An Ounce of Prevention: Emergency Planning Can Save Your Association Trouble and Money

No one wants to think about emergencies. But Scarlett O’Hara’s “I’ll think about it tomorrow” approach isn’t the best way to approach emergency planning for your high-rise or community association.  Having a comprehensive emergency plan in place can mean the difference between an emergency becoming a crisis and resolving efficiently and effectively. 
 
Make sure that your building 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.
 
In her seven years of property management, Crystal Coats has seen it all. “I’ve seen communities that were completely prepared and still nailed by disaster and the rare community that ignores all the ‘right’ things to do but everything still turns out okay,” she explains. “But of course, I always recommend being more prepared than less.”
 
In Virginia and the DC Metro area, Coats is a portfolio manager for several communities. Primarily mid-rise garden style communities, the emergencies that her communities face range from sewage backups to tornadic weather to pipes freezing and floods.
 
“I had 40 – yes, 40 – pipes burst in a few communities during an uncommonly deep freeze on January 3 of this year,” she says. “We had 27 pipes burst in one community and 11 in another. One of the pipes causes electrical components to get damp and that led to a fire. That was an unusual situation to say the least, but we were able to manage everything because we planned.”
 
What should you keep in mind when creating an emergency preparedness plan? Start with the following:
  1. Onsite 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? 

    Coats recommends that managers walk the property with vendors and contractors on a quarterly basis. Make sure they know any changes to the layout, any factors that may require a change in their standard operating procedure when an emergency hits.

  2. 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. Vendor agreements – “More and more, I’m seeing vendors like plumbers and electrical contractors offer premium levels of service that guarantee a community is on the priority list in the event of an emergency,” Coats says. “It’s a little bit of an investment up front, but if something happens, the dividends will more than pay off.”  When all those pipes burst in January 2018, Coats says that having established relationships with her vendors and ensuring that premium service was contracted where possible meant that her communities were being taken care of while others in the area were scrambling. 

    Coats also recommends consulting vendors and contractors as you make your emergency plans. Check that your contracts are not going to expire and renew them if necessary. “Make sure they know what your expectations are and that they know how to access the property if power is out, for example."

  4. 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 or property 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. 

    Because Coats’ communities are garden-style, she also focuses on where emergency services can access the property, park and stage from. “When you talk about having fire trucks and ambulances inside the property, as opposed to the streets around it, you have to think about those things,” she recommends. “Look at your community plans and identify the best places for large equipment to go if needed. Communicate that to your local emergency services if possible.”

  5. Back-up Systems – Consider how you can improve building safety, such as installing backup power or generators. In a high-rise, 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. In garden-style communities, consider street or sidewalk lights that run off a solar battery storage if possible.
  6. Plan for future repercussions – Just because an emergency is over doesn’t necessarily mean it’s really over. Virginia was shaken by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in 2011. That earthquake caused approximately $200 to $300 million in property damage. Coats says that none of her properties suffered immediate damage, but she is seeing effects of that quake now. “We recently discovered a major sewage leak under one of our buildings,” she recalls. “The engineer we worked with believes that the line had separated ever so slightly because of the quake, and several years later, we found out the hard way that we had sewage leaking under the building. That’s a hard one to prepare for.”
  7. 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.
     
    Consider creating an emergency team of board members, staff, building security personnel and resident volunteers. The role of this team is to lead communication and plan deployment before, during and after an emergency, as well as to spearhead continued communication efforts to residents throughout the year. The team can conduct regular safety drills if appropriate, and host periodic meetings to share the building’s emergency plan or update residents on any changes to emergency procedures.
     
    Some high-rise buildings and communities 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. 
     
    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, such as FirstService Residential Connect, 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 or building monitors to assist with contacting residents during all emergencies.
Have the right insurance coverage before an emergency happens. 
That 2011 earthquake? Industry estimates are that only less than one half of the damage costs were covered by insurance.  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.

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 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.

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 on the right today!
 

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