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What to Keep in Mind Customizing an Emergency Plan

One of the most important things for an urban or suburban dweller to know about his or her condo, co-op or HOA is often the one thing that everyone forgets about—that is, what to do in the event of an emergency. While it's true that the basics of preventing and surviving disasters like fires should be well known to anybody living in an apartment building, condominium or townhouse unit, there is no "one-size-fits all" emergency plan for a multi-family dwelling. Each community is different, with different physical equipment, different building materials and different emergency escape routes.

Because it's important for management to ensure the safety of the community's occupants, it is imperative for association boards and managers to formulate customized, workable emergency plans for their community. Having such a plan enables community members to react properly when the unthinkable crisis occurs, allowing everyone to make it to safety and not be injured in the process.

Planning to Succeed in a Crisis

When coming up with your emergency plan, you should first consider your property's location. Factor in whether your building is in a flood zone, an area of high crime, in a densely populated area, in a suburb, etc. These are all factors to consider when both assessing the likelihood of disaster and planning for it.

"If your housing is near the ocean, you want to be aware of the potential for a hurricane. Some types of risk analysis will help to prioritize your focus," says Bill Morelli, executive vice-president of Homeland Safety Consultants, Inc. in Manhattan.

But such a focus is not likely to happen without the help of a professional, experts say. Richard A. Williams, CPM of Boston, Massachusetts-based property manager Paradigm Partners, advises that a community hire a good property manager to help start the dialogue regarding emergency planning. "Disaster planning for a condo is a very difficult process, and some boards don't grasp the need for such planning," Williams says.

A property's management team can also go the extra step of hiring a professional emergency preparedness consultant to assess the community's risk and to help with the emergency plan.

The main thing a property manager must do to begin the planning process is to recognize the property's risks, agrees Cris Allen, area vice-president of the Dallas, Texas-based Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. insurance branch. "The number one risk is fire. You want to assess and evaluate your sprinkler system and fire alarm system, as well as check the elevators," Allen says. Also, you need to know what kind of fire escapes you have and how well they will function during an emergency such as a fire, adds Allen.

In addition to fires, one of the other most common types of emergencies that might befall a condo or co-op community is flooding. A water problem on the 30th floor could wipe out hundreds of units. Or a loss of electricity could make life unbearable in some apartments, particularly in units in older buildings, which may have no emergency lights to rely on.

While emergencies such as fires, flooding or water problems and snow/ice problems can be pretty well planned for, other less-common crises, such as terrorism, are tougher to prepare for. Some of these crises are more common than we think, such as steam pipe explosions—there was one within the past year in New York City. Boston had such an explosion recently too, Williams says. "You need to sort-of think out things, the what-ifs. Part of planning is preparing—make sure emergency generators and other building systems are maintained. And make sure you have spare parts, like extra sprinkler heads, in case one breaks," he says.

To prepare for a bio-terrorism threat, a building's management should know where the building's fresh air intakes are, and know how to close the intakes in an emergency situation, Morelli advises. Management also should be aware of warning signs of terrorism material. High-profile buildings with famous or well-known residents might want to be a bit more careful in noticing suspicious-looking packages in the mailroom, for instance.

Jeanne Delgado, vice president of property management for the National Multi-Housing Council in Washington D.C., says her organization encourages its members, especially since 9/11, to develop a preparedness plan. The disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the upcoming threat of pandemic flu make it even more important for property managers to plan for a crisis, she says.

"Specific considerations for apartment owners and managers [in the event of such uncommon crises] include a reduced on-site workforce, the safety and security of employees and residents, illness and possible deaths on properties, reduced services such as trash removal and maintenance," Delgado says.

Transportation concerns and communications about the pandemic to residents must also be considered. Do's and don'ts, such as determining what services to shut down and when, i.e. fitness centers, pools, etc., must also be addressed, Delgado says.

Roles in an Emergency

During an emergency a person's adrenaline can get pumping, and people who might intend to help could unintentionally get in the way. Board members, as leaders of the community, may feel the need to take a hand in the response to the emergency, but they should not always do so. Most often, board members should allow the building staff and the management company officials to deal with the situation, Williams says.

According to Paul DePetro of Monticello Management, Inc., a property management company in Leonia, the emergency plan should include an evacuation procedure.

