It’s Not Just Planning: Take Your High-rise Emergency Management to the Next Level

You’ve planned for emergencies in your high-rise. You have an evacuation plan, a communication plan and backups of all your critical information, including resident contact info. You have your mass communication system ready to go when needed. Did you know that’s just part of the picture when it comes to managing high-rise emergencies?
 
It’s easy to confuse emergency planning and emergency management in discussion! Preparing for emergencies is important, but that planning is just one phase of emergency management. Knowing how to manage emergencies beyond that initial planning, will help protect your residents and community property. Failure to understand the additional phases of emergency management can result in confusion and an ineffective response when crisis strikes.
 
So what exactly is emergency management?
 
“Emergency management can be described as the continuous process by which a board would manage hazards in an effort to reduce the impact of disasters that a community may face,” says Andrew Batshaw, executive director of New Jersey high-rise for FirstService Residential.
 
Batshaw was an EMT in New Jersey for 22 years and served as the deputy chief of the EMS Bureau of the Middlesex County Office of Emergency Management and Central Region Staging Officer of the New Jersey EMS Task Force. He has extensive experience with crisis management, including 9/11, Tropical Storm Sandy and Super Bowl 48 and has worked in community management since 2010.
 
Above, it was mentioned that emergency planning is just one phase of emergency management. In order, the four phases are mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. Those phases are what make the process continuous rather than episodic. Let’s take a quick look at how Batshaw and other experts define each one:
 
  1. Mitigation:  Actions taken to prevent hazards from developing into disasters, or to reduce the effects or mitigate the consequences of disasters or emergencies when they happen.
  2. Preparedness:  Identifying hazards and developing plans for implementation when emergencies happen and disaster strikes.
  3. Response:  Taking direct action to protect property, mitigate damage, care for residents and potentially save lives.
  4. Recovery:  The process of repair and rebuilding following an emergency or disaster
 
Your board and management team work together in the mitigation and preparedness phases every day. Your goal is to reduce the damage from a disaster and to identify issues you will have to deal with when an emergency occurs. A newer building might face different challenges than older one. Waterfront buildings and communities have different issues from those in wooded suburban areas. Your strategic emergency plan will identify and address those issues, as well as evacuation, backup systems and communication. Maintenance is a critical part of those phases as well.
 
Batshaw recommends that boards take an “all hazards” approach and adapt general plans for specific needs such as blackouts, fire safety and hurricanes. “That approach permits quick response and orderly handling of disasters,” he explains. “The plan isn’t set in stone. It is a fluid document that will change over time and in response to circumstances, resident move ins and outs, etc. I recommend that boards review their all hazards plan quarterly. It needs to be easily accessible to everyone, including digitally from offsite.”
 
After planning comes response. Batshaw recommends that boards use the tactics of the incident command system (ICS). The ICS approach relies on a clear chain of command going back to an incident commander.
 
Depending on how your community or building is managed, you may want that incident commander to be your onsite property manager. If you are self-managed or part of a portfolio, you may prefer that the incident commander be a specific board member who is a full time resident willing to take on that leadership role. That person needs to be good under pressure and able to direct others to fulfill specific roles in an emergency. Ideally, everyone will know their roles and responsibilities well ahead of an emergency, but being able to direct others on the fly is important too.
 
The incident commander needs to think about ensuring safety and communicating with the residents, first and foremost, as per your emergency plan. A mass communication tool like the one in FirstService Residential Connect, is invaluable for reaching people quickly in emergency situations.
 
When it comes to responding to emergencies, your response is going to be determined largely by how much warning you have. Weather events like blizzards and hurricanes often allow ample time for checking generators, getting fuel, stocking supplies and backing up data. A fire, gas line explosion or pipe bursting, on the other hand, will likely have no warning at all. That’s why it’s important to have your emergency plans and kits ready to go and up to date at all times. Response is automatic when you’ve drilled and practiced and know what each member of the team is supposed to do.
 
After you respond, working with local emergency officials as needed, it’s time to think about recovery and restoration. Having your vendors lined up in advance, especially mold mitigation companies, plumbers and electricians, will help get your building back on line quickly. If you work with a professional property management company, they will have the depth of resources to access the experts you need as quickly as possible. They will also be able to leverage contacts with insurance companies and lenders to file your claims quickly and help you access bridge lending if needed.
 
Don’t think that communication responsibilities stop just because the immediate crisis has passed. It’s critical to keep your residents up to speed with all repair and rebuilding progress as you recover from the emergency.
 Once recovery is well underway, conduct an emergency response post-mortem. Get the board, committee heads and management staff together to go over what worked and, more importantly, what didn’t. Adjust your plans as needed.
 
And then? “Start the cycle all over again,” Batshaw says. “Because it is not if. It’s when.”
 
To learn more about emergency planning and management, as well as other property management topics, sign up on the right today!