New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide




It’s over. The fire has been contained, the murder scene cordoned off, the ceiling cave-in stopped and temporary support beams put in place. Fortunately, you’d done your emergency preparedness (see “Prep Work,” Habitat, May 2006), and so your building’s computer files and paper documents had off-site backup, and you’d long ago informed your residents it’s a good idea to keep “go bags” with cash and credit cards, a change of clothes, prescription medication, and other emergency needs.

What does a co-op or condo board do now, once the immediate crisis has passed, to get your building and its traumatized inhabitants back on their feet? In the fog of confusion and the adrenaline rush, the worry and even terror that can follow a fire, murder, explosion, structural collapse, or other building-wide trauma, your residents need help, answers, reassurance, and, most of all, a point-person. A co-op.condo board is like the crew of a ship – and if your ship hits an iceberg, people are going to look to you for orderly passage to the lifeboats and access to flares and provisions.

“You have to be focused, single-minded, and stay calm because the people around you will play off how you react,” says Daniel Wollman, CEO of the management company Gumley Haft. “If you let yourself get hysterical, you’re going to make everyone around you hysterical.”

The Three Cs

» your first step in dealing with a crisis and its aftermath is to follow what we call “The Three Cs”: communication, coordination, and calm. If in the middle of everything, you suddenly stop and realize, “Hey, I’m just a volunteer board member. I’m not a professional crisis-manager. I’ve never done this before and what do I do now?” Just think of those three Cs. They are the underlying principles that will guide you toward the right direction and the right choices.

Communication involves getting information from an authoritative source and giving information to your building’s residents.

“The first and most important thing is to deal with the crisis,” says Herbert D. Freedman, secretary and general counsel of Marion Scott Real Estate, the company that manages the 15,374-unit Co-op City complex in the northern Bronx. “The second is to let people know what’s going on. People need to know what’s happening and the trick is to get accurate information out as quickly as possible.”

In the case of a shooting rampage in August that left one Co-op City worker dead and three others wounded, management gave out information using both low- and high-tech communications, from simple flyers to a text-crawl on the residents’ closed-circuit security-camera TV channel.

“Be honest with people,” advises Lee J. Colan, president of The L Group leadership-training consultancy and author of Seven Moments that Define Excellent Leaders. “Provide clear, concise communication. We all have those thoughts of, ‘We’ll just tell them what they need to know,’ or ‘They won’t understand.’ But leaders who underestimate the intelligence of their constituents are generally overestimating their own.” Besides which, he adds: “If people don’t think you’re credible, you’ve undermined whatever leadership influence you might have had. Part of honesty is acknowledging what we know and what we don’t know.”

Talking Cure

» communication with the affected residents takes serious effort. “It’s not like everyone is home and there’s a loudspeaker and an announcement that there’s a fire in the building,” says Ellen Stoller, board president in March 1999 when the block-long Manhasset Apartments co-op at 301 West 108th Street and 300 West 109th Street was devastated by a fire that began in the ground-floor Fiesta Mexicana restaurant just after lunchtime. Flames from an unattended pan shot up the grease-filled ducts to the roof of the 11-story building, engulfing the northern half. “It’s not an orderly process. It’s confusing.” Like most residents, she was at work. Someone phoned her to report that the building was on fire. Stoller phoned her family to make sure they were all right and then rushed home to see firefighters battling the blaze.

“The building sponsor had been alerted and there was someone from the building management already there,” Stoller says. But with no formal communication plan in place, information that afternoon was sketchy and ad hoc. “My job came later,” Stoller says. “We found a place to meet in the neighborhood and had meetings every other week – not just the board, but the board with a team of professionals: our architect [for a previously begun renovation project] and lawyer were intimately involved from the first, as was our sponsor’s lawyer.”

Information got to the displaced residents through “lots of informational meetings for people affected by the fire,” with word getting out through an informal method that, while perhaps more heartwarming than strictly efficient, nonetheless worked. “It was neighbors helping neighbors and people staying connected to people,” Stoller says. “People made sure they knew where their neighbors had gone.”

