FHI Finds Ample Growth Potential in Emergency Response Operations

April 1, 1998
QUICK response and careful attention to detail have brought steady growth for Ferguson Harbour Inc (FHI), an environmental services specialist. In fact,

QUICK response and careful attention to detail have brought steady growth for Ferguson Harbour Inc (FHI), an environmental services specialist. In fact, the firm has grown tenfold during the past seven years.

Emergency response and site remediation projects have been primary activities for the company, which is based in Hendersonville, a Nashville, Tennessee, suburb. Ferguson Harbour operates out of eight offices, serving customers in 35 US states. In addition, the company has begun to expand overseas.

"We have succeeded by providing customers with a full range of risk-management services," says Keith Bailey, Ferguson Harbour president. "We employ some of the most experienced emergency-response specialists in the business. We can manage virtually any plant or transportation incident and do so in a cost-effective manner.

"We handle more than 1,500 remediation and emergency response projects annually, and our client list includes many Fortune 500 companies. Our track record helped us obtain a remediation contract in St Petersburg, Russia, to manage a brownfields redevelopment. This is our first overseas contract. It won't be our last."

Road to Russia The road to Russia started in 1971, when Ferguson Harbour Service Inc (FHS) was founded by Owen "William" Ferguson. The new company focused on marine services, including oil spill mitigation, barge cleaning, and various types of marine salvage work.

Ferguson Harbour responded to the fifth oil spill in the nation to be cleaned up under the US Coast Guard's 311 Program. Over the next seven years, FHS became a specialist in handling oil spills in a region extending from Florida to Missouri.

In 1978, the firm began expanding into a wider range of hazardous materials incidents. Management changed the company focus to include environmental remediation and industrial maintenance work, as well as emergency response services.

By the end of the 1980s, FHS had worked on more than 50 Superfund projects. The company was involved in a wide range of activities, including spills on navigable waters, barge mishaps, train derailments, trucking accidents, chemical and pesticide fires, leaking underground storage tanks, and plant demolition/dismemberment.

Transportation Emergencies Emergency response accounts for more than half of the 1,500 projects handled annually by the company. Most of the emergency responses are transportation-related spills, and diesel and gasoline are the products encountered most frequently.

Emergency responses keep the company busy, but they bring in only 30% to 35% of the revenue. Remediation generates over half of the revenue. Industrial maintenance contributes 10% to 15%.

Keith Bailey joined FHS as vice-president in March 1990, and the company changed its name to Ferguson Harbour Inc in 1991. Bailey bought out Owen Ferguson and became the sole owner in 1993.

Fast Track The company has been on a fast track since Bailey's arrival. He stresses that FHI has been profitable every year since 1990, and profits have been reinvested to promote continued growth.

"We're thriving at a time when other companies like ours are being forced out of business or are being acquired," Bailey says. "We have seen many of our vacuum truck subcontractors fall away. The work is still there, but there just isn't as much of it.

"Our business is very competitive today. We run a tight operation, and we watch our costs. We work hard to build close relationships with our clients. We fine-tune services to their needs."

Today, FHI has approximately 400 clients under contract. Many of the contracts include clients with multiple locations. Transportation companies account for about 45% of the clients.

"We don't pursue one-time customers," Bailey says. "We prefer to work with companies that want a long-term relationship. We become the environmental department for some clients, and we even assign dedicated account managers."

New offices were opened throughout the early 1990s, starting with a location in Johnson City, Tennessee, in September 1990. During the next six years, FHI opened additional offices in Oak Ridge and Memphis, Tennessee; Jackson, Mississippi; Mobile and Birmingham, Alabama; and Atlanta, Georgia.

"We're in the process of opening a ninth office in Columbus, Ohio," says Steve Mangum, division manager based in the Jackson, Mississippi, office. "We try to position our offices for overlapping coverage. We want to be no more than two hours from any area served."

Skilled Associates The company employs 170 fulltime employees divided among the eight offices. Called associates, they are assigned to four- to six-man teams for emergency response operations. Teams are expected to respond to an emergency within two to three hours. The phones are manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"We've turned out for as many as 14 emergencies in one day," Mangum says. "When multiple emergencies occur, we handle each one in the order received. We move personnel around as needed."

When calls come in, FHI managers gather as many basic details as are available. First and foremost, they want to know what sort of product is involved in the incident. If a release has occurred, they want to know the rate. They ask about nearby streams.

FHI works closely with state and local officials. "We generally get the most detailed information from the state officials," Mangum says. "Often, they have people on the scene already."

