Emergency Preparedness 101 On the Front Lines of Dealing with Disasters

Emergency Preparedness 101

 As the devastation of Superstorm Sandy continues to be tallied, (up to nearly  $50 billion in the Garden State alone) and New Jersey residents— those who bore the brunt of the disaster, as well as those less directly  affected— take stock of the catastrophe, one thing is certain: as part of the ongoing  recovery effort, it's crucial for every condo, co-op and HOA to have a solid  emergency preparation plan in place in the not-unlikely event of more severe  weather occurrences.  

 While the basics of preventing—and surviving—relatively common events like fires or heavy snowstorms should be well known to  anybody living in a community association or planned development, the reality  is that each building community is equipped with different equipment,  constructed with different materials, and served by unique evacuation routes  for emergencies. There's no one-size-fits-all plan that works for every  building or association—and as Sandy showed us this past October, there's ample evidence that  devastating weather events are no longer once-in-a-century threats. So it’s important for board members and management to devise customized emergency  plans for their particular community. That way if the unthinkable happens,  everyone can escape quickly and safely.  

 Have a Plan

 The Garden State routinely experiences severe winter weather events to  torrential flooding in the fall and in the spring. So the experts say it’s imperative to have a plan. Experts believe that the main areas to focus on are  response, recovery and restoration and that the management company and board of  directors should work together to prepare a disaster management plan for their  community.  

 A condo association's management could be held liable if there's no plan in  place and tragedy results during an emergency. In short, say the pros,  preparedness is not an option; it's part of a board/management team’s fiduciary responsibility. In a large condo or co-op, the association’s responsibility includes all the common areas and amenities, plus the  physical-plant equipment such as HVAC systems, emergency generators, elevators,  fire alarm systems, emergency lighting, and other life-safety systems that  require additional protection and maintenance.  

 Resources Abound

 While crises such as power outages or damage from high winds or heavy snow and  ice are practically routine for New Jersey HOAs, staff and residents alike  should be ready for any eventuality—and the elements of readiness are the same for any emergency. Boards and  managers can create and implement customized emergency plans for their  buildings, but they must know where to look to find the right information and  with whom to work to make the plan.  

 Governmental agencies are a great place to go for pre-planning tips and  information, and emergency response professionals will come to your building or  HOA to educate, advise and prepare long before you need to execute an  evacuation. The American Red Cross has long been known for helping those  affected by disasters, but the group also works to educate people how to be  ready for them before they happen. The group advises unit owners to have an  emergency kit or “go bag” containing prescriptions, some food and water, money, clothes and a few other  necessities ready to roll in case of a crisis, and also makes simple  emergency-planning advice is available online from the American Red Cross at  www.redcross.org and www.myred cross.org. The Federal Emergency Management  Agency (FEMA) is another such resource, and can be found online at  www.ready.gov and www.fema.gov/are-you-ready-guide.  

 Under the direction of Colonel Rick Fuentes, the New Jersey Office of Emergency  Management (NJOEM) works with local, regional, state, and federal partners in  case of emergencies. “It’s all about partnerships,” says Lieutenant Stephen Jones, director of communications for the New Jersey  State Police Department in Trenton. “We are a resource coordinator. We move resources from the federal level down  through the counties and the counties coordinate with their locals. We also help guide resources between counties. For example, for Hurricane Sandy counties on the west side of the state wasn’t really hit that bad, so we moved some of their resources to help counties out  on the East Coast that was hit badly.”  

 The NJOEM website is a rich resource for boards, managers, and residents alike—along with local police and fire departments. For information on how to plan and  prepare for emergencies in the Garden State go to www.ready.nj.gov.  

 “We are one of the rare states that the Office of Emergency Management falls  under the state police,” adds Jones. “For most states it’s a separate office but for New Jersey, the troopers man all the key positions  and the superintendent of the state police serves a dual role as director of  the Office of Emergency Management.”  

 Regardless of a building’s evacuation plan, residents also may need to make their own contingency plans  based on their family's specific needs. For example, what if a disaster happens  during the day, when mom is at home, and dad’s at work and the kids are at school? Each member of the family should know  where they will meet if the building is evacuated or they are separated due to  an emergency. Residents also need to recognize the necessity of having a plan  in place for their pets.  

 Putting Plans Into Action

 When a condo building or homeowners association calls upon the Red Cross to come  assess and fortify their emergency planning protocols, a representative from  the organization will meet with residents and community administrators and  educate them on how to prepare by having the right supplies, by being ready to  enact the community's plan, and by informing themselves before, during, and  after the emergency.  

