Another Portable Restroom Burned to the Ground?

Arson is the most serious form of vandalism portable sanitation companies have faced yet. Follow these tips and fight back!

Another Portable Restroom Burned to the Ground?

Jim Kneiszel

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It seems like every day I review my Google Alerts to find a news report on firefighters responding to a blaze originating from a portable restroom. Just this morning I read about two more, one in a residential neighborhood in Vancouver, British Columbia, and another in rural Hamilton Township in eastern Pennsylvania.

The fires are always called suspicious, and seldom do the local law enforcement officials have information that leads an arrest. According to CTV News, an official in Canada called that fire a likely case of arson because “port-a-potties don’t just catch fire.”

We all know what’s going on here. Young vandals figure out portable restrooms are easy targets for mayhem. They are often in secluded locations, an obvious addition to the landscape, and they are easily torched, it seems. The fires are the most serious form of vandalism to restrooms, but they are surely not the first.

These units — the key equipment responsible for your livelihood — have been targets for years. You’ve lost many restrooms to graffiti, construction site pranks involving saws and drills, tip-overs, and stompings. Vandals have hit them with vehicles, pushed them into lakes and rivers, and quite conspicuously run over the tops of rows of units as part of a drinking game at major sporting events.

IT’S GETTING WORSE

You’ve tried many ways to hold folks responsible for the damage that reaches into the thousands of dollars a year for many PROs. You’ve asked customers to pay a damage waiver surcharge for each unit. You’ve threatened to pull units from sites where damage happens frequently. You work with the police whenever possible to bring the vandals to justice.

But from the trends I’ve been watching, it looks like the problem of vandalism is getting worse, not better. And instead of cleaning graffiti or changing out a plastic panel once in a while, you’re finding a charred heap of plastic when called to the scene of another incident. Rather than a minor annoyance, it’s a total loss when a restroom burns.

I know this is disheartening to restroom companies already challenged by slim profit margins in many markets and the inevitable rising cost of equipment and supplies faced in all industries. Each lost unit takes away from your bottom line — and the accumulated losses tumble down to have an impact on things like employee raises and benefits, equipment upgrades, and effective marketing of your company. How can your business advance when you’re always taking a step backward due to these losses?

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

There is no perfect answer to reducing equipment vandalism. Your units are out there, many times in a vulnerable, public location and you can’t stand by 24/7 watching them. But there are small things you can do to stem the tide of damage and ease that feeling of helplessness you experience whenever the phone rings and you get a report of damage.

How about trying these?

Talk to customers about creating permanent enclosures.

A community organization in Milwaukee that runs youth sporting events at local parks is looking into building enclosures to house portable restrooms. The shelters will have roofs, and restrooms will slide in and out for servicing and cleaning. They are doing this for aesthetic reasons, but this could be a solution to deter vandalism. The enclosures could be designed to keep vandals away from the restrooms inside and locked securely when a park is closed.

Create your own temporary security solutions and charge for them.

Design a security cage or fencing structure that can surround units on work sites where you may anticipate vandalism issues. Also consider putting more restrooms on single-unit transport trailers and ask your construction customers to move them from convenient spots to more secure locations on the job site at night. Add an upcharge to the invoice to cover the cost of these security measures. Justify the charges by explaining the monetary loss you suffer each time one of your units is damaged, set on fire or stolen. The alternative to these added security measures at high-risk sites is holding the customer responsible for all damages.

Perform a rigorous placement assessment.

When a customer calls, you should ask more than simply where and when they want the portable restroom delivered. Create a security checklist for all jobs, and add a step for an initial site visit to work out the best placement with the client. Look for locations with the highest street visibility, where police surveillance is most likely to catch vandals in the act, where night lighting will act as deterrence, and where you may be able to put up a temporary security camera. This process will raise awareness with your customers about your shared concern for vandalism and might even help them think about ways to reduce vandalism of their equipment and property on a job site.

Develop a relationship with law enforcement.

Your local police can help you develop the security checklist mentioned above. They can share their expertise about crime prevention and ways they go about investigating vandalism reports. You can give them a greater perspective on how these losses impact your business. Establish a good rapport with the police and exchange information frequently so they know about your presence in the community and can patrol areas around your units most effectively. Don’t be afraid to ask for their help in reducing vandalism.

Add a mandatory security attendant at major events.

When you are charging a customer for 50 to 100 units at events like a weekend camping concert venue or big auto race, the cost of a 24/7 security worker is negligible. The wages for this person might amount to the cost of a few additional restrooms, but it could save considerable damage to your equipment. Write the fee for an attendant into your bid for the job, and then explain how this worker benefits both the event planners and your company. The attendant will deter vandalism and report issues as soon as they come up. Aside from vandalism, they may stop other criminal activity or unacceptable behavior — like drug use or sex — in the restroom areas, preserving an event’s good reputation. And as an added bonus, the security worker could alert your cleaning crews to over-full holding tanks or the need to replenish paper products.

Warn vandals there will be consequences and follow through.

Add prominent labels inside all restrooms spelling out that your company will seek penalties for vandalism to the full extent of the law. In serious terms, make it clear that you will not tolerate this behavior and will work with authorities to punish any infraction. Then whenever the police arrest a suspect for vandalizing your equipment, make sure you attend every hearing and inform prosecutors and judges about how these crimes have negatively impacted your business. Follow up on even the smallest loss and you make prevent more serious vandalism issues in the future.

BE VIGILENT

Vandalism has proven to be a huge, nagging problem for PROs, and solutions have been elusive for many years. When the costs are added up, vandals take a huge toll on the ability to turn a fair profit and improve professional service. Money lost repairing and replacing damaged equipment could be better invested on building up your assets — both in your human resources and the tools required to do a good job.

That these troubling news stories keep popping up in the media is frustrating. The only way to counter the frequency of these incidents is to keep on fighting and searching for ways to make things better. If you have ideas to add to my list, send them to me at editor@promonthly.com. I will share them with readers. 



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