"The same procedures are applicable in New Jersey as they are across the river in New York City," he advises. "The evacuation procedure book should include designation points on each floor for homeowners to report to and perform head counts, floor plans, a list of disabled and handicapped persons and a list of emergency contact numbers."

He suggests running through a practice session of the evacuation procedures once annually.

Implementation of the emergency plan is the managing agent's responsibility, Morelli says. There are four responses to an emergency situation, he says.

Shelter in place is a response to a situation where residents are instructed to stay put in their units, while the building staff shuts off the fresh air intakes and closes and secures the building.

In-building relocation is a response where residents are told to go to a designated safe room in the building, or when they are instructed to find a safe room in their apartments to stay in, such as in the case of a "dirty" nuclear bomb.

Full evacuation involves complete evacuation of the building. "The important thing is to have a place to evacuate to," Morelli says. "And secondly, accountability—you want to find out who made it."

Partial evacuation is when an emergency only affects part of the building, and requires a partial evacuation of the structure.

It's important that those responsible for a community's emergency plan do not neglect considering the requirements of "special needs" residents in their community during a crisis. Accommodations for evacuation of such residents, who could have limited mobility due to illness or who might be too young to follow an emergency plan, should be delineated while devising the emergency plan.

Because of laws governing the disclosure of personal information, emergency providers such as firefighters or police officers cannot have a list before an emergency that informs them as to which residents of a building are disabled, Allen says. But in the event of an emergency in the building, it is the responsibility of the property manager to immediately provide that information to emergency responders.

Your game plan should also include phone numbers of potential service providers and other professionals you might need in the event of a crisis.

"Emergency situations are stressful and you must assume not everyone will be thinking clearly," says Michael Cervelli, president of Cervelli Management Co. in North Bergen. "We ask [residents] to become familiar with emergency procedures so they become almost automatic in the event something occurs."

"Find out how you can help police and fire officials help you," adds Cervelli. "Seconds count. Someone posted in front directing those exiting and sharing information with responders will help."

According to Cervelli, it is extremely important that you don't obsess about what you cannot control. Instead, focus your efforts on how to deal with the immediate needs of your residents.

"Don't panic, stay focused and follow the outlined and predetermined procedures," says DePetro.

Good Communication is Key

One necessary element of a good emergency management plan is making sure it provides for plenty of communication between those in charge and the residents. Nothing is scarier than… not knowing what's going on.

A 'calling tree,' whereby community members call one another in the event of a problem, is one way. Another, more modern method is a phone notification service that dials multiple phone lines at once with crucial information. A growing trend in the property management arena, phone notification systems are a great way to keep residents apprised of what's going on—immediately.

In an emergency, knowing what to do and how to react is more than half the battle. People don't necessarily know the right course of action during an emergency, and their instincts can fail them. Because of this, getting the word out in your community about your emergency plan is essential. There are several ways the plan can be sent to residents, such as including the information in the condo owner's guide. Not everyone will read it, but they (hopefully) will have it at their fingertips.

Describing the emergency plan in-person at a well-advertised meeting is ideal, except many residents will likely miss such a meeting. Residents who miss the meeting could be mailed a written copy of the emergency plan. Morelli suggests that the property manager spread the information through a customized video or DVD recording that is specific to the building, or through information placed on the building's website. A PowerPoint presentation of the emergency plan could also be made available to residents through the building's website.

Property managers know that creating an emergency plan for their building community is a prudent thing to do. But creating such a plan could also soon be mandatory for some New Jersey buildings, says Chris Donnelly, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. A new requirement proposed for the State Fire Prevention Code would mandate that a fire emergency guide with information on alarms, fire protection equipment and evacuation plans be distributed to each tenant in a high-rise building.

When every resident of a community is informed of the emergency plan, they all have a good chance of escaping uninjured from a building emergency. First, though, the resident must read the emergency plan and know what to do when the fire, flood, hurricane or other emergency hits. Knowing how to react could save a resident's life.

"In the case of some disasters, the natural reaction of most people is to flee," Morelli says. "People look at the World Trade Center and don't listen to authorities… The biggest thing people have to learn about emergency preparedness is not to just run outside."

Jonathan Barnes is a Pittsburgh writer who regularly contributes to The Cooperator and other publications. Domini Hedderman contributed to the writing of this story.

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