Building Safety for Everyone Emergency Preparedness and Special-Needs Residents

Florida, the retirement capital of the world, is home to more than 4.8 million seniors age 60 and older. Approximately one in four suffers some type of physical impairment. When you factor in a climate prone to tropical storms, hurricanes, flooding and evacuations, a disaster plan is an obvious necessity for all HOAs, condos, and multifamily dwellings statewide. Young, able-bodied individuals generally do not focus on safety or security until an event or occasion shows a need for concern, but those living with a mental or physical handicap or other health restrictions are aware of the challenges presented by everyday living, and emergency situations. Young children and teenagers, another vulnerable part of a community, often live side by side with seniors. This group may also need special consideration during an emergency.
Most condominiums, multifamily buildings, and planned communities have policies and procedures in place for emergency evacuations and alerts, but a proactive plan to ensure everyone’s safety and security before disaster strikes isn’t something you make once and leave in a drawer to collect cobwebs. Annual reviews, updates, and revisions will be required to keep everyone safe, healthy, and out of harm’s way. Boards, property managers, and residents themselves, all have a role to play in developing a property’s specific disaster plan to serve everyone equally well.

Everyone Has a Part

Governor Rick Scott encouraged awareness and overall support in a recent message he shared in the Disaster Preparedness Guide for Elders. “It is critical that as good neighbors, we assist those who might not be able to prepare for a disaster. In an emergency, we must come together as Floridians to ensure that no person is left without help,” he states. While Governor Scott wants to get the message out that many are in special need of help to safely survive a natural disaster or evacuation, there are legal issues to be recognized by a board of directors while working up a disaster plan.
Steven J. Weil, PhD,  EA, LCAM, president of Royale Management Services in Fort Lauderdale, says there's a fine line between attempting to provide services, and providing information about services. “As residents get older, if necessary, they should seek additional services which are often provided by the city or county, or through other local outside agencies. While managers should be able to direct those needing help to local services, it is not their job, nor is it up to the association to provide special help. To do so would only create liability for the manager and the association.”
Sam Verghese, secretary of the Florida Department of Elder Affairs, also stresses individual responsibility. In the event of a disaster Verghese encourages seniors to pay special attention to personal medical needs. Modern technology makes it possible to have notice of tropical storms and hurricanes well in advance of the actual event.
He suggests residents prepare a medication list, and obtain a generous supply of all medications as part of an individual emergency kit. When the state is under an executive order or declared emergency it is possible to receive an extra 30-day supply of medications with no price increase. Speak with a pharmacist or a health care provider immediately if you or someone in your care may need extra medication during a storm or evacuation. Other support and supply items like extra batteries for hearing aids and medical devices, extra eye glasses, and non-prescription drugs should also be included in an emergency kit.
The Florida Department of Health recommends having all important medical documents scanned and saved to a thumb drive for complete portability. A small notebook for all documents will also keep everything organized and helps to relieve the stress associated with an evacuation. Families with small children will also want to have a supply of diapers, formula, and personal health and comfort items in their emergency supplies.
Verghese reminds pet owners to have a plan in mind for their four-footed friends. Support animals will be able to stay with an owner, but a family pet will need specific arrangements in the event of an evacuation. Many shelters are pet friendly, but extra pet foods and any pet medications should be part of the personal emergency kit. Verghese also recommends keeping your identification, medical cards and information safely secured, along with pet licenses and records.
In keeping with personal responsibility, it should be recognized that a severe storm may knock out power and water, but not require an evacuation. While some may choose to leave until creature comforts can be restored, those who choose to remain will need adequate supplies of canned foods, water, and batteries. When a mandatory evacuation is called for, “hunkering down” at home is not an option.

Formulating a Disaster Plan

Ken Kmet, owner and operations manager of Condo Voice LLC in Pinellas County, likes to remind managers and board members that hurricane season, from June 1 to November 30, is not the time of year to review, revises or formulate a disaster plan. He advises an association to adopt policy on a course of action for the three phrases of a severe weather event—before, during, and after—well in advance of the first threat. “This should be done before you see the television alerts showing you the radar of a hurricane heading right for you. The last thing you need in a crisis, where your life may be in danger, is confusion and wrong assumption of duties,” he says.
The planning phase is the time to identify any and all residents with special needs and exactly who is and is not responsible for meeting those needs. Bill and Susan Raphan are education facilitators for the Katzman Garfinkel Law Firm in Fort Lauderdale/Margate. They teach a proactive class on hurricane preparedness for community boards and associations state-wide. One of their suggestions is for a board to appoint a hurricane committee to identify residents with special needs.
But, boards should be aware of the legal limitations in regard how they should provide help. “The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that reasonable accommodations be made for individuals with disabilities to live, it does not make an association or manager into caregivers, or require the association to pay for those accommodations,” says Weil.
The role of management and the board in emergency situations needs to be clear. “We should address the even more important question of just how much an association and its management should provide to those residents in need of special assistance, and whether providing this assistance creates an ongoing obligation as well as legal liability should the association, or manager, be unable to provide the assistance when needed,” says Weil.
It may seem like the generous, thoughtful thing to do, but unfortunately no good deed goes unpunished. Say, during an evacuation, there is a resident who can't walk on their own, and a security guard in the building responds to a call to help her down to the lobby; if the resident falls and injures herself, the resident or resident's family can sue the association. Instead, responders in the building should call 211 or 911.
Managers, board members, and residents also need to be aware of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, generally known as the HIPAA law.  HIPAA is designed to protect an individual’s confidentiality and healthcare information, and without personal authorization no information can or should be legally shared, even with the best of intentions.
Weil calls attention to the fact that associations often have limited resources and limited personnel. Even with the most compassionate approach, these resources cannot be stretched to cover all things for all people. As a board strives to assemble a disaster plan that best suits the needs of all residents, some scenarios may seem overwhelming and involved. What about a mentally handicapped resident with aging parents, a teenager caring for younger siblings, or an obviously over-taxed caregiver? At what point does providing “help” become overstepping?
Experts advise that associations should check community resources and provide a list to all residents to address this specific part of a disaster plan. The South Florida area has a rich reserve of helping agencies.
Identifying Community Resources
“The First Call for Help is 211 provides professional information and referral specialists to work with callers to assess their needs, determine their options, provide appropriate programs or services, give support, intervene in crisis situations, and advocate for the caller as needed,” says Weil. He also recommends the Florida Department of Elder Affairs for various programs and services.
 Weil also references the non-profit Aging and Disability Resource Center of Broward County as a “one-stop” resource for information on services for seniors, persons with severe and persistent mental illness ages 18 and older, as well as information and support for families and caregivers. Another non-profit resource is the File of Life Foundation. This group distributes wallet cards and refrigerator magnets designed to assist firefighters and medical personal in quickly assessing an individual’s vital health information.
Other services such as Life Alert, transportation and companion services, and local Meals on Wheels programs are excellent resources.
Once a board has knowledge of which residents may need special services in the event of an emergency or evacuation, and which community resources match those needs, it is possible to formulate a list of   assistance agencies and contact numbers.  
The list should be given to all residents along with instructions to be followed in the case of a possible evacuation. This approach allows a board to provide for everyone by encouraging individual responsibility, utilizing community resources, and reducing association liability.    
Ann Childers is a  freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the South Florida Cooperator.


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