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To the rescue: tenting for disasters

April 1st, 2021 / By: / Feature

The Shelter G-Series of tent structures are a popular disaster response option. The tents are often used to provide sleeping and dining quarters, and have also been deployed for COVID-19 testing and vaccine distribution. Their lightweight, strong design and universal parts allow for easy handling in the field. Photo courtesy of Shelter Structures America Inc.

When disasters strike, tent and event rental companies are ready to help. 

by Pamela Mills-Senn

In mid-October 2019, as wildfires raged along the West Coast, it seemed to Donny Vasquez, co-owner of Made in the Shade Tent Rentals Inc., as if all of California was aflame. Located in West Sacramento, hours from the areas hardest hit by the conflagration, the tent-rental-only company was busy with multiple huge events, recalls Vasquez. Yet when the call came in on a Saturday asking if tents could be supplied to the various fire areas, the company took action.

“Because of the urgency of that request, and because it came in during our peak season, we used equipment that could be loaded quickly,” he says. “So to make 20-by-100 tents, we used five 20-by-20 marquee tents in a row.

“Once again, because of the urgency of the rental, we dispatched multiple crews towards the Bay Area without knowing the exact locations,” Vasquez continues. “The crews stood by until instructions were received. We didn’t have much choice, given that it takes up to two hours to navigate the Bay Area from Sacramento.” 

The FR Series (First Response) tent from Shelter Structures provides an instant-response solution for fires or other disasters. The tents incorporate inflatable air beam technology to erect in under 10 minutes. During the pandemic, the FR Series has been used for virus testing and vaccine distribution. Photo courtesy of Shelter Structures America Inc.

The crews—six to eight went out, each having three or four installers—sat for hours until they could get the specifics. Ultimately, they delivered to eight locations for that customer, a tent rental company that had been preapproved to submit these kinds of bids to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) was the primary renter, says Vasquez. In addition to providing meeting/check-in places, the tents also served as charging stations and for Wi-Fi access.

An integral role

When it comes to tents, people tend to think of them being used for happy purposes. But tents play an integral role in disaster response, providing a place to shelter, eat or sleep. Tents offer spaces for evacuees to gather, responders to coordinate and medical personnel to offer services. Depending on the disaster and the purpose, installation can be short-term—those provided by Vasquez were up for around eight days—or for months.

The types of tents requested vary. In some cases, because of the sudden-need nature of disasters, it’s a matter of taking what you can get. In these situations, people aren’t overly picky; they just want to get something up, says Chad Struthers, vice president of Warner Shelter Systems Limited (WSSL). Rather than asking for specific features, it’s more of a matter of “we want 4,000 square feet to feed 300 people,” he explains.

In 2018, the Camp Fire decimated Paradise, Calif., destroying nearly the entire town. Shown here is a 100-by-180-foot pole tent from Made in the Shade being installed for use as a manufacturing site for a shed-building project. The tent was up from July through October 2020. Photo courtesy of Made in the Shade Tent Rentals Inc.

Located in Calgary, Alta., Canada, the company manufactures party tents and fabric-clad structures, providing these to the event rental market, oil and gas industries, aviation and military. They primarily sell their tents but will also rent them to large-scale events/festivals or big construction projects. They offer pole tents, clearspans and marquees, all of which can be used for disaster purposes.

 Struthers says when a disaster-related request arises, a combination of tents—such as clearspans and marquees, or pole tents and marquees—is usually rented or sold. When it comes to sizes, the marquees generally run from 20 by 20 feet or 20 by 40 feet; clearspans are typically 60 by 150 feet; pole tents are 40 by 100 feet.

Keith Krzeminski, executive vice president for Shelter Structures America Inc., a Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., distributor of large tent structures, says many of his company’s products can be used for disaster response. Shelter Structures, which carries a wide range of clearspans, serves the event and industrial markets, as well as first responder/disaster relief and glamping. 

Shortly after the pandemic hit, Mahaffey purchased 2,000 10-by-10-foot tents from various providers throughout the U.S., manufacturing some as well. Their destination was the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which was transformed into COVID-19 recovery rooms. Mahaffey installed the tents as they arrived. EverBlock and EverPanel products from EverBlock Systems were used as wall dividers and nursing stations. Photos courtesy of Mahaffey USA.

Two of its most popular tent structures for disaster relief are the G-Series and the FR-Series, says Krzeminski. The G-Series are typically used for sleeping, dining, virus testing and vaccine distribution. The inflatable FR-Series (First Responder) tents are often deployed for medical uses at hospitals, for fire and disaster response, and for virus testing and vaccine distribution. Disaster demand has been strong, says Krzeminski.

“The hospitals, medical locations as well as first responders are all running out of space and tents are needed for expansion,” he explains. “The demand has changed over the past year due to increased need of agencies to manage disasters, fires and weather events.”

