to work through disaster scenarios, or finding new ways to use technology to our advantage when our operations are disrupted — this is a program that brings discipline and structure to critical situations, and is always evolving.
As Andrew Bax puts it, the message to customers is clear: “You can feel comfortable knowing that we have a response system in place to support you in the aftermath of devastating events — that we have the structure to support not only our own company, but also our communities.”