 “We have corporate preparedness programs and will go in and do a full facility  audit,” says Lynn Duddy, a training specialist for the American Red Cross. “We then generate a report that includes recommendations.” The auditing process includes evaluating the association’s emergency action plan, and creating one or selecting a better template for one  if the current plan is less than optimal.  

 According to Duddy, “A full assessment of emergency preparedness plans requires knowing what type of  equipment the building has, obtaining evacuation routes, and assessing  individual residents’ special needs in an emergency.” It’s about being what the organization calls “Red Cross Ready”—meaning having supplies on hand such as food, water, and medicine for use in an  emergency situation. Multifamily buildings and condos should have supplies such  as flashlights, extra fuel (if necessary for a generator), and other  necessities ready to be mobilized when called upon. A designated person in the  building such as a superintendent or other staff member should be responsible  for replacing those building supplies and ensuring that they are usable.  

 Preparedness also amounts to having a plan for residents to shelter in place—i.e., for them to stay put in the building for a while, if needed. A proper  shelter in place plan should account for the building community’s needs for at least a period of three days. That means having adequate drinking  water, food, batteries, flashlights, first aid supplies and even extra clothing  for residents, in case it is needed.  

 Reducing Risk

 For Vernon Rupert Grant, owner of Crisisology Group International, an emergency  management and planning company, another start to preparing for an emergency  involves reducing the possibility of a crisis. Working to prevent a fire should  be the objective of any building manager, and a manager can begin to accomplish  this by eliminating building violations such as inoperable emergency exits,  maintenance problems that could pose fire hazards, and the like. “The superintendent is the first line of defense in a building emergency,” Grant says, adding that every building should have a mitigation plan, to lessen  the possibility of an emergency.  

 Property managers and superintendents should regularly walk around their  buildings and grounds and assess the potential hazards. Such problems as a  faulty fire alarm system, inoperable doors, windows that cannot be opened or  fully closed, and bad wiring or plumbing that could create a hazard all must be  noted when the super and manager investigate the building as part of their  mitigation plan. After noting areas in need of attention, either building staff  or outside contractors should be brought in to make the necessary repair or  correct the unsafe condition.  

 Expecting Contingencies

 As with just about every aspect of day-to-day residential management,  communication is key to managing crises and minimizing their impact. Whether  you're faced with a fire, a storm with power outages, or flooding, boards and  management can begin to plan for emergencies affecting their properties by  simply getting the dialogue started.  

 “The superintendent should begin a dialogue around the neighborhood, and the  property manager should be talking with other property managers, people in the  neighborhood, and city officials about crisis and emergency planning,” Grant says.  

 One way to consolidate and standardize an association's emergency response plan  is to establish an emergency team, comprised of the co-op board members, the  facilities manager, building security personnel, and the building’s engineer, along with some competent, capable resident volunteers. The people  in charge of the group, and in charge during an emergency, should be trained in  both CPR and first aid. The property manager should be the team leader during a  crisis situation.  

 During an emergency, the management team should know who is in the building and  who is not. That understanding will be informed by crucial data the team  compiles long before a crisis. Through a survey of the building, the team  should know how many people live in the building, which of them have special  needs or lack mobility and will need help evacuating, who has small children,  who has pets, and who works from home. This evacuation list should include  names, phone numbers, and apartment numbers of all residents, and should be  backed up remotely, not simply stored on-site. That way, if anything happens to  the property manager’s computer in the building, the info can be sent directly to another laptop or  device during an emergency.  

 Specific considerations may need to be made for a building’s “special-needs” residents, such as the elderly, ill or disabled individuals, or households with  young children who might not be able to follow the same evacuation/emergency  protocols as more able-bodied residents. To help such people, members of the  emergency team must be designated to assist these folks in a crisis.  

 Any residential building also should have rally points to go to in an emergency.  Rally points are places away from the apartment building, but close to it,  where residents will gather in an emergency to relax, deal with what happened,  and plan a course of action. And just as having a small radio in your go bag is  important to stay informed, rally points also are places where building  management can distribute information to residents.  

 Living Safer

 Experts agree that without a plan, people can panic and makes things worse and  in order to prevent that from happening it’s vital that boards, managers and concerned residents be willing to ask tough  questions and examine whether or not their community is ready for the worst. If  not, then it's time to call in the pros, make a new plan, and get the entire  community on board—not only for their physical safety, but for their peace of mind.   

 Hannah Fons is an associate editor at The New Jersey Cooperator. Staff Writer  Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.


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