So They Burned Down Your Restroom Again?

Vandalism continues to plague the portable restroom industry. We must network to find solutions.

So They Burned Down Your Restroom Again?

Jim Kneiszel

Racking my brain to come up with an important column topic to start the 2020s off right, I was reviewing a recent collection of news accounts about restroom vandalism. It seemed to me like incidents of restroom destruction — specifically a troubling number of arson reports — have been on the rise over the past year and it would be a worthy discussion to have.

Then I decided to go back 10 years, to my January 2010 column, to recall what I wrote about at that time. Guess what? It was the growing concern about restroom vandalism!

I quoted a manager of a North Carolina company fighting a growing number of vandalism complaints statewide. “Our companies cannot continue to sit back and absorb these costs, and let people have the attitude that this is just the portable sanitation business and it’s just the way it is,” he said at the time.

“If we don’t get the vandals in check now, it’s going to continue to cost our operations and customers huge amounts of money,” said another North Carolina restroom contractor. Both managers shared their frustration that lawmakers they approached with their concerns weren’t taking restroom vandalism seriously. It was more of a laughing matter to most folks, they explained, not a big problem to worry about.

Ten years later, I don’t think anyone considers how restrooms are treated as a laughing matter. And it appears that vandalism and crime surrounding the use and abuse of your products are only intensifying, both in the seriousness of offenses and the number of cases we read about.

No more is it graffiti, a few messy tip-overs or drunken youths running across the tops of your units at wilder special events. Now many of the problems are associated with urban placements of restrooms to serve the homeless community and with vandals who repeatedly torch units to the ground at more out-of-the-way park locations.

AN EVIL ELEMENT

And the risk is no longer only for property damage. Lives are being threatened. Serious laws are being broken. Consider these recent headline news accounts:

• Police in a Chicago-area suburb investigated repeated reports of arson as restrooms were burned to the ground outside of parks and schools over a period of a few weeks.

• A 21-year-old man was arrested in California for filming girls at a swim meet from inside a portable restroom. Police said the man filmed 20-25 female high school swimmers using his cellphone while hiding inside the unit.

• A man was found dead inside a portable restroom in Pennsylvania. Police didn’t suspect foul play.

• A restroom company in British Columbia pulled its service from a downtown location after its drivers were threatened with needles and the chains securing its restrooms were stolen.

This is only a smattering of complaints from the last few months of 2019. There were many others … a reported sexual assault inside an event restroom, a loaded gun found in a unit in a park, another homeless person found dead in a restroom. Vandalism and crimes associated with restrooms are causing municipal customers to rethink taking on the liability for the damage and the added patrol time for their police departments.

The mayor of a small town in Missouri said in the local newspaper that a restroom stationed in a park was becoming a lightning rod for criminal activity and it was costing the town.

“Unfortunately, an evil element has darkened our little city. The moral fiber of many is being dirtied by a wickedness most foul. … I hate to do this, but the city doesn’t have the resources to continually repair and replace damaged property,” he said as he explained having to limit access to the park in the evening. “A few bad folks are ruining it for the many.”

The supervisor of ball diamonds at a park in Canada’s Northwest Territories was having similar problems, as the restrooms were repeatedly being burned to the ground. He said restrooms may be removed from the park because of the rising cost of replacing them.

“It’s frustrating and disheartening. I can’t understand why a person would want to do something like this,” he said in a news report.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

Since I wrote about this issue 10 years ago this month, I can’t say the problem is getting any better. From the anecdotal information I see in the news or hear from PROs throughout the year, I’d have to guess the problem is growing. The vandalism costs to you and your customers are getting out of control, and the safety risk to your service technicians is also a concern.

Let’s renew our focus on this issue and make 2020 the year we start to turn the tide on the epidemic of restroom vandalism. But we can’t go it alone. It will take networking and partnerships with customers and local officials to make progress to counter perpetrators who are so persistent and numerous.

Start by meeting with your municipal customers. Talk to city staff and elected officials about the issue and ask them to pull law enforcement, the park board and neighborhood watch groups into the discussion to outline the problem and look for solutions. Request to form an official group to meet regularly and chart progress made. Topics to discuss could include increasing police visibility in areas where restrooms are placed, use of security lighting and cameras to catch offenders, and restroom placement strategies to limit property damage and incidents of crime.

Brainstorm within your company about simple and cost-effective ways you can improve security and safety for your team of technicians. Look into economical equipment-tracking devices you could install on units and service vehicles in the event of theft or to improve response time to damaged or burned restrooms. Consider the safest time of the day for your drivers to make their rounds, both on urban and rural routes. Write response procedures to follow when you believe crimes have been committed in and around your equipment. 

Review all of your accounts for past vandalism complaints. Are there locations where repeated problems warrant pulling restrooms? Where you have had problems with damage, have the customers paid for the damage willingly? Do all of your customers work with you about the best placement for safety and security on work sites or in parks? Take all these issues into consideration, then reorganize your routes and customer list for profitability and safety.

MEETING CHALLENGES

After reading my January 2010 column again, on one level I came away with the feeling that “what’s old is new again.” As much as we’d like to think differently, it’s clear that vandalism is not something we can wipe out entirely. But as we enter a new decade, I remain encouraged that we can make some progress in one of the biggest problems to threaten your business and this industry. 



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