Emergency Planning for Property Managers

By: Jeffrey S. Lapin, CPM(r)

It’s 2:35 am. You are sound asleep in your nice warm bed. You are suddenly awakened by your phone ringing. Your first thought is “Oh shoot!” (or some variation of that). No good calls come at this hour so you know it cannot be good news. It’s not.

The caller is your fire alarm monitoring company. The operator asks for you and then tells you that they have received “Multiple smoke alarms and water flow alarms” from your property. The caller tells you that the fire department has been notified and is in route to the property. You have a fire – not a false alarm and not a trouble signal – a real fire.

You force yourself to wake up and get hastily dressed and into your car. You head to the property and as you drive, your mind is racing about what to do first, second, third, etc. Should you call your maintenance person? Should you call your boss? What about the insurance company and the owner?

As you get close to the property, the police stop you about a block away and will not let you any closer. You tell the officer that you are the property manager and must get to the property, but he is not having any of it. So you park your car and stand out on the sidewalk, watching as thick black smoke is billowing from the roof of one of the buildings illuminated by the now dying flames. The fire department trucks are all over the outside of the property with hoses stretched everywhere, water clearly being poured onto the still burning structure.

But you are not alone out on that sidewalk. All of your residents are out there with you, having been evacuated minutes earlier. They are all in their bed clothes, shivering cold, frightened and upset. They spot you and soon all of them are descending upon you, asking when they can go home, where they are supposed to go tonight, what will happen to all their stuff and on and on. They want to know your plan.

Just then your cellphone rings and it’s the property owner. He has been alerted to the fire and he wants to know what your plan is for dealing with this. The fact is that you had always planned to have a plan for just such an emergency, but you just never got to it. And now the emergency is upon you.

This fire will end up destroying five apartment units and will inflict heavy smoke damage on ten additional units. Lots of your residents are effectively homeless, their property lost or heavily damaged. The residents, your owner, your boss, his boss and a lot of other people are depending on you to lead them through this disaster. The fire is not the worst part of the emergency – the aftermath is. And without a workable plan, you are making it up as you go.

You are a good property manager and you will eventually get through this. But your job as emergency manager would have been made infinitely easier and less stressful if you had developed and practiced an effective emergency plan. No one really likes to think about such things occurring at their properties but it is a very important part of the property manager’s job.

Emergency Procedures Manual

Every property, regardless of size or type (including our own homes) should have an Emergency Procedures Manual (aka an Emergency Plan). Such a plan takes into account every conceivable type of emergency that could occur at that property. The most common emergencies are fires, floods, earthquakes (if you are in earthquake prone areas), power failures, death on property and hazardous material spills. But there are others depending on the specific property.

Sadly, most properties do not have emergency plans in place. This is often the result of too many other items taking priority. And perhaps you have gotten lucky in that past in that your emergencies have been small and you and your team were able to take care of things on the fly without a plan. Or perhaps you have been REALLY lucky and have not had a fire, flood, earthquake, death, extended power failure or other property emergency. I suggest that your luck will not continue forever.

The plan should be a team effort, not one person’s ideas only. The more people contributing ideas and solutions to problems the better. The strongest plans have had their procedures challenged by the team and made better as a result. Another common element of good emergency plans is that they are constantly being amended based on new facts. For instance, if a portion of the property is changed, altering the exiting path, that must be reflected in the plan.

Finally, a good emergency plan will be simple enough to be used but complete enough to have all the elements needed for a proper response to anticipated emergencies.

So now that we have identified what an emergency plan is, what emergencies need to be included and how to use the plan, let’s get started. Because starting a new task is often the hardest thing to do (overcoming the inertia of standing still), I recommend getting your team (whatever that means to you) together in a conference room and start the conversation over lunch.

Flood Emergency Procedures

Of all the emergencies that we property managers encounter, floods are the most common by far. Most of us who have done this job for any length of time, regardless of the type of properties we manage, will have experienced serious floods. This is largely due to the fact that all buildings have plumbing running through walls, ceilings and floors and the supply side of the system is under pressure. So when a leak occurs, a lot of water can go where it is not supposed to go in a hurry.

