Preparing Your Community for Emergencies Readiness Is Everything

Planning for a rainy day is pretty easy. Have an extra umbrella handy or a waterproof coat, and you’re probably fine. Planning for the rainiest day ever, on the other hand, is significantly more daunting. Especially if during that day there’s also a fire, an earthquake, or a tornado. It may sound like exaggeration, but every association or co-op board must face the possibility of a real-life worst-case scenario in order to ensure that their residents are adequately prepared to weather any storm – literal or figurative. Protecting lives – and property value – to the best of its ability is the duty of every board, and as such, every multifamily community should have a plan ready in the event of an emergency.

Managing Hysteria

Volunteer board members are most likely not experts in evacuating a large property or community – nor are they expected to be. Fortunately, volunteer board members can lean on management and other outside crisis experts for guidance to ensure that they’re prepared to handle an unexpected and dangerous situation. 

“Emergencies by definition strike quickly and without warning,” says Nicholas J. Harris, Jr., Vice President of Operations with Realty Performance Group in Rochester, New York. “Knowing what to do ahead of time is both your responsibility and your best protection, so it’s important that management be involved from the outset, working directly with a board to create, implement and update a plan. This plan should also be formulated in cooperation with police and fire department officials, disaster recovery contractors, outside service contractors, community service agencies and the management company’s staff. And, aside from natural disasters, [board-management teams] must consider arson, crime, assault, theft, bomb threats, power outages, medical crises, and other spontaneous problems that may arise.”

According to both property management and emergency management pros, associations that go it alone in emergency planning are likely to miss something. Even the most thorough board is likely to overlook a contingency, if only due to limited experience. “I’ve worked with associations that have developed plans on their own, as well as those that have worked with an independent consultant,” says Christopher R. Lanni, Founder and President of Secure Residential Services in Concord, Massachusetts. “Some of the associations that do things themselves have success pulling their resources together and utilizing what’s available. But those that utilize an independent consultant – someone neutral with a fresh set of eyes – tend to end up with a more robust plan, with richer detail. And it’s mostly a one-time expense; typically I’ll tell boards to allocate a few dollars in the budget every few years, just to go in and do some refreshing after examining what’s changed in regard to property alterations or demographic changes.”

There are certain items that a board should have on hand and readily accessible. Harris recommends keeping a three- to four-day supply of water and non-perishable foods, extra clothing and blankets, first aid kits, prescription medications, flashlights, battery-operated radios, extra car keys, cash, credit cards, and any necessities for infants and the elderly. He also recommends that families identify a meeting location in the event they’re separated, and that they keep written contact information in waterproof and/or fireproof containers, should cellular service be unavailable. 

There are plenty of resources to which a board can turn to vet their emergency plan and make sure it covers all the bases. Lanni recommends several, including NEDRIX,the Northeast Disaster Recovery Information X-Change; ASIS International, a security professionals organization with a disaster planning group; and the International Association of Professional Security Consultants (IAPSC). “I’d just caution against adapting another building’s plan,” Lanni warns. “A good plan is tailored to your specific address.”

Chicago Fire (and Other Disasters)

Emergency planning isn’t just something a responsible, proactive board does; it may well be the law. Take Chicago, for example.

“For associations in buildings over 80 feet, the City of Chicago mandates a fire emergency evacuation plan be filed with the city, per the Chicago Fire Safety Code,” explains Howard S. Dakoff, a partner in the Community Associations Practice Group of Levenfeld Pearlstein LLC in Chicago. “Lower-height buildings are not required to do so, but for those, it is not common to see a fire evacuation plan adopted. Also, the fire code requires appropriate signage in buildings to advise in event of a fire.”

Liability issues factor into whether or not it is worthwhile to implement a specific plan. “We have not heard of emergency plans for floods or pandemics for our clients, as those are not required by law, and are uncommon in city high-rises,” Dakoff says. “So that’s not something boards generally tackle, because when it’s not required by law, choosing to not adopt a plan won’t equate to liability for negligence. But where an adopted emergency plan results in death or injury by any residents following it, that could have potential liability if there is negligence in its contents, as determined by a court of competent jurisdiction. 

“It is possible that management companies have internal policies and procedures for such contingencies but as legal counsel, we are unaware of it,” Dakoff continues. “For example, a management company might even have an automated robo-call phone system to call unit owners in the event of an emergency. Property management, building staff and first responders handle the actual emergency, then commonly call me to notify me, coordinate with insurance coverage issues, and communicate with affected unit-owners on occasion.”

Better Safe Than Sorry

In some places, like Florida, statute doesn’t dictate which emergencies an association must plan for. Of course, this doesn’t give a board carte blanche to kick back and wish bad weather away; a board still has a fiduciary duty to protect its property and residents.

“While there’s no statutory requirement for either a condominium or HOA to have an emergency disaster plan,” says Joshua Gerstin of Gerstin & Associates in Boca Raton, “pursuant to Florida’s Condominium Act and its Homeowner’s Association Act, a community association’s primary role is to protect and maintain the common areas and operate the association for the health, safety, comfort and general welfare of the unit-owners. Implied within that statutory role is protecting the common areas, owners and equipment from disasters. Although an emergency disaster plan isn’t required by law, should something go awry during an emergency that could have been avoided, or the damage mitigated, the lack of a coherent emergency disaster plan could be considered when determining whether the association acted negligently.”

Shari Wald Garrett, an associate with law firm Siegfried, Rivera, Hyman, Lerner, De La Torre, Mars, and Sobel, P.A., which has offices in parts of Florida, offers the following suggestions to associations, noting that these are certainly not all-inclusive:

Create an emergency to-do list and a preparedness plan

Maintain a roster of residents, association banking and staff information, including names, addresses and phone numbers

Maintain keys to each unit

Have copies of the wind, flood and property insurance policies in digital format, as well as hard copies in waterproof containers

Photograph and/or take video of the interiors and exteriors of the property and common areas

Collect emergency supplies in event of an emergency, including flashlights, batteries, radios, water and non-perishables

Review the association’s insurance plan to determine whether the association has necessary deductible funds on hand, or if it has to plan to obtain emergency funds at short notice

Verify emergency evacuation routes

Prior to a storm, contact vendors to take precautionary measures, such as cutting down at-risk trees, clearing debris, securing common elements, and shuttering windows/doors

Plan for water and electric shut-off times and furniture storage

Assign a communications facilitator to keep residents updated and informed, possibly via association website or text messaging 

Know which residents will remain on the property during the emergency

Encourage all residents to stay informed

Finally, once clear of the disaster, an association attorney should be able to help transition everything back to normalcy. “Typically, I am the liaison between the association and the insurance carrier in coordinating storm clean-up and restoration,” says Gerstin. “During this time, unscrupulous contractors and vendors prey on nervous and confused community associations in need of immediate repairs. Therefore, I also devote a significant amount of time toward reviewing the contracts and background of contractors and other vendors which the association is considering hiring for a disaster cleanup or restoration. Throughout this process, I draft letters to the members on behalf of the association to keep them apprised of the situation.”

“It can be frustrating for a board to come together and make important decisions in the wake of a disaster, especially if they’ve been ousted from their residence,” Lanni concludes. “That’s not the ideal time to have a conversation about insurance coverage. Having fundamental discussions well in advance of an emergency will make things significantly easier.”                       

Mike Odenthal is a staff writer/reporter for The Cooperator. 

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