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Emergency Preparedness for Condo and Co-op Boards

Renee Serlin in Board Operations

Since the events of 9/11, the power blackout of 2004, and Hurricane Katrina, we all know the concept of emergency preparedness. Here's how a New York City Office of Emergency Management project called All Together Now taught board-members and others how to motivate people in their building to adopt some basic and simple survival techniques.

In a 2004 pilot program run by David Gershon of the Woodstock, N.Y.-based Empowerment Institute, three training sessions taught volunteers how to go back to their buildings or block associations and initiate emergency-preparation programs. Team leaders then used these techniques to establish small teams of five to eight households who would work with each other in four biweekly (every two weeks) meetings.

Each meeting focused on one area of preparation – from setting up go-bags with important documents, medications, flashlights and the like, to assisting frail or disabled neighbors. All the material for the household program is available on the All Together Now website.

One volunteer, Alan Leidner, got 50 percent of his building's residents to take part in the program. Every floor in his 55-unit co-op had its own team. For Leidner, it was “a lot like putting on a seatbelt when you go for a drive. You never imagine that you’re going to be in an accident but you know that it makes a lot of sense to have that seat belt around you.” Leidner, for instance, keeps a small lamp and a light face-mask on his bedside table. In the morning, these go into his briefcase for his subway ride too work.

Pat Sallin and her husband, Al Doyle, were team leaders for nine households in their 102-apartment Stuyvesant Town building. When one person was stuck on how to complete an action from the pilot project's workbook, the others would brainstorm or describe their own approach to the task. For example, instead of collecting all the items recommended for a go-bag one team member recommended the pre-packed Ready Freddy go-bag. Another member bought a large plastic tub to store all emergency supplies in one place. "You get ideas from the other people on the team," says Sallin.

Glenn Wolin, a team leader based in Brooklyn, had already been through an intensive, 25-week training course to be part of a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) group. CERTs are community-based volunteers who make themselves ready to provide emergency help when first-responders (police, firefighters, medical teams) are busy with more critical disaster issues. In his training, Wolin says, "We’re taught to take care of ourselves first, then your family, and then others. If they haven’t got a secure situation at home, they are not leaving their family to help others.”

Wolin distributed flyers throughout his neighborhood, inviting people to come to an information meeting to hear about the new city program. The response was minimal. Like almost all the other leaders, he found that to get people interested, he had to make personal contact. Knocking on doors and talking directly to neighbors eventually resulted in the creation of four teams. At another building, volunteers Cindy and Al DeMaria ruled out knocking on doors as being much too aggressive. Instead, they slipped a flyer under each apartment door, personalizing the notes by adding an additional message from the two of them. Three residents opted to follow the single household program and six households agreed to form a team. The eventual sessions proved productive: Some supplies were purchased in bulk for the whole group.

The DeMarias keep three go-bags in their apartment, one for each of the couple and one for Lola, their cat. Lola’s go-bag includes food for two weeks, water, a bag of litter, and a large aluminum baking pan for a litter box.

Results from the almost 1,500 households who participated in the pilot program showed a significant increase in preparedness among them. Their most common actions were:


  • stocking up with food and water;
  • preparing a go-bag;
  • purchasing alternate lighting sources and storing batteries;
  • making sure that at least one landline phone was available;
  • assembling warm clothing;
  • locating a battery-operated or wind-up radio;
  • putting together a first aid kit;
  • and purchasing a small fire extinguisher.

One volunteer, Carol Wilson, experienced a real-life emergency during the pilot project: She found highly toxic mercury exuding through her ceiling one night. Her apartment was almost totally destroyed in the clean-up efforts. Fortunately, she was prepared with the likes of flashlights, extra batteries and stocked supplies for a sheltering place – and, having that evening returned from a trip, a go-bag in the form of a small, packed suitcase!

Adapted from Habitat May 2006. For the complete article and more, join our Archive >>

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