Can Your HOA Handle a Crisis? 8-Step Emergency Preparedness Plan
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Is your association really prepared for an emergency? Whether you’re part of a Los Angeles high-rise or an active adult community in Palm Desert, a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic) can happen anytime. You may not be able to account for every detail in the moment, but developing an emergency preparedness plan will help you and your community be equipped for the next time the unexpected occurs.
No two emergency plans are identical. Variables that can affect your community’s specific requirements might include the type of community or building, your location, your available resources and your demographics, to name just a few. Despite these differences, your association can create an effective (and potentially life-saving) plan by following these 8 basic steps.
1. Start an emergency preparedness committee.Developing an emergency preparedness plan takes dedicated work. That’s why it’s important to consider forming a committee or assign an existing committee (such as a security committee) to do the preliminary research and make recommendations.
It’s important to share all emergency plans at board meetings and then communicate with residents, making sure everyone knows their role during each stage of an emergency. Work with your management company to ensure that residents are kept in the loop on your plan as well as changes to existing plans.
2. Define your mission.What is the mission of your emergency plan? While the overall goal should be to protect and preserve your community, make sure you have a specific mission in mind. How do you determine this mission? According to FirstService Residential’s Daniel Farrar, general manager for Ironwood Community Association in Palm Desert, California, your committee should speak with communities that have already developed emergency plans. This can help you better understand what your mission needs to be and what details need to be included in your plan. Your management company should help facilitate these discussions.
For example, Ironwood Community Association’s mission was to establish an orderly way to check on the welfare of residents in every home. “People make a lot of assumptions, and we didn’t want that to result in a home being overlooked,” said Farrar. “We came up with a process that included tagging each home with ribbons when they’d been checked.”
3. Create or update an emergency contact list.If you don’t already have one, create a list with emergency contact information, including phone numbers, addresses and websites, and distribute this list throughout the community. Work with your management company on the distribution, utilizing their communication tools and determining what makes the most sense for your community (e.g., printed flyers, emails, etc.). The contact list should include local hospitals, radio stations, on-site security staff, utility companies and your association management company.
This contact list should be layered into a larger document of HOA standard operating procedures (SOP). If you don’t already have an SOP, your management company should provide you with guidance and resources to help develop and execute emergency protocols for your community.
4. Communicate the plan with residents and staff.An emergency preparedness plan won’t be effective if only a few people are kept in the loop. Once your board has signed off on the plan, work with your management team to distribute a print or digital copy to residents and on-site staff. For example, Farrar explained that everyone at Ironwood receives a printed guidebook with relevant contact numbers, information about the emergency response team, instructions and tips for handling various types of emergencies and details about where and when the community will meet as a group during an emergency. This should be updated on an annual or biannual basis, and your board should also remind residents of the plan periodically. Farrar said, “We offer a refresher course twice a year, once at our annual meeting and once at the beginning of the season in December or January.”
Communication is especially critical during an actual disaster situation, so be sure you are working with a management company that provides you with a system to alert residents of an emergency. FirstService Residential provides communities with its Connect mass communication tool to alert residents about upcoming meetings, community events and emergency situations via email, text and robocall.
5. Get appropriate training.Training is a critical part of emergency preparedness planning because knowing how to quickly respond in an emergency can save lives. Melissa Ramsey, general manager at FirstService Residential, said, “Training in CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] and first aid are always good for board members and other staff to have.” As a Red Cross instructor, Ramsey received additional training through a federal initiative called the Community Emergency Response Training (CERT) program . CERT is offered at no cost in 28 states by local fire, medical and other emergency management personnel to help citizens be prepared for emergencies.
“The program makes you aware of things such as emergency action plans, ingress and egress routes and communication strategies,” said Ramsey. Farrar participated in CERT training with 25 homeowners. “It’s worth it if we can be just a little more prepared,” he said.
Your management company may also offer emergency preparedness training. For example, FirstService Residential conducts regular training seminars to help board members develop their emergency preparedness plan and learn what to include in an emergency kit.
6. Form an emergency action team.When a crisis occurs, you may not be able to rely on outside sources for help. That’s why it’s key to form an emergency action team. Work with your management team to help identify homeowners who would be willing to jump into action during an emergency.
For instance, about 75 homeowners volunteered to be on the emergency team at Ironwood, a 1,070-unit master-planned community. “Even though we’re very close to the fire department, we found out that we might not be able to count on firefighters showing up quickly in a disaster because their priority might be somewhere that’s more populated,” said Farrar. “In some cases, we need to rely on homeowners.”
7. Determine resources you have and those you need to obtain.Do you need to stockpile water or gasoline? Should you get first aid kits? Although these may all seem like necessary investments, Farrar says that you might not realize how many resources you already have available in your community. “Our homes all have water tanks, so we all have a source of water,” he remarks. “We also have gasoline in our cars that we could use.” As you develop your emergency preparedness plan, work with your committee to think outside the box and come up with creative solutions for difficult scenarios.
8. Partner with neighboring associations.As the familiar saying goes, “we’re all in this together.” Joining forces with other associations can provide additional help in times of crisis. As Farrar noted, “We meet with other communities and share our progress reports with them. By joining forces and sharing best practices, we’ve developed some great relationships.”
Is your HOA prepared for a crisis?While none of us look forward to facing an emergency or crisis, having an emergency preparedness plan in place can go a long way.
Work with your management company to ensure that they have the technology, depth of resources and professional expertise in place to help you plan for an emergency, execute an effective plan, equip your staff with helpful training and communicate your plan to residents.