Your emergency plan therefore, needs to have several elements dedicated to dealing with flood emergencies. These elements will include at a minimum, a step-by-step procedure for shutting off the water that is the source of the flood (include a map of shut off locations), contacting a reliable restoration contractor, mitigation of damage and notification to your insurance carrier if the flood is substantial enough to warrant a claim.

I suggest as well, that it is good practice to establish a relationship in advance with a reliable flood restoration company. If a flood occurs during a widespread disaster (such as a hurricane), you will hard pressed to get any contractor out to your property unless you have established a favored status with them. That may mean that you have the contractor’s insurance certificate on file, that you have them in your payment system and perhaps that you have met with the company owner and have a handshake or written agreement that they will come to your site as a top priority. In the mayhem that often exists right after a major flood, you do not want to be searching for a contractor that will respond.

Depending on the property and its history of floods, it may also behoove you to purchase and store some floor fans (special fans used to dry carpet or hard flooring) and water extraction wet dry vacuums. For smaller floods or wet spills, this equipment will save your owner thousands of dollars.

Lastly, you should know that the fire departments in virtually all areas are equipped to deal with large floods. The same pumps that send water out of fire hoses and onto a fire can be reversed to pick up water (a lot of water) quickly. And most fire trucks have large fans on board. I’m not suggesting that you call 9-1-1 for a leaking toilet or shower valve. But if you have a large flood involving a lot of water your emergency plan should include a provision for calling in emergency services.

Fire Emergency Procedures

Fires in commercial or multifamily properties are fairly rare. And since most buildings built since the 1970’s (I say most) have automatic fire sprinklers, fires that do start are usually extinguished fairly quickly with minimal spread and injury to occupants. Therefore, our fire emergency procedures should deal mostly with the safe, quick and orderly evacuation of occupants from structures when a fire is discovered and how to handle the aftermath.

For emergencies such as fires, local or state law often dictates some parts of the plan. For instance, the local fire marshal will require that you have working smoke detectors, emergency exit lighting and if the structure is a high rise (usually more than six stories), annual fire drills. But your plan must go much farther than the minimums required by code. Your plan, for instance, should be inclusive of what to do to prevent a fire in the first place such as performing regular written fire prevention inspections.

For fire emergencies, your plan must also consider exiting plans for getting residents or office tenants in different areas of the property from their units to the nearest emergency exit and out to the street or parking lot, well away from the danger of fire or explosions.

A proper emergency plan would also include regular training of residents or office tenants in the proper response should a fire or smoke alarm be activated. This training, called “exercises” in the emergency management world, is the only way to ensure that a plan that sounds great on paper can actually work in real life. And regular exercises of the emergency plan also get residents/tenants used to doing the right thing in an emergency when panic can often set in.

I highly recommend annual training and exercises for all building occupants as part of your fire emergency plan. This is true regardless of the height of your building. Fires happen in single story buildings too. And although the evacuation of such a structure is a lot less complicated than a high rise building, occupants should be trained in a realistic fire evacuation exercise (fire drill) at least annually.

When I say realistic, I mean that all such exercises should be unannounced (fires don’t warn you in advance), should be accompanied by an audible fire alarm (if the building is so equipped) and should include the full, 100% evacuation of all persons in the structure to the designated Safe Refuge Area. The Safe Refuge Area is the predesignated area away from the subject structure by at least 100 feet where evacuees are trained to assemble and await further instructions.

I also recommend that your fire procedures include an annual training of all occupants/residents in the proper procedures to follow when a fire is discovered. It’s best to conduct this training right before the evacuation exercise so that the right procedures are fresh in your resident’s minds.

Earthquake Emergency Procedures

For property managers with properties in areas prone to earthquakes (do you know if your area is included?), a viable emergency plan must contain procedures for dealing with them. Earthquakes do not provide any warning – they just occur. And while the vast majority of earthquakes are small enough to do little or no damage, especially to structures designed to withstand moderate quakes, a larger earthquake will almost certainly do some damage.

Just like fire emergency procedures, earthquake procedures should include proactive steps that you and your staff will take to inspect all areas of the property and secure loose items that may fall and injure someone, remove falling hazards that can be removed and otherwise do what you can to prepare. Another must have for earthquakes are sufficient emergency food, tools and other supplies. Most experts advise that in a serious earthquake, we should prepare to stay at the property for up to three days and nights without outside assistance. Good sample lists of emergency supplies and even prepacked kits are available on the internet – check it out.

