New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Framing the Tough Question

Emergency planning has taken on a new life in New York City. With two major emergencies in the last two years - the World Trade Center tragedy and the blackout - many boards and managers throughout the city are confronting what their roles should be in planning or thinking about disasters that may affect the residents of the buildings they govern and manage.

"You're damned if you do, damned if you don't," says Richard Siegler, partner in Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. "Many boards have concluded that there is just so much emergency preparation you can do. I think boards face more liability by putting their heads in the sand" with regard to some type of emergency planning. "To do nothing is terrible."

The question is what to do? What type of emergency does a board plan for? How extensive and thorough is the planning? What kind of investment should a building make in emergency procedures? And who should lead the way?


John Perry, board secretary at 50 East 10th Street, has devoted considerable energy to answer these questions. Heading his co-op's 107-unit Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee, Perry garnered board and shareholder support in the development of an emergency preparedness plan. "Our first basic decision," he says, "was to decide what type of emergency we were going to plan for. Were we planning for survival in the case of a major disaster? Or were we planning for help in a medical emergency or building evacuation?"

Framing the question is the first step boards need to take. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the blackout of 2003 posed two different types of emergencies, and both conjure up other varieties of scary calamities. Perry's group focused its planning on their building's safety and evacuation, "not on surviving a major disaster." With that underpinning, the direction was set.

The next step was to assemble a group of bids from companies specializing in emergency planning. The winning bid was based on hourly rates for building inspection and staff training and, specifically, included creating a list of building safety and fire violations and their cures; training building staff on how to react to various emergencies; and staging inspections of individual apartments (on a request basis) for safety and fire violations and their cures.

"I had no idea what I was signing up for [when I first began this project]," says Perry. But after a two-day walk-through of the building, in March 2003, which resulted in a list of "here's what's wrong and here's what you do about it," it became clear that "we needed a fire-and-building evacuation drill. There was some skepticism whether many people would participate, and lots of practical issues - like when do we do it? what time of the day? should we alert the police and fire departments? should we inform our neighboring buildings? - so at our building's annual meeting in April 2003 we posed the question to the shareholders. Almost every single hand went up in favor of holding the drill."

A building-evacuation drill was staged in early July 2003 at about 7 P.M., and, reports Perry, there was a "big turnout." A few weeks later, when the city was darkened by the utility blackout, Perry's building was prepared. "We had 100 glow sticks on hand at the doorman's station; all staff were wearing flashlights as a result of our consultant's report; and we had a list of the handicapped residents in our building who needed special help."

"Our planning was animal-simple," Perry says. Now in the final draft stages of producing an emergency procedures manual, each chapter will cover a different type of emergency: medical, fire, elevator breakdown, power failure, gas leak, steam pipe leak, chemical or biological attack, and building evacuation when the police or fire department aren't able to assist. The manual outlines emergency procedures by type of disaster, listing the steps to take in the order that they should be taken. It is written for the doorman, with the idea that he is the first line of defense, and the one staff member who is always present at a predictable location.


From a board perspective, taking steps to prepare for an emergency is much like financial planning. You wrestle with what you want to accomplish, and then form steps to get there. The challenge is deciding on your goal.

John Sicree, senior vice president/ director of management of Brown Harris Stevens, began the process by creating a global perspective for his buildings. To date, his firm has held two workshops for all superintendents and property managers - the first in January 2003, the second in July of the same year. The first workshop, led by trainers from the local chapter of the American Red Cross, was tailored for supers and covered disaster and emergency plans for individuals. The second workshop, led by a security company, conducted a training session for supers on general security and awareness measures, planning for and responding to emergencies, possible acts of terrorism, biological agents and bombs, and monitoring whoever enters and leaves the property.

"Most of our buildings are less concerned about terrorism than they are about security," says Sicree. "We are undertaking an analysis of what's in place - from a technology and staffing point of view - and improving staff preparedness. Each building has to be evaluated on an individual basis."

