No one has a perspective on the pandemic quite like Kim Ragan. It started with her position as a branch manager in Beaumont, Texas, on the Gulf Coast — and it was there that she came up against her biggest challenge.

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Kim Ragan found that disaster experience helped with COVID: “We understood that the things we were doing were to take care of one another.”

COVID had just started to make news in March 2020 when United Rentals gave Ragan the opportunity to relocate from the general rentals branch she managed to a Fluid Solutions specialty branch down the road.

“My first week managing the new branch, I tested positive for the virus,” Ragan says. “Nobody knew a lot about COVID back then. I thought I was being very careful, and it was unfortunate, because I had been at both branches. I was in ICU for five days, but I’m good now, and I’m using that whole experience to educate others about why it’s so important to wash your hands and wear face coverings — do all the right things.”

A new kind of emergency response

When Ragan returned to work in late April, she found that the company’s emergency response disciplines were in place and the branches were receiving updates daily. Many of the safety protocols were new to the business. “COVID was a trial by fire for the whole world,” she notes. “The emergency was brand new, but the preparedness structure at United was already there. The leadership communicated the protocols and we put them into practice in the branch. A lot of the practices have become standard operating procedures.”

Ten months into the pandemic, Ragan still has weekly COVID calls with district and branch managers in her area. There are corporate updates, but the calls have also evolved into a way to share word-of-mouth experiences and best practices. Now that the broad-based protocols are established, the issues that come up tend to be unique to certain circumstances, and the managers learn from each other.

For example, at the Beaumont fluid solutions branch, most of the fleet is rented to industrial sites that already had extensive safety protocols in place before the pandemic. Now, the contractors at those sites have additional COVID protocols in place. Ragan works through each scenario with her employees to make sure they know how to comply with United Rentals’ protocols, as well as those of the customer and the host facility. As part of the response structure, she received a list of subject matter experts she can turn to for advice.

A rock-solid foundation

Beaumont is on the coast of Southeast Texas, about 20 miles from the Louisiana border. In August 2020, Hurricane Laura made landfall just south of the United Rentals branch in Lake Charles, Louisiana and tore through the area. Beaumont was fortunate to dodge a direct hit.

“At the very last moment, Laura turned to the right,” Ragan recalls. “We had nowhere near the kind of wind damage that Lake Charles experienced, so we were able to help support that branch along with some other nearby locations. It really helped to have one emergency structure and one set of COVID protocols across the entire company.”

Although Ragan didn’t need the Emergency Response Team herself, one of the ERT leaders used the Beaumont office until the roads to Lake Charles were passable. “In our area, we seem to be hit by more natural disasters every year,” she says. “Everyone here has first-hand experience with that. When COVID happened, it was the same concept. Everyone had their opinions, but at the end of the day, we understood that the things we were doing were to take care of one another. We already had that foundation to build on.”

As for her early, frightening bout with the virus, Kim Ragan is firmly in the camp of turning lemons into lemonade. “I still use my personal experience every day when I’m talking to our people about the importance of safety practices. I know what it’s like to have COVID first-hand, and I think that resonates — the perspective, and the emotion, and the reality of it. That really helps me manage the team through this pandemic.”

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