Fleet Vandalism and Equipment Theft: A Personal Tale of Caution
Monday mornings are always a bit hectic in the restoration industry, but one Monday last May proved to be an unforgettable day for everybody at our company. Last year marked our 7th anniversary in our main office building in Brighton, MI. We are the last building on a dead end industrial drive that had never, to this point in time, experienced any type of crime or vandalism. It was on this day that we realized how vulnerable we truly were.
Our company was busy after a brief but heavy rain just before the weekend, and this spike in new water damage projects had kept our crews busy throughout the sunny Saturday and Sunday leading up to this Monday. The morning started as any other, with our administrative staff arriving at 7 a.m. to prepare the daily work orders for the production crews that begin their shift at 8 a.m. As our fleet of vehicles sits behind the content warehouse to the rear of our building, none of us that arrived realized that anything had happened the night prior.
Around 7:30 a.m. our production manager came rushing into my office stating that his work van had been broken into. In disbelief, we both quickly moved to its location in our back lot to figure out what had happened. His van, once filled with moisture meters, tools and personal items was now completely empty. All that remained was the built-in shelving, and the thieves even took the loose change in his cup holders. As there were no signs of forced entry, we concluded that Josh must have left his van unlocked when he last drove it.
Upset, frustrated and in disbelief, we both started walking back to the building to call the police. As we approached the other row of vans, I noticed that the rear door lock on one seemed to be broken from the outside. Looking further down the row, it became apparent that every single one of them had the same broken rear door locks. As we started opening the vans one by one, we quickly realized that almost our entire fleet of vans, 16 total, had been completely ransacked the night prior.
Our production crews started arriving around 7:45 a.m. as normal, and everybody stood around in complete disbelief. Every crew chief is assigned a van, and as they inspected the damages, it became apparent that a professional group of thieves had taken an immense amount of time in removing anything of value. Most vehicles in our fleet have a permanent divider that separates the driver from the equipment, and front windows were shattered in all of these vehicles so the contents in the front cab areas could be taken as well.
The local sheriff’s department responded to the scene. They inspected, photographed and fingerprinted all of the vans in the fleet. Meanwhile, our office staff was busy calling all of our customers explaining that our crews would be late because of the break in. I took it upon myself to deal with the investigators and tasked a colleague with figuring out how we could possibly continue to operate after losing so much of our necessary equipment.
Luckily for us, we have a fantastic and caring production staff that volunteered to drive their personal vehicles for the day. Our crews immediately searched through storage cabinets to find old moisture meters, tools and supplies so we could limp through until we were able to acquire more. We also had 3 more vans that had been parked inside our warehouse that were available for the crews to drive as they had not been accessed by the thieves. Our last crew left the office headed for a job site at about 10:30 a.m., which is about two hours later than normal.
Once the initial dust had settled and the crews were off to their respective assignments, my next call was to our insurance company. To my surprise and satisfaction, I was told to purchase whatever was needed to be fully operational and save my receipts for reimbursement. Our product manager immediately left our office for a local big box store to purchase all of the hand tools and supplies that were taken the night prior. We ordered all of the lost moisture detection equipment and industry specific supplies from our valued vendors, and demanded that everything was overnight shipped so we could be fully operational as soon as possible. I also placed a call to a Chevrolet dealership in the nearby city of Howell to engage them in the necessary vehicle repairs. All of the broken windows were replaced on that same Monday, and all of the rear doors were fixed within two days. By the end of the day Wednesday, all of our vehicles were repaired and stocked for business as usual.
The detectives working our case were interested in surveillance footage that we could have captured, and I was embarrassed to inform them how weak our security system was. We had no cameras, and luckily the burglars did not target our building because we did not even have a functioning alarm system at the time. They were also disappointed to find out that the 6 other businesses on our dead end street did not have any surveillance cameras either. Crime is incredibly rare where our office is located, and to this point in time none of us felt it was necessary to have extensive security measures in place. The only footage the investigators were able to find was video from a Habitat for Humanity location almost a mile away showing a pickup truck pulling a large white snowmobile trailer at 3:36 a.m. headed for the expressway. To date, this is the only evidence we have of the perpetrators and they have not been caught.
Realizing that our faith in people had led to this vulnerability, we made the decision to consult with a security company to install a system at our location. They were able to install a 16 interior/exterior camera system accessible from any Internet location in the world. They record up to one month in the past and the clarity on an iPhone, iPad or computer is amazing. Furthermore, a traceable key fob reading access system and state of the art alarm system were placed throughout all of the doors and windows of our facility. We transformed from having nothing to a being a first-class protected facility. We display the live feed in our office on a 52’’ television screen, and several of us have it displayed at home on computer monitors so we can always see what is happening at our office and warehouse.
Having to go through this was incredibly difficult for all of us involved. Looking back, we were able to take away several do’s and don’ts from the situation:
- Keep high valued equipment and tools inside your facility.
- Invest in a security system. Even if you have a small budget, something is much better than nothing.
- Keep an accurate inventory of tools that remain in vehicles at night. It was very hard to account for things after they were gone, and to this day we are still realizing things that have not been replaced.
- Think it’ll never happen to you.
- Assume that your location is safe after hours.
- Leave parking lots dark at night, ensure that they are well lit to deter theft and vandalism.
Most of us would agree that even the best security systems in the world cannot completely deter crime. In our particular case, we were dealing with “professional” thieves that may not have even minded the new technology we now have in place. However, a good security plan acts as a major deterrent in most cases and often does assist investigators in solving crime. Plus, it helps business owners and management know that their assets are protected, even after hours.