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Working in Homes Where You May Be Uncomfortable

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Many HVAC companies focus on residential work, and in that capacity, spend a good deal of time in the homes of their customers. While the majority of calls may be common, unremarkable appointments, there are likely to be a few that present a special circumstance that can make a technician or sales person very uncomfortable. These often fall into a few specific categories, each with its own particular context and complications.

Some companies have precise guidelines for these issues, but several do not, because of the vagueness of their nature. If you run into a situation that you’re not sure how to handle, try to use your best judgment and be observant. Don’t attempt to directly interfere. In an emergency, call 911 once your safety is not compromised.
If the situation is not life threatening, contact your dispatcher or manager for further direction and guidance if needed.

Drugs In The Home
Drugs in the home are an increasingly common event. There may be drug paraphernalia, suspicious substances, or perhaps marijuana plants growing in the home. Two states allow the sale of recreational marijuana to adults, and 23 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing some usage of medical marijuana. (14 states have taken steps to decriminalize it to some degree.) It is legal in several states to have a small amount of marijuana growing in the home for personal use.

If, as a technician, you notice drugs or drug paraphernalia in the home of a customer, and you have questions or concerns about the situation, contact local authorities for clarification on the current guidelines for your state.

It is always paramount to consider your personal safety first, and that of your colleagues. If you witness a drug-related crime in progress during your sales or service call, it may be appropriate to call emergency services.

Don’t call emergency services to report a crime that has happened in the past or may happen in the future. Report that situation in an alternate way, as emergency responders will not be dispatched under those conditions. Do a web search or make a phone call to police to find out your options for reporting the illegal drug activity. In most states there will be a website for making such reports, or a hotline you can call.

You must decide if you are willing to identify yourself or not. Most states have a way to report this information anonymously.

Some examples that may indicate drug activity are:

  • Noxious odors emanating from a residence or other structure in the neighborhood.
  • Drug paraphernalia in the vicinity.
  • Properties which seem to have extreme security measures (dogs, razor wire, alarms, cameras).

Report as many details as possible. The investigating agency will be greatly aided by your accuracy. Some types of information needed on a report are:

  • Address of suspected activity and type of building (apartment, single family residence, etc.).
  • Types of people in the residence (children, etc.).
  • Type of activity witnessed, times witnessed, frequency, and type(s) of drugs involved.
  • Description of the suspected dealer, his transportation, and lookouts (if any) for the dealer.
  • What types of weapons, if any, are observed?

Report the suspected drug activity, even if you think someone else already has. Any information the police have will aid them in doing their jobs. Do not expect immediate results, as agencies must sometimes gather sufficient evidence for a warrant, and there are other procedural burdens that must be met.

Theft of Services
Another type of illegal activity you may notice on a sales or service call is theft of utility services. Not only is it against the law, it can be very hazardous. This can take the form of using another customer’s electricity, natural gas, or even cable and telephone service.

Knowingly using electric or natural gas energy service that is not correctly metered or while not having a legitimate account with an established utility is stealing. Equipment that was installed by qualified specialists, but has been tampered with (wires, meters, pipes), can expose anyone to the hazard of shock, fire, explosion, injury, or death.

Most utilities have a published hotline to report abuse or theft of services. It is often toll-free, and anonymous.

There is one category of illegal activity that you may observe in the home of a customer that you might be obligated to report, depending on the laws of your state, and that is abuse. Unfortunately, abuse is prevalent today, and it has several variations, including financial, emotional, physical, and psychological. No victim is typical. Abuse happens across the spectrum to people of different races, ages, and sexual orientations. People of all walks of life and income and education levels are affected.

If you suspect a child has been exploited, abused, neglected, or maltreated, contact local law enforcement and/or child protective services as soon as possible. The information you provide could save a child’s life. In some states, any person who suspects child abuse or neglect is required to report it.

A quick web search will show you multiple ways to report child abuse. One organization that takes calls is the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, which is staffed 24/7 at 1.800.4.A.CHILD (1.800.422.4453). Another resource is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 800-THE-LOST (800-843-5678).

Luke Vanderhill of Nieboer Heating & Cooling in Kalamazoo, MI, offers, “Our company policy is that we will not go into a home for any reason unless there is at least one legal adult 18 years old or older there. We have customers who tell us that their teenage daughter or son will be present to let the tech into the house, but we politely decline and explain our policy which we will not violate.” This is a common company policy specifically designed to eliminate any complaints of inappropriate behavior being leveled against any company personnel by children.

If you suspect domestic violence, you may contact your local law enforcement personnel. Another resource to contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233), TTY 1-800-787-3224.

All 50 states have laws against elder abuse. The laws differ from state to state, but they all have systems for reporting suspected abuse. As with other forms of abuse, it is not your role as a technician to verify abuse is happening, only to alert others of your suspicions. The more information you can provide the better equipped the agency will be to investigate. Contact your local authorities, or notify Adult Protective Services. Information is also available from the national Eldercare Locator, a public service of the U.S. Administration on Aging. Call toll-free 1-800-677-1116.

Another form of abuse you may encounter on a customer service call is animal abuse. Reporting methods may vary by area, but you can start by contacting your local humane organization, animal control agency, taxpayer-funded animal shelter, or police precinct. Vanderhill explains, “if our technicians encounter animal abuse at a site, we try to address it politely with the customer. If the animal is kept in an area with its own waste, we inform the owner that it is a health issue for our employees and it needs to be taken care of. Above all, we try to treat our customers with respect.”

When reporting any form of abuse, be ready to give the name, address, and contact information of the person you are concerned about, with any details you can provide. You will be asked for your name and contact information, but most states and agencies will take the information even if you decline.

Suspicious Activity
Something we all have a heightened sense of awareness about is suspicious activity. Reports of suspicious activity to the proper authorities can help prevent crimes and terrorist acts. Prompt and detailed reports should be provided to local law enforcement. If the situation has a strong possibility of being a life-threatening emergency, phone 911.

Suspicious activities you may observe during your day to day interactions with customers include:

  • Multiple mobile phones on premise, especially if many of them are pay-as-you-go type phones.
  • Multiple passports or driver’s licenses or other forms of ID in view.
  • Pictures, blueprints, or measurements of buildings in view, or detailed notes on their security.
  • Stockpiles of chemicals and the materials used to handle them (gloves, goggles, masks).

Use good judgment and common sense to make the decision to contact authorities. If you do contact them, have detailed information ready:

  • Describe the suspicious activity.
  • Location, date and time of your observation.
  • Names and physical descriptions of those you observed.
  • Vehicle descriptions, if noted.

Follow your company’s policy guidelines, and contact your manager with questions if necessary. Report dangerous situations to the proper authorities, and be familiar with state and local regulations regarding required reporting. Always remember that the safety of you and your colleagues comes first.

Melinda Wamsley

Posted In: Customer Service, Legal, Safety

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