That is no substitute, however, for having that same contact information in one place. Cell phones make keeping in touch easier now than in 1999, but one factor is the same: making sure people know to phone or e-mail a designated point-person with their contact information as soon as they’ve settled into their temporary abodes.

Coordination and Calm

» coordination is the second C. You need to coordinate with the residents and the emergency-response personnel. To do this, you should have a rallying point – a nearby spot that you’ve previously designated in your emergency-preparedness communications plan. Even if it’s just a street corner, this point will be your own command center, of sorts, where board members, the managing agent, and building staff can gather, share information, and make decisions.

“It’s very important that you take the initiative during those first few hours,” says Harry Smith, Gumley Haft’s director of management and managing agent for The Cumberland House – a 15-story, 100-unit co-op at 30 East 62nd Street that was damaged when a deranged man blew up his townhouse next door.

At a crisis, you should have one person be the liaison with the police and fire departments. “Instead of 50 people going up to the chief with questions, designate someone to work with the first responders,” advises Mike Virgintino, a spokesman for American Red Cross in Greater New York. “A liaison from the board can say, ‘I’m representing the residents of this building. What can I do? What information can I give you?’”

Also, although the board president doesn’t have to personally be leading the troops on the scene, he does need to make sure that the designated point-person is there and active. The same rule applies to the manager. Smith, for example, had no super’s office to work out of when the townhouse blew up next door to The Cumberland House – and he almost had no super. “His apartment was destroyed,” Smith recalls. “If he had been [in it], he’d have been dead.” Smith had to become, he says, “like a mobile command center. I was in the lobby, on the sidewalk, coordinating what I had to coordinate with my cell phone, with my super doing the same thing. We were touching base periodically throughout the day.”

Keeping active is a way to keep everyone calm – the third C. “Adversity has a way of paralyzing us,” says Colan. “We have to keep moving. It’s easy to panic if you don’t have something specific to do. You have to mobilize people with specific roles. Instead of saying, ‘Help out and pitch in,’ say, ‘Jack, start a phone tree. Jane, you know first aid, do this.’ Specific roles and responsibilities help prevent panic. If people are engaged in the solution, they’re less likely to be paralyzed by the problem.”

Even with what seems like a small-scale disaster, reacting quickly and properly makes an enormous difference. “About 20 years ago, in the middle of January or February during a blizzard, a water main broke at 72nd Street and Madison Avenue and flooded that whole area in freezing, freezing cold water,” says Gerard J. Picaso, president of his namesake firm. “This isn’t like a leak – this is like a geyser of water coming out of the middle of the street and freezing all over.”

In one 36-unit co-op his company managed, “the boiler room and the elevator motor were in the subbasement, which [was] filling up with water. The superintendent recognized immediately that there was a problem and he called me at home, and [we] called three different plumbing companies and got them all to come to the building with pumping systems. That allowed us to pump the water out almost as fast as it was coming in. Consequently, we were able to dry out the elevators, we were able to save the electric power – we had already shut it off in the building, because the waterline came within an inch of the electrical panels – and we managed to save one of the boilers, so heat was restored within 48 hours.”

Long before that, the super and elevator man had knocked on each door, explained that the building would probably be losing electricity soon, and suggested that residents evacuate to a friend or relative’s place. “Some opted to leave, some stayed,” Picaso recalls. “The elevator went out of service several hours later, but we had already gotten the people out of the building who needed to get out but couldn’t walk up and down the stairs. People came back probably within 72 hours – while the other buildings on this street were trying to call the plumbers that we had already.”

When there’s no evacuation, but you have psychological trauma, you should call in crisis counselors. That’s what Marion Scott Real Estate did at Co-op City this past August after one employee was shot to death and three others wounded.

“The counseling was mandatory for employees initially,” says attorney Freedman, “and then we made it available to them voluntarily. We have about a thousand employees. We also reached out to the victims’ families. We designated a person who become their liaison, and that person stayed in touch with them, saw to their needs, and made sure they knew how to access benefits.”

In the end, says Colan, post-crisis management is not very different from what a good board needs to provide all the time: clarity. What do we know, what don’t we know, where do we stand? What’s critical, he says, is that the board members “stay calm and give some promise. If it’s a horrible situation, it’s important to give some sense of hope that we can conquer this.”

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