New Yorkers tend to feel pretty secure about their vulnerability during natural disasters. Hurricanes have usually lost their punch by the time they reach the city, and while there’s talk that we’re overdue for a “big one,” the reality is that earthquake fears are not widespread.
But there is plenty to learn about emergency planning and preparation from those places that are prone to potential hazards. Florida and California consistently deal with hurricanes and earthquakes, respectively, and in those states property management companies have to always keep building residents abreast of emergency plans and the steps to take in case a disaster strikes. Although the substance of these plans might not necessarily be appropriate for New York buildings, the experience of management companies and building boards in making a plan and communicating it to residents and staff can offer useful lessons.
FLORIDA: The Perfect Storm
Although Florida hasn’t gotten smacked with a hurricane in awhile, plenty of people can still remember August 24, 1992. On that day, Hurricane Andrew, the most destructive hurricane in United States history, blew across southern Florida, shredding mobile homes, upending trees, and causing upwards of $23 billion in damages.
The hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30. Before and during that time, Florida property managers must make sure that building residents and staff are apprised of what to do in the event of a hurricane. Luckily, the nature of such storms allows for some preparation and advance time before they strike land. That gives building owners enough time to take the steps needed to protect residents and property and prepare for what’s coming.
Tom Roses, president of the Hollywood, Florida-based property management firm Continental, says the education process begins each May, when flyers are sent to all residents reminding them that the hurricane season is beginning. The most important information to relay to the residents concerns evacuation procedures. Different municipalities in Florida have different rules regarding hurricane response, and some areas (like the condo-heavy Miami Beach) must evacuate if the order is given.
Continental’s brochure regarding these plans is straightforward and comprehensive. Once an evacuation order is issued, building staff must begin shutting down some services (like air conditioning) in order to prepare the building’s physical plant for the hurricane, so residents are urged to be ready to leave immediately and head inland. The brochure gives residents several checklists and steps they must take before they leave their unit: for example, removing all furniture and objects from the balcony, locking balcony doors and placing towels at the door bottoms, and turning off faucets and stoves. A list called “What to Acquire and What Actions Should Be Taken” recommends a supply of batteries, a portable radio and flashlight, non-perishable foods, a manual can-opener, and sturdy garbage bags. Detailed instructions on preparing an emergency water supply are included.
If a hurricane watch or hurricane or tropical storm warning is issued, then bulletins are posted in buildings and delivered to building residents. These flyers include immediate instructions on what steps the residents should take.
Building staff members are also heavily involved in the hurricane preparation process, says Tanya Deidan, property manager at 1500 Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, a Continental-managed property. “Our staff knows that if there is a likelihood of a hurricane coming their way, they would be on duty, all of them,” she says. “We have a schedule of things to do.”
The staff has a comprehensive list of tasks that must be completed in the event of a hurricane warning or watch, including securing the pool deck equipment and furniture, powering down the elevators and cooling towers (in case of an imminent evacuation), and inspecting the emergency generator. Roses says Continental property managers are also sent to seminars on emergency management training organized by Florida counties.
CALIFORNIA: Shake, Rattle, and Roll
While hurricane preparation does have a somewhat regular schedule, earthquakes leave no opportunity for advance planning. Building managers in California can only make their best efforts to keep residents vigilant about what to do when an earthquake hits, what to have on hand in terms of supplies, and who to contact in the aftermath.
In fact, says Norm Hall, director of operations at San Francisco-based Chandler Properties, most of the ongoing emergency planning and plan-awareness in California is for fire safety not earthquakes. “Whether it’s a fire or earthquake, there’s pretty much the same type of response,” he says. The state of California seems to agree: in 2003, they replaced their “California Earthquake Preparedness Month” program with a broader, multi-hazard public education campaign.
Chandler Properties manages a variety of condominium associations in the Bay Area, ranging from townhouse developments to high-rise apartment buildings. Each individual property has its own emergency response plan that is distributed to new unit-owners in their orientation material.
The plan primarily covers evacuation routes and rendezvous sites in the event of a fire. In each apartment building, every floor has a designated fire warden who is responsible for checking each unit to make sure all are empty before evacuating. On each floor, the evacuation plans are posted on the wall. Every year, the residents in each building meet to go over the plan and learn about the building’s fire alarms from a certified fire safety trainer. Chandler property managers also undergo annual emergency procedure training, with the company providing a set of standard operating procedures they must learn.
Hall reports that most of the buildings in San Francisco have been retrofitted since the last major earthquake. The concern for residents in the event of an earthquake is primarily having enough supplies on hand to last through at least 72 hours. The California state government helps in this effort, by conducting awareness campaigns and mailing out preparedness information from time to time.
Boards take an active role in the emergency planning process. Hall says their boards approve all of the signage and material that is distributed to building residents. The boards also are responsible for selecting the fire wardens for each floor, and replacing them whenever one moves out of the building.
PREPARING FOR ANYTHING
Regardless of what type of emergency you’re preparing for, communication, organization, and clarity should be the hallmarks of your plan. If everyone knows what his or her role is in an emergency – including the property manager, board members, shareholders, and building staff – then executing that plan becomes much simpler.
Make sure that all new building residents receive a copy of the emergency plan when they move in. Keep a copy along with all the other important building documents. Post it on your building’s website. Just make sure that all residents know that there is a plan, and that they are familiar with what they need to do in an emergency.
Try to host at least one annual meeting devoted to the emergency plan for the residents. While it’s not necessary to do a thorough walk-through for the entire property, go over the basic steps of the plan. Have the managing agent or someone from the fire department on hand to answer any questions the residents might have. Perform a thorough walk-through with the building staff, and make sure they know how to shut off utilities or elevator service if necessary.
Keep the plan and related materials as clear as possible. Make separate versions for building staff and residents, so that neither group can be confused about its role. Keep the information visually clear; use many checklists and headlines in order to prevent anyone from glazing over potentially important items.
Make sure every resident has an up-to-date list of emergency contact phone numbers that includes the managing agent, building staff, board members, and any local services that might be relevant. The board and staff should each also keep a list of all the contractors and personnel who can be called on to work in the building in cases of damage and needed repairs.
The Community Associations Institute publishes a handbook, Disaster Management for Community Associations, which discusses the planning process in depth. One useful suggestion is to make a thorough inventory of the physical plant, including the brand, model, and serial number of all co-op/condo mechanical property. The brochure is available at www.caionline.org.
While emergency planning can be a stressful process, the reality is that planning can lessen panic if an emergency occurs. Reducing a plan to its most basic steps can give everyone a feeling of confidence. Whether it’s a hurricane, fire, blackout, or earthquake, a solid emergency plan can make all the difference in determining how your community survives.