Emergency Preparation Planning for Worst-Case Scenarios

Some days it rains, some days it pours—and some days, there’s a Category 4 hurricane. And while the latter is relatively rare, it can be a true disaster, and any condominium, co-op or homeowner’s association worth its salt should be prepared for it. Whether storm, fire, earthquake or freak accident, a board must take into account anything that may confront its community and put property and personal safety in danger, and come up with a plan to best lead its constituents to safety. And while this seems like quite the undertaking, there are guidelines in place and experts on hand who can help steer an association through disaster preparedness.

The Roof is On Fire

While extreme weather events get a lot of media play, nationwide data points to fires as being the most common cause for evacuation of residential properties. An association needs a firm policy in place for what to do in this type of stressful situation.

“The Red Cross responds to more than 60,000 home fires per year,” says Kevin F. Kelley, senior director of community preparedness programs for the American Red Cross. “Although they’re a little under the radar, they can happen in every community, and nationally they add up, so this is always a smart thing on which to work with residents. We have a campaign currently underway called 2 Steps 2 Minutes, and those two steps are basically to check your smoke alarms monthly and to practice home escape fire drills, where you try and get everyone out of the home in two minutes, as research indicates that it’s at that point where a person will be overcome by smoke and potentially killed.”

In condos and HOAs, there may be municipal codes or language in a community’s governing documents that speak to fire safety requirements, and a board should consult those accordingly and make sure that they are, at minimum, adhering to the law of the land. But as Kelley observes, “The general rules are to check the smoke alarms, make sure they’re working, and to practice a home fire escape drill that includes a meeting place that is well away from any potential fire. The reason being that when everyone gathers at the same place, no one – including firefighters – risks their lives trying to go into homes to rescue people who still may be inside. If the first responders know that they don’t need to undergo a search and rescue, they can just handle the suppression of the fire itself.”

Follow the Leader

The reins, when it comes to supervising an association’s plan for weather emergencies, are often grasped by the property manager. A qualified party will nudge the board to implement and update an effective set of rules and steps, and to impart them upon its constituents.

“Any competent property management company will try to implement and have a procedure for these types of emergencies,” says Michael J. Foley of Boston Condominium Management. “I’m not a lawyer, but while I have not seen anything in rules, bylaws, deeds of trust or master policies in associations with which I have had the pleasure of working, it’s quite clear that many city ordinances and state statutes speak directly toward what’s required as far as emergency lighting, fire extinguishers, alarms and fire prevention equipment as concerned. And there’s a common implication among homeowners to work with their families in the event of an emergency to know exactly what to do should something occur. So while it’s not required to have something written in regard to emergency planning, it would be highly recommended, especially in larger complexes.

Brrrr (It’s Cold In Here)

While a fire may be statistically more likely, New Englanders know that things sometimes get a little chilly, and weather outside frightful. 

“The biggest thing last year was ice dams,” relates Cameron C. Pease, a partner with Goldman & Pease in Needham, Massachusetts. “I represent several restoration companies, and it was literally more work than they could handle. Sometimes with heavy winter storms, there aren’t enough people to perform necessary functions, like tree removal. And when you don’t have a plan in place, you’re going to have a hard time finding someone to do that work, which can lead to further property damage. Everyone on the coast is exposed to the same elements simultaneously, and thus resources can be thinly spread.”

“With any type of large storm, an association certainly needs to be ready for a mandatory evacuation,” says Kelley. “You want to be aware of the routes which your county or municipality asks that you use. Most, I believe, are required by states to have specific routes such that they can reverse traffic and best direct exit flow, as we saw with Hurricane Matthew in Florida. We also recommend staying informed via an NOAA Weather Radio and following emergency management directives. You can sign up for county alerts that are directed to your smart phone, and we at The Red Cross have an emergency app that offers instructions on protective actions.”

As people are busy, and may not be overtly aware of impending doom, thorough property management involves sending alerts of any potential weather event. “We make sure to update boards of incoming storms, and tell them, in event of a power outage, to call us,” says Foley. “We remind them to close their windows, have backup supplies and batteries, etc. They may find themselves at a loss as to what happened to their power, and we strive to be an informational resource.”

Restoration companies that mine business from bringing a property back from a disaster occasionally provide preemptive measures to avoid that exact thing, according to Pease. “They will work with trustees and property management to put together an emergency response plan,” he explains. “They’ll canvass the property and conduct what is basically a risk-assessment, identifying any potential hazards that may crop up. They ensure that the building plans are in one place, note where the shut-off valves and sprinklers are, test various systems to make sure that they’re working and come up with an evacuation strategy.”

Residential Distress

The most important aspect of emergency management is communication. More likely than not, all residents will want to pitch in to evacuate and secure the community, but there needs to be a clear, easy-to-follow structure in place by which they do so, lest things dissolve into chaos.

It’s imperative that an association identify elderly or disabled residents in your building or community, to make sure there’s a plan in place to take care of those who may not be able to do so themselves. “When coming up with an emergency plan for an association, it makes sense to assess what and where particular needs are located; there are difficulties that can slow someone down or act as a barrier,” says Kelley. “Once they’re identified, the question becomes whether or not they have someone on hand who can help them in time, or if it’s something that the association should incorporate into its plan and prioritize those who may need assistance getting out. If someone has mobility problems, we ask them to assess their situation in the context that, should they need to evacuate the property, what that would entail, what are the barriers, what assets are available, and if the building has adequate ADA provisions that will help them overcome any hurdle. It’s all about planning. And if the association has a specific safety committee, it could fall to them to identify folks who need be prioritized. Should someone have a serious issue that makes their exit extraordinarily difficult, the committee can explore options outside of the association that may be required. But the first step is identifying any potential issues.”

Most buildings and associations won’t be devastated by a fire or other catastrophic event – but just because these crises are relatively rare doesn’t let boards, property managers, or residents themselves off the hook when it comes to being prepared. By thinking through various possible scenarios, consulting with professionals, knowing your community and its residents, and then drafting a smart plan and clearly communicating it to everyone involved, your board/management team can do its part to protect people and property if the worst-case scenario becomes reality.                                                             

Mike Odenthal is a staff writer and reporter with New England Condominium.

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