Be Prepared" is not just a timeworn motto—it's a piece of advice that can save lives, property, and countless dollars. While the average person doesn't really think that they'll be a victim of a fire, flood, earthquake, or even a terrorist attack, one look at the world's headlines over this past year proves that emergencies do happen.
In light of that simple fact, it's vital for HOA boards and managers to think seriously about how well prepared their association community is for an array of possible worst-case scenarios. New Jersey condo owners probably don't need to worry that much about massive earthquakes or direct terrorist attacks, but there are plenty of crises—like floods, fires, and severe storms—that can happen anytime, and that can cause untold damage to people and property. If your association's staff members, security guards, superintendents, and maintenance personnel are prepared to deal with emergencies and have the proper training and tools, that damage can be minimized.
Taking the Initiative
According to New Jersey law, there is nothing on the books mandating that HOA personnel undergo any kind of emergency preparedness training.
In any emergency, whether it's a building fire or a much larger problem, such as a natural or man-made disaster, local government resources are mobilized immediately to help contain the situation, followed by state and possibly federal assistance if the situation warrants. In the case of condos and homeowner associations, however, most likely it's the in-house staff, maintenance crew or security guards who will serve as the first responders in case of an emergency. Having a well-trained staff on-hand to manage the situation before the professionals arrive can make all the difference.
According to Raymond Roe, emergency management director of the state Office of Emergency Management (OEM) in Mahwah, "There are a number of factors [in how soon help will arrive], like the number of victims, possible communication failures, and roadblocks. Any one of those can prevent people from accessing the emergency services they've come to expect at a moment's notice after they dial 911."
That's why it's a good idea for board members and managers to take the initiative to make sure their staff members are properly trained—and for homeowners themselves to raise the issue at board meetings if they don't feel that their community staff is adequately prepared. Many homebuyers specifically seek out residences that have either a doorman, a security guard or other type of full-time staff because they feel safer and more secure knowing there's somebody on watch at all times. In addition to whatever training an association's management company offers to building or community staffers, a number of professional and governmental organizations offer emergency-preparedness courses as well.
"The people who work in the building or housing association should be aware of how to deal with emergencies," says Margie Russell, executive director of the New York Association of Realty Managers (NYARM), an organization that works to educate and train property managers throughout the tri-state area. "We offer courses for superintendents that address what they should do in a given emergency and how they should get residents ready. It's really something that everyone should do—especially in the world we live in today."
Roe agrees. "People may have to rely on each other for help with meeting their immediate needs until professional emergency responders can reach them. Having the staff ready can be a calming influence for everyone."
To that end, the OEM offers a program to prepare and train both association staff members and the general public for emergencies. The OEM recommends that anyone working on the staff of a condo or homeowner association take part in one of the classes. The goal of the class is to form a CERT, or Community Emergency Response Team—a group of people armed with specific skills and training to help them help themselves and their neighbors should a crisis arise.
"A CERT is a program that provides residents with basic training on what to do before, during and after a disaster," says Roe. "Most importantly, the training aids the participant in protecting themselves and their families during emergency situations. We don't tailor the program specifically for condo associations, but the program will provide people with what they need to know in those cases as well."
In addition to training their staff how to safely evacuate a burning building, or how to prepare an association's physical plant for an oncoming blizzard, managing agents can do their part by investigating and learning about their community's unique structural risk factors and vulnerabilities to natural disasters. How old is the building's electrical wiring? Are its fire escapes in good repair? Is the association in a low-lying area that might be susceptible to flooding, for example? Is the area known for heavy snowfall or freezing rain in the winter? Information about specific risks and hazards like these can be easily obtained your local emergency management office or an American Red Cross chapter.
And, says Joe M. Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Washington, D.C. "You also should learn whether hazardous materials are produced, stored or transported near your area, learn about possible consequences of deliberate acts of terror, and ask how to prepare for and respond to each potential emergency."
In addition to fire, flood, and other naturally occurring crises like heavy snow or dangerous heat waves, building and community security is another aspect of proper staff training. Protecting residents' property from burglary and vandalism may seem less vital out in the wide-open suburbs, but properly educating your staff on how to recognize, prevent, and minimize criminal activity is just as important as training them to cope with a raging blizzard. Residents feel safer if they know the staff members on hand are ready to handle anything—and safer residents are calmer in the face of an emergency.
