Mark Twain famously said, “Everybody loves to talk about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Most tree care professionals will probably disagree with this assessment—a great deal of the work done on landscape trees is undertaken with the weather in mind. For example, tasks like trimming, pruning and removal work to combat the effects of wind and snow; planting the right species for the local climate; creating shade to keep homes cool; the list goes on. And when stormy weather strikes, it’s tree care companies that are often the first call made by property owners to come in and make things right.
Storm is coming
“During a storm, trees can end up anywhere—on a building, on a car, on power lines,” says Steve Shreiner of Shreiner Tree Care, based outside of Philadelphia.
With about three decades in the tree care business, Shreiner says he’s developed a pretty effective system for prioritizing calls that come in to the office. The staff at Shreiner follows a protocol to ask for specific information that will help them determine how a particular storm cleanup call should be prioritized (existing customers always top the list). And, thanks to smartphones, the ability to receive visual documentation from customers instantly has proven very handy, he adds: “Getting photos from them gives us some intel about what to expect in the situation.”
In addition, in the midst of the chaos that comes with storm cleanup, it can be difficult logistically just to get crews and equipment to a site, Shreiner says. “We listen to the radio and watch TV to see where road closures might be so we can try to find ways around.”
He also often sends out a scout to assess the drivability of various job sites, hoping to prevent a situation where a crew heads out with a large truck, or piece of equipment, and ends up unable to get through.
The first step in responding to a storm is always to make safety the priority, emphasizes Jeff Stein, owner of Stein Tree Service, based in Wilmington, Delaware. He thinks back to Hurricane Sandy, which struck the Northeast in 2012. “Obviously, even though we were getting calls [while the hurricane was happening], I’m not calling my crews in then. I’m not going to put someone on a roof in the middle of a hurricane,” says Stein. “We called everyone in for that—when it was safe to do so.”
Stein runs three crews on a daily basis; each week, one of those crews is also on-call, meaning they need to be ready to respond to off-hours emergency calls, storm damage, etc. Stein notes that he posts an on-call schedule at the beginning of every year so employees can plan accordingly.
If more of this work comes in than that one crew can handle, it’s all hands on deck. “If a big event should happen, they know that they might all be called,” he explains.
Calm in the storm
The atmosphere surrounding a storm can be chaotic, but response and cleanup work needs to be done calmly and deliberately. “It’s sort of like a triage in an emergency room. You evaluate things and prioritize the worst cases first,” says Stein.
“The main thing is to get the trees stabilized,” he adds. “So, if a tree has fallen on a house, the goal is to first get it off the house. Then, if we’re getting multiple calls, we might have to go get another tree off a house. So we might not be doing the cleanup until three or four days later.”
How do you know the best way to remove a tree from a house? After all, it’s not something that’s covered in most trainings. “A lot of it is experience,” says Stein. “Obviously, when you’re dealing with trees that are up against something, there are added pressure points that wouldn’t be there on a normal tree take-down or pruning. So there are certain ways you need to cut things so they don’t spring back and hit you, or cause further damage to the property.”
Stein says that he occasionally covers storm-response topics such as these during his company’s weekly safety meetings, so employees will know what to do when a storm strikes and how they need to respond.
Employees are also taught to look for downed electric lines. “When we pull up to a house after a storm, we need to look for telephone poles that are down or underground utilities that might have gotten punctured,” Stein says. “We need to be aware that there might be electric lines that we can’t see because there are trees and debris on top.”
When arriving at a site to take on a storm cleanup job, “The first thing we want to ascertain is electrical issues,” says Shreiner. In addition to downed lines, it’s important during storm cleanup work to listen for the sound of generators, which could be backfeeding those lines, he adds.
Another challenge of storm cleanup is to retain a safe approach to the work, even if there’s chaos and work piling up from the storm. “Our work pace is always dictated by safety,” Shreiner emphasizes. “We never rush. If anything, we like to slow things down more. You have limbs, trees and people all under stress.” He says all of the company’s safety training really pays off in these situations, as employees know that, while they’re motivated to get the work done, safety must be the paramount consideration—no matter what.
Working with customers
Neither Shreiner Tree Care nor Stein Tree Service travels outside their normal coverage area to “chase” storm work—meaning that after a storm event, it’s often their own existing customers who they’re working with. Many times these are people who have suffered destruction to their homes and properties, so working with them means more than cleaning up the trees and branches.
“Usually with storm work, you have to navigate the insurance component—understanding who pays, and how you get paid,” says Shreiner. He adds he often has to assist the homeowner in communicating with their insurance company on the proper protocol.
Stein Tree Service offers a “Storm Aid Program” to help customers minimize the risks of a costly storm cleanup bill beforehand. Stein believes it’s the only program of its kind offered by a tree care company.
The inspiration came after a storm cleanup job.
“It was a very expensive job for the customer; he had four or five very large trees that fell down in his back yard,” Stein recalls. “But he had no recourse with his insurance company because [the trees] didn’t hit anything. The way insurance companies work is, if the tree doesn’t hit a house, car or structure, [insurance companies] don’t pay to remove the tree.” And even if a tree does hit a house, a homeowner’s insurance policy typically will only pay to get the tree off the house—not for any of the related cleanup and debris removal work. “I thought, ‘There has to be a better way,'” says Stein.
As part of Stein’s storm program, for a relatively small fee, customers can choose between two different plans: one includes five hours of storm cleanup and debris removal work and the other includes 10 hours, along with discounts on other services. When comparing the cost of the program against the company’s emergency rates, customers can potentially save thousands of dollars if they suffer damage from a storm, says Stein.
He tries to market the program to all of his customers, though it’s often after a storm, when they see the damage and the expense that can occur, that program signups spike. A lot of the people who purchase it are those who have been hit by the expense previously and still have trees that could be damaged in the future.
Others see the costs their friends and neighbors have incurred after storms and enroll to protect themselves.
“It’s sort of like insurance. You hope you never need it, but it’s not that expensive and you’re going to save a lot of money should the need ever arise,” says Stein. “I don’t understand why every tree company in the country isn’t selling this.”
And storm cleanup isn’t something that occurs only after large “named” storms that make the news. “A couple of Sundays ago we had a very windy day,” he recalls. A couple of emergency calls came in, then some more, and eventually two of the company’s crews were brought in to respond. Sometimes, Stein adds, it’s something as simple as a summer thunderstorm or winter ice event that causes tree damage that needs to be cleaned up. Because talking about the weather is one thing, but when you’re in the tree business, people want you to do something about it.
Read more: Trees and Ice Storms