Preparation exercises for earthquakes are a must for your emergency plan to be realistic and workable. Unlike fire emergencies, during and after an earthquake, we do not have the occupants evacuate. Instead, we train them to “Drop, cover and hold”. This is a well-established procedure which involves taking cover under a heavy desk or table when the shaking starts and staying protected until it stops.

Following the initial quake and immediate aftershocks, each tenant/resident will need to have and use their own supplies to treat injuries, free trapped persons and shelter in place for up to three days with no outside assistance (including perhaps assistance from you and your staff).

If you think about all the things that you and your tenants will need to have in place to deal with a major earthquake and the aftermath of same, having pre-practiced emergency procedures ready to employ is an absolute necessity.

Other Emergencies

In addition to the aforementioned procedures, your emergency plan must also have provisions for other, perhaps more rare emergencies. These include power failures, bomb threats, terrorism and others that I’m sure you can envision. For each such emergency, there are certain logical steps to take to respond, contain and recover from the event. The internet is a great source of specific information about planning for such emergencies. IREM® and BOMA® are also good resources for such information.

The most important thing is to stop procrastinating about putting an emergency plan together and get started. As suggested above, what works for many managers is to gather staff, contract personnel, others from your company, etc. in a quiet setting and start brainstorming. For each type of emergency, ask what resources you have available, what is likely to occur during such emergencies and how your property and tenants will be affected.

And remember that an emergency plan that is carefully developed and then put on a shelf to gather dust is almost as bad as having no plan at all. Almost immediately upon completion of your first plan, it will become obsolete. This is because the property changes, the tenants change and resources change. Your plan must be seen as a living, breathing document that must constantly be revisited, revised and rehearsed.

Part of the process of constantly revising your plan is to challenge the plan participants on the assumptions in the plan. For instance, if your fire emergency plan contemplates that the safe refuge area across the street will be a good place for your residents to gather away from danger, but that area is now under construction, your plan needs to be changed and the residents retrained.

Another part of a healthy planning process is to do regular exercises of the plan to test its viability. Exercises can be the “live” or “table top” variety. Live exercises involve realistic recreations of a disaster scenario. This would include for instance, live fire evacuation exercises (fire drills) wherein we ring the bells without prior warning and evacuate everyone in building to the safe refuge area on a timed basis.

Table top exercises are easier to do and generally consist of the planners (whoever that is in your world) sitting around a table (hence the name) and discussing different scenarios. You might have some pre-printed cards passed around the table with a likely (or not so likely) scenario on them. Everyone reads the scenario (example – we have just experienced a magnitude 6.3 earthquake and much of the building has been collapsed) and you all discuss what steps need to occur to deal with that scenario.

Ideally, you would do both types of exercises. Obviously, table top exercises are easier and less costly than live exercises. Experts in this field will tell you that you need to do both. The purpose of these exercise is to test your plan and its procedures and if holes are discovered, they can be fixed before an actual disaster occurs.

Conclusion

Going back to the start of this article, wherein we laid out a fire scenario at a multifamily property in the middle of the night, would the manager’s response have been different if she had a plan in place? The obvious answer is “Yes”.

If an emergency plan had been in place, and it dealt specifically with a scenario in which a fire occurred such as we imagined, and exercises had been conducted so that everyone involved (including the residents) knew what to do, I can guaranty you that the result would have been different. The property manager would have still been startled initially. But then, she would take out her copy of the latest emergency plan which would be in her car at all times and would start to work the plan, step by step.

Just having the plan in place would have brought a sense of calm and assurance to an otherwise chaotic situation. Instead of wondering what to do first, second and third, the manager would have the plan ready and it would guide her actions.

Instead of an angry mob of displaced residents wanting to know from the manager what the plan was for where they would go for the night, and the manager not really having an idea of how to respond, she would simply refer to the plan. The plan would have already contemplated having displaced residents be able to take advantage of a reciprocal arrangement with a nearby hotel that would be in place for these folks to stay at a discounted rate. It might have a 24/7 contact for the Red Cross.

I hope that this advice will inspire you to take action and start constructing an emergency plan for your property. The first step is the hardest but you can do it. And you will reap the benefits the next time disaster strikes in the middle of the night.

Be safe out there!

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