While the basics of preventing—and surviving—common disasters like fires or severe weather events should be well known to anybody living in a community association or planned development, the reality is that each building community is equipped with different equipment, constructed with different materials, and served by unique escape routes for emergencies.
In some worst-case scenarios, a building or association can become practically its own island—so it’s important for board members and management to devise customized emergency plans for their community. That way if the unthinkable happens, everyone can escape quickly and safely.
Have a Plan
Perhaps surprisingly, given South Florida's vulnerability to hurricanes and other major weather events, “There is no statutory requirement for a community to have a hurricane plan or preparedness guidelines or standard operating procedures,” says Bill Worrall, corporate vice president of The Continental Group (TCG) in Hollywood.
But just because it's not legally mandated is no excuse not to have a solid plan in place for when the inevitable storm arrives. A condo association's management could be held liable if there's no plan in place and tragedy results during an emergency. In short, preparedness is not an option; it's part of a board/management team’s fiduciary responsibility. Boards should work with their management professionals to formulate the most sensible, effective plan for their particular community. “We do hurricane planning proactively as a community manager,” Worrall says. “For us it’s service delivery, it’s a minimum expectation and obligation to assist our clients in the protection of their assets and their properties. The board makes the final decisions and we respect that, but it’s our job to bring best practices and communication tools to our clients, and then to implement them.”
“In a large condo or co-op, the association’s responsibility includes all the common areas and amenities, the guardhouse, and entryway—and because they’re typically large buildings, high-density communities have physical-plant equipment such as climate control, emergency generators, elevators, fire-alarm systems, emergency lighting, and other life-safety systems, that require additional protection and maintenance. A hurricane plan tells everybody what to do with each piece of equipment.”
Everybody includes vendors who provide elevator repairs, pool maintenance, security, and other services to the association on a contract basis. “Include in the contracts their policy in the scenario of a hurricane or other natural disaster,” Worrall advises. “When the staff is on site, when the staff is mandated to leave the property, and when the staff is expected to return—all this needs to be outlined and detailed in the scope of work with all of the contractors on the property.”
While more common crises such as power outages or flooding in low-lying areas are likelier for many residential buildings, the elements of readiness are the same for any emergency. Boards and managers can create and implement customized emergency plans for their buildings, but they must know where to look to find the right information and with whom to work to make the plan. Many management companies in the region offer conferences and information sessions specifically to help boards and owners be ready for hurricane season.
Governmental agencies are a great place to go for pre-planning tips and information, and emergency response professionals will come to your HOA to educate, advise and prepare long before you need to execute an evacuation. For example, the American Red Cross is an organization known for helping those affected by disasters, but the group also works to educate people how to be ready for them before they happen. Basic emergency-planning advice is available online from the American Red Cross at www.redcross.org and also found at www.myredcross.org. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is another such resource, and can be found online at www.ready.gov and www.fema.gov/areyouready.
Most large municipalities have their own emergency web pages as well—the City of Fort Lauderdale's can be found at www.fortlauderdale.gov/fire-rescue/dpemb/condo_preparedness.html.
The page links to a PowerPoint template that the board of individual condos and associations can download, fill in with specific details of interest to first responders, and return to the city’s emergency-management coordinator.
The Community Advocacy Network (CAN), a political action committee established by the community association law firm of Katzman Garfinkel & Berger (KGB), which lobbies in Tallahassee for positive community association legislation, publishes a Hurricane Preparedness Guide for community associations that boards and managers can use as a checklist to compile their own properties’ hurricane plans. To access it online, visit www.hurricaneguidebook.com, or call 954-315-0372 for a bound copy. Palm Beach County also has its own published guide found at www.pbcgov.com/dem /hurricane/.
Along with managers, boards, and governmental agencies, individual condo owners and association members bear certain responsibilities when it comes to handling emergency scenarios of whatever type. KGB’s Donna DiMaggio Berger notes that CAN has been seeking legislation to require all residential communities to write such plans and conduct drills so everyone—board members, managers, staff, and residents—will know what to do when a storm threatens.
“Boards need to have an emergency plan and revisit it at least twice a year to see what needs to be upgraded,” Berger says. “We have 50,000 owners’ associations in the state, of which half are homeowners’ associations not regulated by the state, where more of the preparations fall on the individual homeowners.”
In the case of a storm, Worrall emphasizes that each individual owner, whether in a freestanding home or a co-op or condo unit, has a responsibility to secure his or her property. “The association’s responsibility is to secure the common areas, which in a community of single-family homes is mostly landscaping, roadways, the clubhouse, and common-area recreational facilities and amenities such as pools and tennis courts,” he says.
