Multifamily residential buildings provide both privacy and community. Privacy, because a recluse in New York City can have almost anything delivered to his door and thus never have to leave the sanctuary of his apartment; and community, because a single retiree in an active adult community in Palm Beach can enjoy the company of his or her peers, as well as the benefits of supportive services and social activities. Population density is what makes co-ops, HOAs and condos ideal living spaces for anyone—including, and perhaps especially, the most vulnerable residents.
Whether we’re talking day-to-day safety or emergency planning, most buildings and HOAs have something on the books to address both standard operating procedures and things like alerts and evacuations. And that’s great if you’re a relatively young, able-bodied resident—but what if you, or a loved one or neighbor, are elderly, or live with a mental or physical handicap, or are a kid with working parents who takes care of younger siblings? Who looks out for the safety of these folks, and makes sure they’re accounted for should a fire, power outage, or other emergency arise? How can boards, managing agents, and residents promote the safety and security of the more vulnerable members of their community, both day-to-day and in emergency situations? What happens during a major weather event? Or an electrical blackout, when power goes off for 24 hours or more?
First, let’s examine who the “vulnerable residents” really are. According to Allan Fraser, senior building code specialist at the National Fire Protection Association based in Quincy, Massachusetts, generally speaking, there are five categories of disability: lack of mobility, impaired vision, deafness or impaired hearing, speech disorders or inabilities, and cognitive disabilities. Each of these categories represents a different challenge when it comes to managing emergency situations.
“Folks with mobility disabilities use one or more devices—things like canes, crutches, manually-operated wheelchairs, scooters—whatever they need to maneuver through their environment,” Fraser explains. Anyone who has difficulty walking—or indeed, is even extremely uncoordinated—is considered disabled in this way for our purposes. “A mobility disability can be an issue with any part of a body. Maybe you can’t open doors, or you can’t go down stairs, you can’t press keypads, whatever that might be.”
An important consideration here is that not all mobility issues are obvious to the eye. Fraser himself mentions this when he gives lectures on the subject. “I played hockey in high school and college and have had operations on both knees,” he says. “So if I had to run down 10 or 12 flights of stairs in a hotel, I couldn’t run. It might take me too long—and you can’t see that. I also happen to be Type II diabetic as I’ve gotten older, and what else you can’t see is I had heart surgery in 2007 and I’ve got two stents in my heart.” In his case—and there are many, many more like him—someone who looks perfectly able to walk down 70 flights of stairs may have extreme difficulty doing so.