There seems to be a general consensus in the industry that emergency preparedness includes, at a minimum; a review of building security measures; the compilation of a list of residents with limited mobility who will need special help in an emergency; and the ready availability of some form of inexpensive emergency lighting, whether it be light sticks or flashlights and batteries. The issue of legal liability, which haunts so many board decisions, is "a mentioned concern, but doesn't tend to be a big one and isn't driving decision-making," Sicree reports. "Life safety is the driving force."

"Be smart and watch out," warns Robert Freedman, president of Maxwell-Kates, a management firm. Many condominiums seem to have a greater need for increased security procedures because they have more people traffic going in and out. The size of the building, type of residents, and how close the buildings are to a high-profile risk seem to drive security concerns.

At Plaza 400, a 627-unit co-op on Manhattan's East Side, the board is considering several options, including a back-up generator. "We'll need to have an actual study done to evaluate our electrical needs," reports Nora Weeks, executive manager of Plaza 400. The board has budgeted funds to explore several ideas - from back-up generation to communications systems - and "feels compelled to discuss these and begin to take some steps."

The building is in the middle of a program to install emergency lighting in the hallways - during the 2003 blackout the stairwells were already brightened by such lights - and has compiled a list of people that might need special care in an emergency. "During the blackout," Weeks says, "we had a huge camp light in the lobby and had about 75 people there."

For beleaguered boards that are confused and concerned about where to start, where to end, and what path to take, help is on the way. The Thomas Shortman Training Fund, the educational arm of the trust fund established in the 1960s through collective bargaining for Local 32BJ, is ready to roll out a test pilot of a four-hour course on emergency preparedness that it developed in concert with the fire and police departments for its 28,000 members in the residential sector.

"This will provide the same training throughout the industry on an ongoing basis," says Sicree. "It's been a joint effort by management and union workers - and management has been very supportive."

The course, called "Project Safe and Secure," was developed to raise the awareness level of building workers. Since the staff is probably in the best position to monitor activities within the building, this course will help workers understand what they are seeing and what they should do about suspicious activity. The proposed topics include observation skills, communication abilities, access control, indicators of terrorist events, the role of the building service employee at the scene of an emergency, weapons of mass destruction, suspicious packages and bomb threats, and emergency kits.

Boards who are grappling with what their next step should be might take a cue from the service employees union. Spending time to provide training in emergency situation awareness and response are key. Boards may find that if they don't do some type of planning they, and the shareholders and/or unit-owners they govern, will be stuck with their heads in the sand when, and if, disaster strikes again.


The American Red Cross, New York Chapter, offers a 90-minute class called "Preparing for the Unexpected." It teaches families and businesses safety steps to take during a disaster. Topics include: how to create an emergency communications plan; how to assemble a disaster supplies kit; what to do if disaster strikes; evacuation; and basic first aid. You can learn more about what the Red Cross offers at:

The Service Employees Union 32BJ, through the Thomas Shortman Training Program, will be rolling out a four-hour class called "Project Safe and Secure." To find out more about the program, you can call 212-388-3252. You can read about the Shortman programs at:

Fast Glo Acrylic Safety Marking Paint, manufactured by Sherwin-Williams, has a phosphorescent luminescent pigment that enables the paint to glow yellow/green in the dark for up to four hours. In could be useful for marking aisle ways, emergency routes, boundaries, and stairways to identify safe passageways in the event of a power outage or failure of back-up power systems. When exposed to artificial light, Fast Glo is supposed to rejuvenate its glow-in-the-dark properties in 15 seconds. It can be applied by brush, roll, or spray and is conveniently packaged in quart and gallon containers. You can learn more at:

McGruff Safety Lightsticks, a licensed product of the National Crime Prevention Council, is manufactured by Northern Products. These glow sticks are individually foil-wrapped, glow for 12 hours, and have a three-year shelf life. They are sold in cartons of 500 sticks and cost 50 cents each. To purchase, call the sales office at 781-444-1880. You can learn more at:


Subscriber Login

Ask the Experts

learn more

Learn all the basics of NYC co-op and condo management, with straight talk from heavy hitters in the field of co-op or condo apartments

Professionals in some of the key fields of co-op and condo board governance and building management answer common questions in their areas of expertise

Source Guide

see the guide

Looking for a vendor?