Kathryn Farrell in Building Operations on November 19, 2019
In New York City, there are numerous safety regulations governing commercial buildings and hotels, but they do not apply to co-ops, condos, or other residential buildings. Where commercial tenants practice drills and listen to safety directors on a regular basis, the residential sector is required only to pass out the Fire and Emergency Preparedness Guide. This guide, formerly known as the Fire Safety Guide, was expanded in 2014 to include non-fire emergencies such as medical and severe weather emergencies, power outages, and terrorist events.
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 messages.”
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 doorman and building staff,” says Wurtzel. “If somebody calls down to the doorman and says, ‘Hey, I smell smoke,’ that staffer immediately gets in touch with the superintendent or resident manager, who calls 911. The staff has a protocol to follow.”
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.
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 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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