Then there’s the ongoing impact of the pandemic, which Krzeminski says has increased demand for short-term and long-term solutions.

“Tents are playing a critical role in infrastructure, building expansion, for example, hospitals and restaurants, as well as creating new space to manage the pandemic,” he says.

The pandemic effect

The pandemic has escalated the need for tents, helping bring much-needed business to tent rental companies.

“It felt like the world was going to end in March [2020],” says George Smith, president/CEO of Mahaffey Fabric Structures, a clearspan tent company based in Memphis, Tenn., that does special events, industrial and disaster rentals nationwide. “But by early May, we were fortunate to start getting [requests] for testing tents and lunch tents for extra capacity for businesses to social distance.”

Around the beginning of the pandemic, Mahaffey also began purchasing 2,000 10-by-10-foot tents from a variety of providers nationwide, such as Celina Tent in Celina, Ohio, buying them in stages. The company also manufactured some of these tents.

This 55-by-103-foot modular clearspan from Warner Shelter Systems was installed in response to the Calgary flood of 2013 and functioned as a mess hall. The flood was a result of heavy rainfall hitting the melting snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, which caused sudden and fierce flooding, necessitating the evacuation of nearly 80,000 people.

These were sold to a company that, in turn, sold them to the City of New Orleans. Their final destination was inside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where they were used as COVID-19 recovery rooms (Mahaffey handled the installation). As of this writing, 1,000 are still up.

WSSL sold its marquees to rental companies or direct to other entities in the U.S. and Canada that needed them for pandemic purposes. These were most often installed for testing or for social distancing. This latter purpose was the biggest reason, says Struthers, explaining these were frequently used by large retailers where people had to line up outdoors in cold weather. Other end users included schools, churches, funeral homes and restaurants.

Like Smith, Vasquez says at the pandemic’s start, his company’s business “ground to a halt.” However, in March 2020, Made in the Shade began working with health care consortium Kaiser Permanente, delivering 20 smaller marquees for COVID holding areas, triage, check-in and administrative purposes, installing these in Sacramento and in nearby Vacaville (these are still up).

The company also provided five clearspans—ranging in size from 20, 30, and 40 feet wide—used for drive-through testing. The tents began coming down in December, although one 20-by-40-foot clearspan is still standing, serving as a drive-through flu vaccination tent. Made in the Shade recently installed a 60-by-80-foot clearspan in Solano County for mass COVID vaccination purposes.   

Warner Shelter Systems sells and rents structures to the military. This 55-by-200-foot modular clearspan serves as the operations headquarters for Canada’s Department of National Defence. Photos courtesy of Warner Shelter Systems Ltd.

Challenges and upsides

“We had to give crews extra pay to compensate them for installing at pandemic-response sites. They were walking into the thick of things, around people who were sick with the virus and streaming into the hospitals,” says Vasquez.

Finding people willing to work under tough or scary conditions is one of the challenges tent rental companies can face when it comes to disaster response. Another is timing. Disasters rarely announce themselves in advance and they can strike when least convenient for the rental company, resulting in a mad scramble to provide what’s needed. Additionally, teams can be sent out at all hours, and do-overs are not an option. The bids can be complex, requiring coordination with a lot of different entities.

“In the event rental arena, there is typically a long window in which to plan, but disaster rentals happen fast,” says Vasquez. “So, having a team who can be detailed throughout the quoting process and eventual planning process, and who can ask the right questions or read between the lines of the RFP [request for proposal] and connect the dots to quote accurately, knowing that you have one shot to get it right, is important.”

The upside is these rentals can bring in unplanned-for business, says Smith, and “revenue dollars that hit the bottom line faster.” Plus, says Vasquez, many of the contracts are long-term.

Struthers says most event and tool rental companies already have what they need to meet a disaster response request. However, Krzeminski advises rental shops to review their inventories and consider adding products specific to disaster response if appropriate, explaining that this can set them apart from competitors and allow them to open up a new market.

When the northern California wildfires struck in 2019, Made in the Shade received a request for tents to create meeting points or to act as Wi-Fi charging stations (as shown here). Given short notice, the company was able to provide multipe marquee tents that could be connected together making larger structures. Photo courtesy of Made in the Shade Tent Rentals Inc.

For example, Smith says for Mahaffey, generators and shower trailers—the company has 20 of these—are in high demand. Flooring, lighting and non-event-style tables and chairs are also commonly requested.

“The rental company should take into account which geographic markets they serve—for the west and southwest there are more fire and earthquake events; for the southeast there are more hurricanes and tornadoes,” Krzeminski says. “They’ll want to tailor their products to their market. All tent rental companies should service multiple markets. To only serve one market restricts the ability to generate revenue.” 

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Seal Beach, Calif.