Emergency Preparedness: What You Need to Know & How Your Management Company Can Help

Emergencies are a fact of life. Having a comprehensive emergency plan in place can mean the difference between an emergency situation that escalates into a crisis and one that is resolved efficiently and effectively. 
 
Make sure that your building is prepared. 
Although you can’t predict emergencies, you can prepare for them. What happens if you don’t prepare and plan ahead? The best case is some inconvenience to your homeowners – maybe the elevators don’t run because you didn’t get fuel for the backup generator. At the worst, you may see injuries or even deaths among your residents. You may also suffer unnecessary damage to common area property. 
 
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.
 
What should you keep in mind when creating an emergency preparedness plan? Start with the following:
  1. Train Your Building Staff  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? Community association management and staff should know to regularly walk the building and grounds, looking for hazards and examining the building’s safety systems and equipment.
  2. Test Your 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.
  3. Plan for Evacuation   Are your residents prepared to 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.

    Set up a rally point and a command post that can serve as your office and information point until the disaster is over. Make sure people know to check in there. “There should be somebody there 24/7 the first 72 hours at least. We had a fire, and found out that people had questions, but the manager was being pulled in so many directions that no one was able to answer them,” Timothy Snowden, FirstService Residential's Executive Director of Philadelphia High-Rise Operations says. “If we have another FirstService Residential building close by, we can use that building as the command post until the all-clear is given and we have that plan in place ahead of time.”

    If that’s not an option, Snowden suggests finding a close church or school that will let you set up a computer for a couple of days and offer to do the same for them if needed.

    If you have residents who need evacuation assistance in your high-rise, keep a separate updated list that can be given to first responders. “It’s important that people who need assistance understand that they need to stay in their units,” Snowden says. “I know that can be scary. But imagine this: a first responder goes to the unit and it’s empty. They assume all is well and move on to the next resident on the list, having no clue that the resident is stuck three flights down because the resident tried to navigate the stairwell and couldn’t make it. First responders will find people who need help but they need to stay put.”

  4. Prepare to Shelter in Place  Sometimes you can’t evacuate. “Shelter in place is one of the things we need to keep an on these days that we didn’t 10 years ago. Look at situations like the threats during the papal visit a couple of years ago, the civil unrest in Baltimore. You have to make sure you have somewhere safe for your residents to go,” Snowden says.

    The Federal Emergency Management Agency says to be prepared to shelter in place for 48 to 72 hours. “If there’s a major disaster in Philly, FEMA will need that time to get to you,” Snowden explains. “We want our residents to make sure that they stock up for emergencies, but the building does need to be prepared as well. I instruct managers to stock some extra non-perishable food and water beyond what our associates need, just in case a resident isn’t prepared. If you don’t know what to buy, Amazon has many food products with long shelf lives and other emergency supplies you never thought of.”

    The Philadelphia Fire Code requires that condominiums develop a plan to shelter occupants inside the building in the event of a hazardous material, biological or other emergency outside the building. The purpose of this shelter-in-place plan is to safeguard residents of the building by closing windows and doors and shutting off air handling/HVAC systems, and by moving residents away from perimeter windows and doors to safer locations in the building.

  5. Check Your 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. Make sure you have plenty of diesel fuel on hand. Much of this is dictated by local fire and safety codes; make sure you meet them.
  6. Back Up Your Community’s Data  “At FirstService Residential we use Citrix Server so that all of our office data is in the cloud,” Snowden says. “If your manager is using that system, your data is backed up automatically. You can work from a tablet on the go if needed and have all the same data at all times.”  If your office doesn’t run on an entirely remote server system, invest in adequate cloud storage through Google, Amazon, Microsoft or any number of services so that you don’t have to worry if your hard drives are damaged in a fire, flood or power emergency.
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.
Of course, you can’t make people attend your training, so make it as attractive as possible. Snowden recommends partnering with vendors and sponsors to throw a great event so people will want to come and then teach them about safety at the same time. Free food always attracts a crowd!
 
Some high-rise buildings work with their local offices of emergency management and fire departments to bring in presentations of important safety information. This not only provides residents with useful information, but also helps them feel more secure. 
Make sure that you can quickly and easily reach the entire community. FirstService Residential Connect offers the opportunity to reach residents by text, email and robocall in just a few clicks.   
 
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 flooding, fire, earthquake, tornadoes and other disasters. 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 to 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.

Having an adequate emergency plan is critical to the safety and well-being of your residents. Maximize their safety and minimize your risk by creating a good emergency plan today.

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