Both government agencies like FEMA and the OEM and some private security companies offer seminars and workshops for HOA and building staff members to familiarize them with their community's emergency procedures and help them deal with potential security issues. Generally, the agency or firm will do a complete assessment of the property to examine its infrastructure and facilities, then conduct a tenant assessment to identify any disabled, elderly or very young residents who may have special needs. They also assess the experience level of the building staff and provide appropriate training—along with emergency preparedness training for residents that includes family safety plans, emergency supply kits and basic first aid.
"When we're involved with a homeowners association," says Charles Himberger, director of engineering at B & H Security in Summit, "we usually recommend that they install a camera system to monitor their property so should a situation arise, they at least have something to fall back on and look at."
"There are a number of different approaches to security training that have to do with the specific property and its entry systems," Himberger continues. "Security belongs to everyone—but it depends on what they feel their needs are. By giving the homeowners and board members the advice, all I can do is help prepare them."
And the preparation is often the point where HOAs come up short. According to Himberger, many associations treat security and emergency training for staff members as an afterthought—until something scary or even tragic happens right in their community.
"Homeowners usually don't want to get involved in something until after the fact, which is a poor way of looking at something," says Himberger, who goes on to say that even after a security consulting company comes in and makes recommendations, communities and their boards often don't implement the experts' advice until there's been a close call. "Often, they're not ready to hear you until they ask for a little bit of guidance," says Himberger. "Unless they ask, you'll find you're beating your head against the wall."
For those communities ready to swing into action and get serious about security and emergency training for their personnel, training consultants often work with the association's manager to turn him or her into an informal security liaison. In that capacity, the managing agent learns about basic first aid, evacuation and emergency techniques, how to perform basic emergency drills, how to monitor and direct the duties of employees during emergencies, and how to properly maintain emergency equipment. Management liaisons also learn how to prepare emergency kits for residents to have on hand in the event of a crisis
Ready and Willing
While hurricanes, earthquakes, and terrorist activity are relative long-shots in terms of likely emergencies, A fire, a blackout, or an attempted robbery can be real threats wherever you may live. Beyond responding to one-in-a-million emergencies, HOA staff members must also be trained to recognize and minimize everyday threats while keeping themselves and residents safe. On a day-to-day basis, your association staff may be responsible for simple things, such as making sure all security cameras are running, and that their videotapes are changed on time.
"You can protect an area with cameras very effectively," says Himberger. "Technology today is such that if you have your cameras on-site and the system is set up properly, individual homeowners can go into their [direct video recorder] DVR and view the area the camera is monitoring, if he chooses to. The staff needs proper planning to make this viable."
Another aspect of daily emergency preparedness is drilling. Drills and practice runs are both important steps in ensuring that your community or building has effective, efficient emergency procedures in place. In any medical or security emergency, the staff's main job will be to contact the proper emergency authorities and make sure everyone is safe.
"People do things in a panic," says Mike Green, the deputy director of security operations with the Thomas Shortman Training Program, which provides worker safety and training curricula for SEIU Local 32BJ, the building service workers union that represents more than 75,000 doormen, porters, maintenance workers, window cleaners, security guards, superintendents and theater and stadium workers in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
"So if you wait for the real thing before you have a drill, it will be pandemonium. If you have regular evacuation and fire drills, and the real thing does happen one day, the stress level will still be high, but your residents will be more likely to do everything correctly."
Bringing in (and paying for) consultants, mapping out emergency evacuation plans and holding real-time drills sounds like a lot of work—and it is. But the matter of keeping yourself and your residents and their property safe is no minor issue—staff members need to know what to do. Remember, those on staff don't need to be Superman to be heroes. Their job is to keep people calm, follow the protocol that has been set up well in advance, and maintain order until the proper emergency authorities show up. If you've done your homework and invested in a well-trained association staff, even the most unexpected emergency can be navigated safety and successfully.
Keith Loria is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.