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When Disaster Strikes, What's Your Plan?

An announcement just came over the PA in your office that there’s a fire on the floor below you. Quick – what do you do?

Odds are, if you’ve been working in the same office building for more than six months, you’ve had a meeting with your fire-safety director, and maybe you’ve even been through a non-fire emergency drill. You know where to evacuate, how far up or down the stairs to go, and which set of fire stairs are closest. You might even know who your floor captain is.

Now think about your apartment. If a fire happened in your building tonight, would you know what to do?

Where Are You Safest?
In New York City, there are numerous safety regulations governing commercial buildings and hotels, but they do not apply to residential buildings. Where commercial tenants practice drills and listen to safety directors on a regular basis, the residential sector is only required to pass out preparedness guides. The dichotomy is striking, but the city has its reasons.

“Historically, emergency preparedness was focused on office buildings and hotels,” says Julian Bazel, fire code counsel for the New York Fire Department. “There were all kinds of code requirements – building-code and fire-code requirements for dealing with fires in high-rise office buildings and hotels. After 9/11, there was a local law that required, in addition to various building-code changes, the development of non-fire-emergency preparedness – in office buildings only.”

Office buildings are required to have detailed emergency plans for both fire and non-fire emergencies. They must also have designated staff, including a Fire and Life Safety Director, who is required to be on site during regular business hours. This person is responsible for making announcements on the required two-way emergency communication system, including alerts about alarm testing and actual emergencies, and for giving instructions on whether occupants should evacuate or shelter in place. Office buildings are also required to hold fire drills every six months, non-fire emergency drills annually, and “stairwell familiarization drills” every third year.

Staying Safe at Home
The requirements in residential buildings are less rigorous, basically focusing on providing information for residents. Boards must distribute the Fire and Emergency Preparedness Guide. This guide, formerly known as the Fire Safety Guide, was expanded in 2018 to include non-fire emergencies such as medical and severe weather emergencies, power outages, and terrorist events.

The first part of the guide is a form for the building owner to fill out, with information on the building’s construction, fire-protection systems, and exits. The owner also has to indicate whether or not there’s an emergency voice-communication system in the building.

The city requires that this guide be distributed to all residents at their lease signing, and to all employees at the start of their employment. For co-ops and condos, this means during a purchase, and for all sublets. It must also be distributed buildingwide every three years, either by mail or by hand. While the entire guide used to be distributed every year, that has been replaced by a new annual Emergency Preparedness Bulletin. These will be posted online by the FDNY by August 15 of every year that the emergency guide is not distributed. The bulletins are short and to the point – the idea behind them is to reinforce simple messages regarding emergency preparedness, such as the importance of closing the door when evacuating during a fire.

Building owners must also post a fire-safety notice on the inside of the entrance door of every apartment in the building, as well as in the common areas.

Borrowing From the Best
What can co-op and condo boards learn from the commercial sector to make their buildings safer? Experts point to two key elements: communication and staff training.

Communication is first. In the event of an emergency, being able to explain to residents what is going on and what they need to do – whether it’s evacuate or, more likely, shelter in place – is paramount. This is where technology comes into play. “We have our own proprietary communications system called Connect,” says Dan Wurtzel, president of FirstService Residential, “which allows us to communicate with all of our residents by mass email, mass text, and by dialing phone numbers with a pre-recorded message from the property manager.”

Other management companies use different tech tools, such as BuildingLink or OneCallNow (a broadcast messaging system). Whichever platform your building uses, it requires gathering the contact information for all residents, and keeping this up to date.

Second is staff training. “One of the first lines of defense in a full-service building is your front desk concierge or doorperson,” says Wurtzel. “If somebody calls down to the front desk or doorman’s station and says, ‘Hey, I smell smoke,’ that staffer follows a protocol that they’ve been trained in for that specific emergency and will immediately contact the resident manager or other staff member on duty to investigate the condition and act in accordance with the protocol. If there are no other staff members on duty at the time, the concierge or doorperson is aware that it’s their responsibility to call 911.”

Knowing who may need special assistance is also essential. “We get people in the building to give us certain information,” says Ira Meister, president of Matthew Adam Properties. “They will say, for example, if they have oxygen tanks or certain illnesses that they want us to know about in case of an emergency. We have a sheet that they can fill out that we keep in a safe and secure place. If there’s a power outage, we need to know if someone’s on a respirator. We keep an inventory with the resident manager or the superintendent so somebody knows what’s going on in the building.”

There are a few places where building staff can get emergency training. If your staff is unionized, the 32BJ union offers a variety of courses, both in person and online. There are also private companies that provide training.

Bring the Plan to Life
So how can you make sure everyone knows what they’re supposed to do during an emergency? Add the topic to the annual meeting, says Jim Bullock, president of NY Fire Consultants and a retired FDNY deputy chief. NY Fire Consultants, Quality Fire Protection Consultants, and other companies can put on town-hall-style meetings, where residents get a quick rundown of what they should do during an emergency and have the opportunity to ask questions.

While boards can’t force fire drills on residents, they can, like a Boy Scout, make sure residents and staff are prepared.

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