According to the American Red Cross, unit owners should also have an emergency kit or “go bag” containing prescriptions, some food and water, money, clothes and a few other necessities. Regardless of a building’s evacuation plan, residents also may need to make their own contingency plans based on their family's specific needs. For example, what if a disaster happens during the day, when mom is at home, and dad’s at work and the kids are at school? Each member of the family should know where they will meet if the building is evacuated or they are separated due to an emergency. Residents also need to recognize the necessity of having a plan for their pets.
Putting Plans into Action
When a condo building or homeowners association calls upon the Red Cross to come assess and fortify their emergency planning protocols, a representative from the organization will meet with residents and community administrators and educate them on how to prepare by having the right supplies, by being ready to enact the community's plan, and by informing themselves before, during, and after the emergency.
“We have corporate preparedness programs and will go in and do a full facility audit,” says Lynn Duddy, a training specialist for the American Red Cross. “We then generate a report that includes recommendations.” The auditing process includes evaluating the association’s emergency action plan, and creating one or selecting a better template for one if the current plan is less than optimal.
According to Duddy, “A full assessment of emergency preparedness plans requires knowing what type of equipment the building has, obtaining evacuation routes, and assessing individual residents’ special needs in an emergency.” It’s about being what the organization calls “Red Cross Ready”—meaning having supplies on hand such as food, water, and medicine for use in an emergency situation. Multifamily buildings and condos should have supplies such as flashlights, extra fuel (if necessary for a generator), and other necessities ready to be mobilized when called upon. A designated person in the building such as a superintendent or other staff member should be responsible for replacing those building supplies and ensuring that they are usable.
Preparedness also amounts to having a plan for residents to shelter in place—i.e., for them to stay put in the building for a while, if needed. A proper shelter in place plan should account for the building community’s needs for at least a period of three days. That means having adequate drinking water, food, batteries, flashlights, first aid supplies and even extra clothing for residents, in case it is needed.
For Vernon Rupert Grant, owner of Crisisology Group International, an emergency management and planning company, another start to preparing for an emergency involves reducing the possibility of a crisis. Working to prevent a fire should be the objective of any building manager, and a manager can begin to accomplish this by eliminating building violations such as inoperable emergency exits, maintenance problems that could pose fire hazards, and the like. “The superintendent is the first line of defense in a building emergency,” Grant says, adding that every building should have a Mitigation Plan, to lessen the possibility of an emergency.
Property managers and superintendents/chief engineers should regularly walk around their buildings and grounds and assess the potential hazards. Such problems as a faulty fire alarm system, inoperable doors, windows that cannot be opened or fully closed, and bad wiring or plumbing that could create a hazard all must be noted when the super and manager investigate the building as part of their mitigation plan. After noting areas in need of attention, either building staff or outside contractors should be brought in to make the necessary repair or correct the unsafe condition.
As with just about every aspect of day-to-day residential management, communication is key to managing crises and minimizing their impact. Whether you're faced with a fire, a storm with power outages, or flooding, boards and management can begin to plan for emergencies affecting their properties by simply getting the dialog started.
“The superintendent should begin a dialogue around the neighborhood, and the property manager should be talking with other property managers, people in the neighborhood, and city officials about crisis and emergency planning,” Grant says.
One way to consolidate and standardize an association's emergency response plan is to establish an emergency team, comprised of the co-op board members, the facilities manager, building security personnel, and the building’s engineer, along with some competent, capable resident volunteers. The people in charge of the group, and in charge during an emergency, should be trained in both CPR and first aid. The property manager should be the team leader during a crisis situation.
During an emergency, the management team should know who is in the building and who is not. That understanding will be informed by crucial data the team compiles long before a crisis. Through a survey of the building, the team should know how many people live in the building, which of them have special needs or lack mobility and will need help evacuating, who has small children, who has pets, and who works from home. This evacuation list should include names, phone numbers, and apartment numbers of all residents, and should be backed up remotely, not simply stored on-site. That way, if anything happens to the property manager’s computer in the building, the info can be sent directly to another laptop or device during an emergency.
Specific considerations may need to be made for a building’s “special-needs” residents, such as the elderly, ill or disabled individuals, or households with young children who might not be able to follow the same evacuation/emergency protocols as more able-bodied residents. To help such people, members of the emergency team must be designated to assist these folks in a crisis.
Any residential building also should have rally points to go to in an emergency. Rally points are places away from the apartment building, but close to it, where residents will gather in an emergency to relax, deal with what happened, and plan a course of action. And just as having a small radio in your go bag is important to stay informed, rally points also are places where building management can distribute information to residents.
Needless to say, nobody likes to contemplate the tragedy that can result from an emergency or crisis situation—loss of life, loss of property, and just the general upheaval of life itself. But in order to prevent these things, it's vital that boards, managers, and concerned residents be willing to do just that, and really examine whether or not their community is ready for the worst, should the worst happen. If not, then it's time to call in the pros, make a new plan, and get the entire community on board—not only for their physical safety, but for their peace of mind.
Hannah Fons is an associate editor at The South Florida Cooperator.