Emergency Preparedness Planning: Keeping Calm in a Crisis
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No community association ever wants to find itself in the midst of an emergency, but it can happen anytime and anywhere. Whether you face an outbreak of illness, earthquake, a hurricane, or a flood, the impact of any devastating event can be minimized if your community has prepared for it. No doubt, your board meetings are already chock full of agenda items, but it’s important to make emergency preparedness planning a priority.
No two emergency plans are identical. Variables that can affect your community’s specific requirements might include the type of community or building you have, your location, your available resources and your demographics, to name just a few. Despite these differences, your association can create an effective – and life-saving – plan by following these eight basic steps.
Establish a committee.Designing an emergency preparedness plan takes some dedicated work. Start by forming a committee or assigning an existing committee (such as a security committee) to do the preliminary research and make recommendations.
Edwin Lugo, vice president of the South Florida High-Rise Division of FirstService Residential, says that he and his team begin working with boards as early as possible to make sure that everyone understands emergency plans for storm season, well before it starts. It’s important to share all emergency plans at board meetings and then with the resident community, making sure everyone knows what to do and what everyone else is doing at each stage of a tropical event.
Define your mission.According to FirstService Residential’s Dan Farrar, general manager for the Ironwood Community in Palm Desert, California, your committee’s first step should be to speak with other communities that have already developed emergency plans. This will enable you to better understand what should go into your emergency plans so you can clarify your mission, as well as determine what volunteers will need to do and what resources you’ll require to fulfill that mission.
For example, the Ironwood Community wanted to establish an orderly way to check on the welfare of residents in every home. “People make a lot of assumptions,” says Farrar, “and we didn’t want that to result in a home being overlooked. So we came up with a process that included tagging each home with ribbons when they’d been checked.
Know whom to contact and where to turn.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. Be sure to include local hospitals, radio stations, onsite security staff, utility companies and your property management company on the list.
Communicate with residents, staff and management.An emergency preparedness plan won’t be effective unless residents, onsite staff and your property management team are familiar with it. 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, as well as details about where and when the community will meet as a group during an emergency event. Your board should also remind residents of the plan periodically. “We offer a refresher course twice a year,” says Farrar, “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 property management company that provides you with a system to alert residents of an emergency. When an actual emergency occurs, it is especially critical that your community have a reliable communication system in place, like FirstService Residential Connect's mass communication tool. Connect allows management to alert residents about everything from upcoming meetings to an emergency via email, text and robocall. According to FirstService Residential Director of Management Alex Taylor, “Our communities depend on Connect to ensure that everyone receives all important information and knows what action to take.
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, vice president of community and lifestyle services at FirstService Residential, believes that “training in CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] and first aid are always good for board members and other staff to have.” A Red Cross instructor already, Ramsey received additional training through a federal initiative called the Certified 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,” says Ramsey. Farrar, who underwent CERT training with some 25 homeowners at Ironwood, sees tremendous value in the program. “It’s worth it if we can be just a little more prepared,” he says.
Your property 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.
Form an emergency “action” team.It’s important to identify homeowners who would be willing to jump into action during an emergency. About 75 homeowners have volunteered to be on the emergency team at Ironwood, a 1,070-unit master community made up of single-family homes. “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,” says Farrar, “so we’d have to rely on homeowners.”
What are property management staff responsible for during a weather emergency?
Lugo says it’s important for residents to know that property management staff are not able to or responsible for helping secure individual homes. “Staff need to focus on high-level issues like making sure that drains in the street and parking areas are clear. Is there debris that can block drains and cause flooding? Are gutters clear?” he says. “They need to be safeguarding common areas, including bringing in objects that can become projectiles and putting up shutters on common areas. A lot of our doors and gates have motors, magnetic strips or electronic locks, and unfortunately, they sometimes get forgotten in storm preparation. They have to be secured so that they don’t fly open or get stuck in the closed position if the power fails.
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 onsite. “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.
Partner with your neighbors.Even though you may not be able to get immediate help from first responders, joining forces with other associations can provide additional help. “We meet with other communities and share our progress reports with them,” explains Farrar. “We’ve developed some great relationships.