Plain Senseless ... and Costly to PROs

Working anonymously in the shadows, vandals are hell-bent on destroying the livelihood of small-business owners in our industry.
Plain Senseless ... and Costly to PROs
Jim Kneiszel

I’ve been reminded a lot lately about something that can eat away insidiously at a portable restroom operator’s bottom line. No, it’s not advertising costs, rising insurance premiums or service truck maintenance, although all of those can create challenges for any contractor.

I’m talking about vandalism. Acts of malice and stupidity by folks who have no concern for the profitability of a hardworking small-business owner. It could be the bored construction worker who passes the time by drilling holes in a panel of your restroom. Or it could be the misguided youth who uses the side of your restroom to display his artistic vision to the world.

And it can get worse. Earlier this year, I noticed what seemed like a growing trend in arson fires involving portable restrooms. And unlike the perforated panel from the construction site or the graffiti, you can’t fix a melted restroom with a replacement part or a good deal of elbow grease. When a restroom is torched, it’s a total loss, and the PRO can be left with a big bill … one that will take many additional rentals to pay off.

THE SURVEY SAYS

I wondered just how much and what type of vandalism was hitting portable sanitation contractors, so this summer I tracked news accounts involving restroom vandalism and theft. Here’s what I found over the course of one week:

  • Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: Officials said arson was the cause of a fire involving two restrooms placed at a school. No arrests were made, and the destroyed units were valued at $2,350.
  • New Zealand: A trailer-mounted restroom valued at $6,000 to $7,000 was stolen from a public rest area and officials pleaded with the public for information on its whereabouts.
  • San Francisco: Police arrested a 51-year-old man for torching a restroom in the Pacific Heights neighborhood. He may be responsible for a long string of restroom arsons.
  • Rockford, Illinois: A group of portable restrooms was set ablaze at a downtown location. Police believe a homeless person is responsible for damaging the units, valued at $1,000 each.
  • Ellwood City, Pennsylvania: An 18-year-old woman was arrested for smashing a restroom with her car at a local park. She was caught after posting a video of the deed on social media. Damage was estimated at $1,650.
  • Elko, Nevada: Police were looking for two juveniles thought to be responsible for burning a portable restroom in a park. The melted unit cost $600 to replace.
  • Bloomfield, New Jersey: Police reported youths tipped over a portable restroom with someone inside.
  • Lake Oswego, Oregon: A restroom was torched for the second time at a municipal golf course. Damage to the restroom, another structure and a fence totaled $2,000.
  • Portland, Oregon: Vigilante justice was apparently behind a restroom tip-over, as a group of homeless people reportedly toppled a restroom as a man was purposely exposing himself to passers-by while standing in the unit.

A SERIOUS PROBLEM

I often think about the consequences to the PRO when I read or hear about an isolated incident of restroom vandalism. But to track and compile vandalism reports over a week’s time puts their huge cost to the industry into perspective. At a time when PROs talk about ever-narrower profit margins and intense competition for construction, municipal and event contracts, this exercise underscores the seriousness of the problem.

Restroom vandalism strikes in every corner of the country and all over the world. And the arson reports are, in some ways, the most devastating and troubling. More than graffiti or tip-overs, fires can spread to other structures and people can be hurt. No PRO enjoys expending the labor and resources to scrub graffiti damage or clean up after tipped-over units. But the prospect of catastrophic damage due to fire takes it to another level.

What can we, as an industry, do to curb all types of vandalism? First, we must recognize the problem, especially what seems like a growing concern of arson. Do you track your expenses involved in cleaning and repairing vandalized units? Do you take note of patterns of vandalism in your inventory – locations that pose problems, days of the week and times of the day when vandals strike? How much time do you spend talking to clients about vandalism-reduction plans?

Next, let’s discuss approaches to limiting vandalism when contractors meet at the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport (WWETT) Show in 2016. Share your experiences and potential solutions to curb vandalism so all PROs can work toward limiting these costs. It seems to me that this is one area where PROs can even reasonably work together with close competitors toward a goal of stopping criminal mischief.

TALKING POINTS

Let me know your ideas on this topic. Send me an email at editor@promonthly.com and we can talk about your company’s own initiatives to prevent vandalism. I’ll start the conversation with a few talking points:

What have you done to limit vandalism? When a new customer calls for service, do you consult about the best placement to avoid problems of tagging or other vandalism? In urban settings, that can include looking for areas that are fenced or otherwise difficult for vandals to reach. Do you keep units out of the shadows and under a street light so acts of vandalism might be noticed and reported? In parks, consider staking units to discourage tip-overs and theft of units. Do your units carry stickers with warnings that vandals will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law?

Coordinate with law enforcement. Start a dialogue with your local police department about restroom vandalism. They may not know about frequent reports of restroom fires and can brief their patrol officers to watch portable restrooms more closely. They may be able to share information on areas or zones that are a general target for vandals and give advice on how to avoid problems with your placements. Police officers can be a great ally to portable restroom operators. Look for ways to establish a relationship with them and help each other to reduce crime in your hometown.

Consider or strengthen damage waivers. Some PROs already require damage waivers or liability insurance against vandalism for customers as a way to limit expenses when units are damaged or burned. If you haven’t raised the issue with your customers, maybe now is the time to do so. A small damage waiver fee for each restroom rental helps cover your labor costs for cleaning tagged restrooms and replace an occasional unit that’s damaged beyond repair. If you share the results of my news tracking of vandalism over one week, customers will begin to understand the impact of vandalism on the portable sanitation industry.

WHAT SAY YOU?

Now it’s your turn. Respond with your ideas about this profit-killing problem. Vandalism will never be fully eradicated. But together we can find ways to slow the damage … and put more money in your coffers at the end of the year.



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