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Tent companies react when disaster strikes

Features, Safety & Codes | April 1, 2008 | By:

You can’t control Mother Nature, but you can control your response.

With winds estimated at 80 to 100 mph uprooting a 30-foot-tall pine and an oak tree with a trunk 3 feet around, tents set up for the 2007 Minnesota State Fair didn’t stand a chance. Fortunately, the winds of ill fortune swept through the scene two weeks before Minnesotans were due to hit the midway.

“One of the tents was lifted right up out of the floor and turned upside down on top of the other,” recalls David Mikelson, production manager for Minneapolis-based Skyway Event Services, the tent rental company that set up a 66-by-66-foot clearspan tent and another 40-by-60-foot tent for two vendors. “Both tents were completely destroyed.”

Mikelson was one of the first Skyway representatives on the scene. The CEO and general manager (who had been out of town) were there the following morning. A representative of Skyway’s insurance company also visited the scene.

Like anyone in the business, Mikelson wishes he could predict when a storm will blow down a tent.

“In this case, there was nothing we could have done, and that was all verified by the insurance company,” he says. Skyway’s insurer not only paid for tent damage, but also for labor to clean up the area so new tents could be installed right away.

“We brought in temporary labor to work with our guys,” Mikelson says. Skyway also pulled its employees off other sites for a week and was fortunate enough to have inventory available to replace the destroyed tents.

Gone with the wind

If you’re in the tent rental business and can’t recall an instance when a tent went down, then you haven’t been in the business long enough, says Brian Richardson, president of L&A Tent Rentals Inc., Hamilton, N.J. His own experience with a major tent “blow-down” dates back to Hurricane Gloria in 1985. L&A had tents at four events on Long Island—and, fortunately, enough manpower to take down three of them. The fourth succumbed to hurricane-force winds, but L&A was able to bring in and install new equipment in time for the event.

Recent improvements in equipment have reduced the frequency of tent blow-downs. “Twenty years ago, we would be up all night panicked if we heard winds were going to be 30 to 35 miles an hour,” Richardson says. “Now if it’s not going to be above 50, we are not even worried.”

The best thing anyone can do, he says, is to be prepared. “We have so much notice [of imminent storms] because of the Internet. We know when bad weather is going to strike, so we are pretty proactive in making sure we take every precaution that there’s no injury to persons.”

If they know that high winds are coming, L&A employees will get the equipment down on the ground and attempt to weather out the storm, Richardson says. That’s not always possible, of course. “We have parked tractor-trailer trucks around tents to try to deflect some of the high winds that have been forecast.”

The last major blow-down that Richardson recalls his company experiencing was in 1996 when a microburst hit Princeton, N.J., two hours before 350 guests were scheduled to arrive for a black-tie fundraiser.

“It happened in less than 20 seconds, according to eyewitnesses,” he says. “The only people under [the tent] were catering staff and florists. Everyone was able to get out, but one person was hit by a side pole.”

As soon as a weather alert went out, L&A dispatched a crew to the site. Although those who had been on the scene indicated that no one was under the collapsed tent, the volunteer fire department took no chances and started “hacking” the tent with knives. With the tent a total loss, L&A contacted a local hotel, which agreed to host the event with only a 90-minute notice. L&A and various vendors worked with their insurance companies on property damage; the worker requiring medical attention was covered under the caterer’s workers’ compensation policy.

“The first thing you have to do is assess the situation and worry about injured persons. The equipment can be replaced easily,” Richardson says. “When we get a contract, we also send an information packet on safe use of tenting. In severe weather, we ask clients to evacuate all tents in 30-mph winds—not to say that a tent would go down in 30 mph, but that’s what we recommend.”

Assume a storm will hit

“We keep a constant eye on weather throughout the season, and when we are working long distance, we program our cell phones to a weather service that gives us weather alerts in that particular market,” says Peter McVey, owner of McVey Tent & Expo Inc. in Appleton, Wis. “The best thing I can say is we install tents pretending that a storm is going to hit it, regardless of the weather forecast.”

Michael Clawson, president and CEO of Diamond Rental in Salt Lake City, Utah, says there are times when you have to err on the side of safety, even if it means losing a customer.

“There have been circumstances where we bid putting up a snow-load structure [i.e., a tire store’s March tent sale] and we lost [the job] to another competitor that basically rolled the dice and just put up a frame canopy. I think owners of companies have to make a choice.”

Clawson says part of a tent rental company’s job is to educate customers so they understand the risks. The “painful thing,” he says, is that customers often are more interested in saving money than minimizing risk.

Maura Paternoster, risk manager for ARA (American Rental Association) Insurance Services in Kansas City, Mo., has seen the results of that attitude. She says a typical claim is damage to cars when winds blow down a tent sale at a car dealership because the dealership doesn’t want stakes pounded into its asphalt.

Paternoster advises tent renters to call their insurers “anytime something happens where they anticipate a claim coming out of it, whether it is their own property or somebody else’s.”

“If the tent is damaged to the point where they can’t use that same tent, then if the only claim they will be turning in is for damage to their own property, we recommend that they take photographs of the setup and damage,” she says. “And if they need to tear down the tent for the event, then that is OK, because it’s a claim under their own coverage.”

But if property damaged is involved, it’s always better to leave it where it is, Paternoster says.

“If … the show must go on, and you need to clean up but property under the tent was damaged, that diminishes our ability to adequately and quickly determine what happened. Because if there was something that the installers did wrong, once they remove the tent, you might not be able to see that anymore. You have to rely on what people did or what they saw or think they saw happen.” ARA sends clients Industrial Fabric Association International’s 2004 staking study on CD.

As quickly as Mother Nature strikes with fury, she leaves a wake of calm, so savvy tent rental companies can rebound. Skyway took the right actions before last year’s Minnesota State Fair. “Both tents were at 100 percent by the time the fair started, and the fair went without a hitch,” Mikelson says.

And that is the ultimate result every tent company wants.

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer and editor based in Palm Springs, Calif.

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