The FHI associates involved in emergency response duties are hired after the company completes a thorough background check. They receive extensive training when they join the company, along with regular annual updates.

Farm Background When selecting new associates, FHI managers look for applicants with a farm background or something similar. "These people have a good work ethic," says Douglas L Marquart, FHI director of project development. "They also have an understanding of mechanical equipment. That's important because machinery does fail on the job. We need people who know how to make repairs in the field."

Technicians need a high school degree and must be bondable. Equipment operators must be at least 25 years old, and truck drivers must have a minimum of three years' fulltime experience.

Anyone receiving a job offer must undergo a complete physical as required by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements. Retesting can be required at any time during an associate's employment.

All newly hired associates must attend OSHA 40-hour training, and they receive the eight-hour update annually. Topics covered during the FHI training include hazard communication and blood-borne pathogen awareness. New hires receive confined-space training and any needed DOT training.

Considerable time is spent on function-specific training, such as hazardous waste packaging requirements. New hires learn the proper ways of wearing the various protective suits while cleaning up simulated spills.

Client Confidentiality Few topics receive as much attention during the training as the need for client confidentiality. Many clients require FHI to sign confidentiality agreements, and new hires are absolutely forbidden from talking with media representatives during operations. Worker names are left off uniforms and hardhats.

"We do everything we can to be low key during emergency responses," Bailey says. "This is part of the total service package that we provide to our clients."

The importance of good communication is stressed throughout the training. FHI is upgrading its communication capabilities.

Managers already carry cellular telephones, and they have access to an array of radios. Field staff are supplied with IBM Thinkpad laptop computers loaded with Windows 95 and Microsoft Office 97. The computers have 150 Mhz Pentium processors, 32 megabytes of random access memory, 2.1 gigabyte hard drives, and CD-ROM drives. Zip and Jazz drives also are supplied.

Project templates are programmed into the laptop computers, using Form Flow software. Complete client histories can be carried on the Jazz and Zip disks. "We want to be as paperless as possible," says Robert E Whiting Jr, FHI director of management systems. E-mail capabilities are being added, and the company is working on a web site. "We want to enhance our ability to communicate quickly with our clients," Whiting says.

Command Trailers Field communications are coordinated through incident command center trailers that are placed at incident sites. The $140,000 trailers have computers, video recording equipment, satellite dish, and a variety of telephone systems. FHI will even install satellite phones when needed. A generator provides electricity and has 12 to 14 hours of fuel.

Also carried in the trailers are a wide range of emergency response supplies. This includes respirators, breathing air, and protective clothing. Absorbents, 55-gallon drum liners, portable lights, pumps, and non-sparking tools are some of the other items carried in the rear section of each trailer.

The trailers are part of an extensive vehicle fleet that is available to help FHI handle virtually any type of incident or environmental project. The company has an aggressive program for investing in new equipment.

"We have made a sizable investment in personnel, equipment, and facilities over the past seven years," Bailey says. "We're spending $1 million to $2 1/2 million a year on new equipment."

Much of the equipment has been tailored for emergency response operations. This includes hydraulic shears that can cut open a rail tankcar, cold-cutting tools, and debris grapplers. Frac tanks and portable storage vessels are available.

Transportation Fleet FHI's transport and disposal fleet includes vacuum trucks; vacuum loaders; rolloff vacuum boxes; stainless steel, carbon steel, and aluminum tank trailers; dump trailers; and van trailers.

Some of the newest vehicles in the FHI fleet are King Vac vacuum loaders from Keith Huber Inc, Gulfport, Mississippi. Mounted on Ford F8000 trucks, the King Vac units have a 3,000-gallon-capacity tank and can handle both liquid and dry wastes. The tanks are built to DOT412 code.

Keith Huber also supplies the Dominator vacuum truck to FHI. The 1,800-gallon carbon steel vacuum tanks are built to DOT412 code. The trucks have a liquid-cooled rotary-vane vacuum pump that is rated at 440 cfm.

The tank is raised to a 55-degree angle for dumping by a three-stage hydraulic cylinder. Discharge is through the full-opening rear head. The hinged head is fastened shut by 1 1/4-inch latch bolts and wing nuts and is sealed with a 1 1/2-inch neoprene rubber gasket. The vacuum pump is housed in a steel cabinet on the streetside. Another cabinet on the curbside provides storage space for tools and fittings.

"With our equipment, personnel, and training, we are able to handle virtually any environmental-related incident," Bailey says. "And now we've moved into the international arena."