Yes We Can!

Inauguration focuses attention on the portable sanitation industry as PROs respond with trouble-free service

The inauguration of President Barack Obama was a watershed moment for the portable sanitation industry. With the historic event promising millions of people descending on the nation’s capital on and around Jan. 20, media scrutiny turned toward portable restroom operators in an unprecedented way.

The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and all the major network television news shows asked if there would be enough portable restrooms to serve the masses. Media pundits and government officials fretted about the amount of waste generated during inauguration week and how it would be disposed of safely. Service providers were called on time and again to explain the basics of portable sanitation for curious reporters.

The stakes for the industry couldn’t have been higher.

If the mother of all special events jobs went smoothly, the working PROs would go a long way toward erasing negative connotations the public has about using portable restrooms. Users from across the nation repeatedly encountering fresh and clean restrooms would boost the reputation of an often-maligned product and service. Moving forward, fewer people would resort to industry-stifling “potty” humor or feel a familiar trepidation about using a portable restroom.

If the portable sanitation service didn’t go well, it would further entrench long-held negaative perceptions many people have about swinging open a portable restroom door and walking inside. If users found unsanitary conditions and a foul odor, how many thousands of inaugural visitors would refuse to use portable restrooms at the county fair or an outdoor concert when they returned home?


The many service technicians who braved the crowds, challenging logistics and unpleasant weather to serve the inauguration were certainly laboring for all of us in the portable sanitation industry. It was up to the PROs in D.C. to put the industry’s best foot forward.

And based on early returns, what was billed as the biggest single portable sanitation job ever in the U.S. went off without a hitch.

Negative reaction from event planners and government officials has been absent, and the same media that worried that the sky was falling has been mum following the inauguration. It seems that unlike President Obama and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, portable sanitation companies didn’t botch their solemn oath to provide clean and efficient service as millions watched.

Is the old adage, no news is good news, appropriate in this case? I think so, and so do the industry folks who helped plan the sanitation response for the inauguration. They say that while there were a few letters of complaint from users, the lack of negative news coverage shows their response to the historic event was probably handled about right.

“Because this went over as well as it did, the industry as a whole didn’t get a black eye,’’ said Millicent Carroll of the Portable Sanitation Association International. “If it would have gone the other way, it would have been horrible for the image perception of the industry. It would have gone back to the perception that all portable restrooms are dirty.’’

“In all of the post-inaugural reporting, there were no reports of deplorable conditions of restrooms,” said Bob Barton, vice president of marketing for United Site Services. “There was a lot of media attention before the event and none afterward … I figure if we don’t hear from a customer, we’re doing a good job.’’


Depending on whom you talk to, the total number of restrooms and restroom trailer stalls was between 6,500 and 8,600 for the inauguration, which Carroll explained puts the inauguration second only to an event with the pope in Germany several years ago. The high-end number was based on United Site Services’ estimates of total requests for proposals received prior to the inauguration.

Portable sanitation was coordinated by two companies, with help from subcontracting PROs up and down the East Coast. Chantilly, Va.-based Don’s Johns provided the majority of restrooms, about 5,500, working with event planner C3 on behalf of the Presidential Inaugural Committee. Don’s Johns worked with about 10 contractors to place restrooms up and down the National Mall reflecting pool and many other locations. United Site Services had a contract with the Architect of the Capitol, placing about 2,300 restrooms along the inaugural parade route and at the Capitol building.

Restrooms and special event trailers from virtually all manufacturers were deployed to handle crowds Carroll said were estimated to reach 2.2 million for two days of events. Network news interviews with Don’s Johns vice president Conrad Harrell featured products from Satellite Industries, Hampel Corp., NuConcepts, and Ameri-Can Engineering. Harrell said his company also used trailers from ACSI Inc. and Black Tie Manufacturing. United Site Services augmented its inventory with 375 new Satellite Maxim 3000 and 40 Satellite Liberty restrooms and pulled units from its local and New England divisions for the event.

Carroll said the contracts called for providing one restroom for every 300 people at the inauguration, while the PSAI had recommended providing a unit for every 200 people. Considering post-event crowd estimates, Carroll said the actual number was probably close to the contracted ratio. One interesting stipulation in the contracts was ordering more ADA-compliant or handicap-accessible units than PSAI recommendations. While the association set the mark at 5 percent, about 20 percent of the Don’s Johns order, or about 1,000 units, were handicap-accessible, a figure that surprised and impressed Carroll.


“They said, ‘We have to take care of people with special needs and go over and beyond’ what was needed. And they did it, which was fabulous,’’ Carroll observed. With so many families attending the inauguration, she said the roomier units offered greater convenience.

Carroll said early indicators were that National Parks officials and others in the decision-making process got started late on the planning and had little understanding of the logistics required to provide portable sanitation for a large crowd. She was particularly struck by one official who asked the companies to place all of their units on the Mall the night before the inaugural events, a process that eventually took numerous drivers — working overtime — several days to accomplish. Carroll said officials eventually somewhat yielded to the expertise of the PROs who’d been serving events on the Mall for many years.

Security constraints did cause some concern, as you might imagine. Barton said his company was required to supply two technicians for every service vehicle, and that at least one worker had to stay in the cab at all times. Truck movement was heavily restricted, and Harrell said a National Parks official had to oversee the placement of every portable restroom on the Mall property. That included the four rows of units placed along the massive reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial.

Harrell said delivery drivers could not turn around after placing units along the reflecting pool, and had to back out between narrow rows with long flatbed trailers in tow.

Despite detailed placement instructions, Harrell said the long rows had to be moved slightly on two occasions. And 450 units placed near the Washington Monument had to be moved when the U.S. Secret Service decided to create an emergency helicopter landing area.

Despite questions about how much the restrooms would be used and predictions of traffic snarls when the restrooms were slated to be picked up, Harrell said the job was completed smoothly and faster than anticipated. He said the units were generally 20 to 25 percent full, and removing the units was complete several hours before anticipated departure.

“It was very well-organized,’’ he said. “The crowd predictions were much more accurate than anyone anticipated. When we got done ahead of schedule and exceeded expectations on the biggest job ever, that makes everybody happy.’’

In addition to crack service by the PROs involved, it’s pretty clear that the ceremonial tone of the event itself contributed to the success of the sanitation service. Both Harrell and Barton said the relatively short duration of the biggest crowds, cold weather and the fact that no beer and little other refreshments were involved resulted in cleaner, lightly used restrooms. There was no vandalism to speak of, and despite the huge numbers of people, no arrests were made, according to media accounts.


Perhaps with the blitz of media attention surrounding the inauguration, portable sanitation will no longer be an event-planning afterthought. Maybe this newfound awareness about the importance of portable sanitation will trickle down to the special event decision-makers in your hometown this summer. To borrow from President Obama, I have the “audacity of hope’’ that people everywhere will have an increased understanding of the critical public health role played by PROs.


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