Create an Emergency Plan For Your Community Today

Whether you face a power-outage, a hurricane, a fire, a shooting 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 a priority.

No two emergency preparedness plans are identical. Variables that can affect your community’s specific requirements might include the type of housing you have, your location, your available resources and your demographics, to name just a few. Neglecting to prepare for emergencies has obvious – and potentially dire – consequences: injuries, property damage and even worse. Although no plan is foolproof, you can mitigate the negative impacts on your community, protecting your residents and property.
 
Make sure that your high-rise or community is prepared. 
Although you can’t predict emergencies, you can prepare for them. The most important thing that both board members and management can do to ready themselves for the unexpected is to create a customized emergency preparedness plan. A quality community association management company will have the experience, resources and knowledge to help you develop a plan that fits your specific situation.
 
Bryan Hughes, president of FirstService Residential in Massachusetts, has plenty of experience with community emergencies. “Like much of the rest of the eastern seaboard, we get a lot of storms with extremely cold temperatures: snow, ice, nor’easters. I’ve seen excellent responses to storms and unfortunately some that are less than stellar.”
 
Hughes mentions the Great Island community in Plymouth. It’s an active adult community that has active, involved committees. They faced a number of overlapping storms but were able to coordinate with snowplow crews and made sure that drains were cleared of debris to avoid flooding during snowmelt. “They were able to communicate well with both the management company and the residents,” Hughes says. “Out of a sense of duty, they ask everyone to take a turn on their committees. They have an expectation that everyone participates. When the people who are onsite have direct personal ownership and care, decisions to plan for worst-case scenarios can better be made in advance.”
 
Similarly, he says that the community at Tashmoo Woods on Martha’s Vineyard excels at emergency planning. “The Vineyard is highly seasonal, so there aren’t a lot of full-time residents. This last spring, the community faced a series of nor’easters that led to saturated ground and a number of downed trees,” he explains. “Despite few residents being onsite, the community was so well prepared that vendors were lined up, residents pitched in and all the roads on the property were cleared in a day. They had a solid plan with great communication and coordination efforts.”
 
On the other hand, Hughes had a couple of cautionary tales. “These aren’t communities we manage: I know of one high-rise that had a pipe burst on an upper floor between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when a lot of people are traveling. The community didn’t have contact information for residents nor a process in place to notify them, and they returned to standing water and almost total loss of their units,” he recalls. “Another community I know of was without power for 4 days after a nor’easter. Because they failed to do preventative maintenance on their generators as part of their emergency preparedness plan, they faced unnecessary challenges.”
 
So about that emergency plan… you know you need one. What should you think about as you create it? Start with the following:

Onsite staff – “The first thing that your board should do is work with your management company to create an emergency preparation committee that includes the manager and residents,” says Hughes. “When the board, management and residents all work together, that’s when things work well.” 
Management should establish a clear chain of command and clearly defined roles for staff to minimize confusion during the chaos that usually accompanies an emergency. Look at your staffing and make sure that you have people on staff who are able to respond appropriately to an emergency at any time. Do both management and the board’s leadership team have printed lists of emergency contacts (for both residents and staff) and vendors? Property management and staff should know to regularly walk the building and grounds, looking for hazards and examining the building’s safety systems and equipment. Include your contractors and vendors in those checks.

Your neighbors – Hughes says he feels that the human factor is critical. “Get to know your neighbors. Knock on doors, make sure people are okay,” he recommends. “Mass communication systems like FirstService Residential Connect are great, but if the power is out, email might be getting through, but people may not be able to charge their phones. That’s when the personal touch is the best route.” Consider creating a committee of volunteers with people assigned to check in on floors of the building or sections of the community.

Safety equipment – Emergency response equipment, first aid supplies, fire protection and fire suppression equipment should be on hand and readily available for staff and residents responding to an emergency. Establish storage areas on designated floors to house emergency supplies, including a stockpile of bottled water, flashlights, LED lanterns, glow sticks and batteries. Two-way radios are also a good idea for building staff and security, in case cell service goes down. Your community association management company can help you keep an updated checklist of emergency items on hand. Test all emergency generators regularly, and keep fuel for them on hand, stored according to safety protocols.

Evacuation plans – Are your residents prepared to shelter in place or evacuate as needed? Do they know where to go if they are required to leave the building quickly? Where are the safest areas in the building? What happens if they cannot re-enter or stay in their residences immediately following an emergency? All of these questions need to be answered in your emergency plan.  

Back-up Systems – Consider how you can – improve building safety, such as installing backup power or generators. Emergency lighting and photo luminescent strips in stairwells and hallways can help reduce confusion and panic in an emergency by directing high-rise residents to safety.

Local Emergency Management Teams – Knowledge is power! Find out of if your local offices of emergency management or fire department can bring in presentations of important safety information. Hughes says that managed communities and high-rises in the greater Boston area work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, American Red Cross, Department of Homeland Security and local chambers of commerce in addition to the fire departments. He says that it’s also important for communities to be in touch with agencies like FEMA to be aware of issue such as sea level rise.

“Sea level rise is going to be an ongoing problem for our high-rises, but it can also result in short-term immediate emergency situations. Underground parking garages in downtown Boston, the South Shore and the seaport area are already flooding a few times a year,” he explains. “In about 15 years, they’ll flood every time there’s a high tide. Beyond that, it may be a constant state of flood in those lower levels. Buildings are working with all levels of emergency management to mitigate the problem, but they are also preparing for emergency situations and capital projects down the road. Boilers, electrical panels and other critical equipment stored at lower levels will have to be moved up.”

Communicate the plan to everyone in the community. 
The best emergency plan in the world is useless if no one knows how to follow it. Share the plan with all residents, building staff, management and board members. Distribute a printed guidebook with evacuation routes, contact information and responses for any kind of emergency. Reinforce the guide through email or newsletters. Including links to demonstration videos can help residents visualize and better understand the procedures. Post conspicuous reminders in high-traffic areas like the mailroom or valet stand.

“We make sure people know that we have a supply of bottled water available in the office,” Hughes says. “When they come to get some, we give them information from board or management, face to face.”

Consider creating an emergency team made up of board members, staff, building security personnel and resident volunteers. This team should lead communication and plan deployment before, during and after an emergency, as well as spearhead continued communication efforts to residents throughout the year.
 
No matter how prepared you are, it can be easy for communication to break down during an emergency. Prevent that from happening by maintaining a master emergency contact list, including a list of residents with special needs, in both digital and hard copy formats. Pair that list with a reliable resident alert system that sends automated email, phone and text messages in an emergency. It is also very important to make note of apartments with elderly residents or those who may not be able to receive text messages. Appoint floor monitors to assist during all emergencies also. Having that clear chain of command will help keep communication flowing smoothly during an emergency as well.
 
Have the right insurance coverage before an emergency happens. 
It’s important to make sure that you have the right insurance coverage for all emergency possibilities, including flood, fire, wind damage and other disasters. Making sure that the community is properly insured extends to homeowners. It’s a good idea to encourage high-rise homeowners to have HO-6 policies which cover the contents of their units. Condo owners don’t always understand that they need their own policies. Property insured under a master association policy includes the common areas and property owned by the condominium corporation. Boards should routinely remind unit owners to purchase their own unit coverage and suggest that all homeowners include loss assessment coverage on their policies. That coverage will provide funds to offset the association’s master policy deductible and cost far less to each homeowner than a special assessment.
 
Emergencies happen. Having a plan in place to anticipate and prepare as much as possible will help make the crisis go as smoothly as possible. To learn more about how a professional property management company can help your community or high-rise plan for emergencies and other community management concerns, sign up today!
 

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