Companies respond to catastrophic situations when demand spikes for specific goods.
Tents should be for parties and festivals. Bags should be for gifts and carrying groceries. Curtains should be for showers and window dressing. Yet these and many other fabric-based items play an important role in situations far removed from those idyllic uses. Many end product manufacturers (EPMs) have found uses for their products in disaster response, and some businesses have been formed specifically for the disaster response market.
Brookstone Emergency Services Inc. of Murietta, Calif., has been involved in the relief efforts following hurricanes (including Katrina, Rita, Ike and Gustav), Superstorm Sandy and the BP oil spill. Its tents and bedding have helped people have some comfort after being displaced from their homes.
“We do a lot of donation work with the American Red Cross and other organizations where our services are needed, but our primary business model is facilitating disaster camps for various agencies in their time of need,” CEO Bill Angelo says. “We are a distributor of products for specific applications. Should there be some new life-changing product out there, those certainly get known around the [disaster response] industry. It’s a very tight-knit community.”
Fabric-based disaster relief products sold by ProPac Inc. of North Charleston, S.C., include cots, kit bags and a rayon towel that expands when it gets wet (placed in hygiene kits for shelters). More recently, the company became a distributor for a biodegradable flood bag developed in England that replaces traditional sandbags.
“A burlap bag filled with sand requires a lot of manpower and storage space and is very time consuming,” vice president Richard King says. “FloodSax® are filled with a gel that activates once it gets wet; it swells up and becomes a water barrier.” Designed for one-time use, the sacks are biodegradable.
“Our main seller is cots; we sell them all over the world,” King says. “When Hurricane Katrina hit, the vast majority of the cots used in the [Reliant] Astrodome we supplied. We also supplied cots for the Haiti earthquake, as well as for Superstorm Sandy. Special needs cots are the newest style to the industry. They are designed for people with medical conditions who cannot sleep horizontally and may need their head or feet raised. It has to be cleanable and disinfectable. It’s all based on Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines.”
First Line Technology LLC used its FiberTect® decontamination wipes to protect responders from radioactive particles in Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011. Additionally, the Chantilly, Va.-based company’s AmbuBus includes stretchers and straps, reusable pillows for shelters and garments with FiberTect for first responders. FiberTect is a three-layer, inert, nonwoven composite substrate for absorbing chemical agents.
“We are adding new nanoparticles and nanotechnology to create a coating to make it reactive,” president Amit Kapoor says. “Now it’s going to actually neutralize [toxic chemicals].”
The Teijin Group of Osaka and Tokyo, Japan, provided heat-retentive, heat-shielding and fire-resistant curtains, insulation and soundproofing materials for temporary housing after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.
“We had researched needs at a disaster area,” general manager Yoshioka Nobuyuki says. “We went into temporary housing and recognized they are very cold and that it’s easy to hear neighbors.”
Other fabric-based products by Teijin used in disasters include bags to store radioactive substances, water-absorbing bags, nets for recycling rubble, tents for temporary housing and protective suits for first responders.
Preparation and partnership
The fact that no one knows just when, where and how often disasters will strike, let alone what their nature will be, creates a set of challenges for businesses providing response products and services.
“You have to have product when it happens,” Kapoor says. “You can’t ramp up production when a disaster happens. You have to have it on the shelf ready to go.”
He also notes that it’s important to ensure customers know what your product is and how to use it. “If you have to train them or it’s difficult to understand, this has to be done before a disaster happens. You have to be in the market,” he says. “During a disaster, [responders] have a hundred things going on. It might not click how your product will fit in. You have to presell.”
Angelo says one of the biggest challenges is maintaining equipment and staff between disasters so goods can be deployed at a moment’s notice.
King notes that it is critical to have enough material on hand—and know where it is. “It’s very easy to get overwhelmed when a storm hits or an earthquake happens. There can be huge amounts of demand on inventory,” he says. “We can’t predict a storm or event, but we know historically how much we have used and where to go to find a product.”
Relationships are important in every industry, but perhaps most of all in disaster relief. “You are relying on your vendors to have the capacity to make a fabric or a dye or a certain component of your final product,” Kapoor says. “Going into hurricane season, I had meetings with vendors and said, ‘I need you guys to have stock of this fabric available so we can push out an end product for hurricane season, and this is what I can commit to [buying].’
“It’s communication. If you are working with the government or an agency that doesn’t have funding at that time, you may not get paid for 45, 60, 90 days. Your vendor needs to work with you on cash flow as well, so it’s a big partnership.”
Companies should also be aware of others that operate within the disaster relief market. For example, First Line Technology works with Grainger, a Fortune 500 company that supplies industrial products internationally and has multiple government contracts. “Agencies might call Grainger, so Grainger needs to be aware of our products,” Kapoor says.
“It’s important to have relationships ahead of time so that, when a disaster occurs, the first vehicle that they turn to is in-hand contracts,” King says. ProPac has registered with emergency management agencies and the American Red Cross, he adds.
Brookstone has contracts with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Forest Service, CAL FIRE, State of California, municipalities and utility providers. The company also contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense in training the National Guard for localized incidents.
“It’s a very important circle. Without all elements being in place, it doesn’t work,” Angelo says. “Without the relationship, the business doesn’t exist.”
In the marketplace
Once relationships are in place, companies with what is essentially a limited market must continue offering quality, added value and excellent support. Even after Brookstone’s 14 years in business, Angelo says, “Every time we deploy, it’s another interview. You have to maintain absolutely the highest levels and keep the confidence not only of the agencies, but also of other political offices involved and the general public.”
And you can’t let your customers forget you when they are not dealing with a disaster.
“We do 34 trade shows around the country, educating the market on our product,” Kapoor says. “You sell to the director of health, but the end user is the [first responder]. You need to explain your product to the higher-ups, but you need to train the people on the lower end how to use it. You don’t want them to have the product and not use it.”
First Line Technology also holds webinars and training sessions at local emergency response departments. And its advisory board, which includes retired fire chiefs and other emergency responders, educates the company’s sales representatives on the use of products.
ProPac also makes its presence known around the country. ”The vast majority of states have emergency management departments and public health agencies that are tasked with disaster preparedness and emergency response. They have conferences, and we attend them annually,” King says.
As for training, he notes that with 2,000 product lines, especially those that are technically detailed, it can be difficult to know every detail about every individual product, so ProPac holds weekly operations meetings to discuss issues and share knowledge.
“Cities, counties and states should be preparing ahead of time,” King says. “If you have items ahead of time, it makes logistics 10 times easier. That’s why we’re here. We get daily orders from cities, counties and states that are preparing.”