11 Dec Emergency preparedness for Homeowners Associations
An emergency can happen at any moment. The problem is (outside of the crisis itself) planning for the various types of emergencies. No one could have foreseen spending the majority of 2020 combating the spread of COVID-19. While there is crossover in what’s required to prepare for emergencies, there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all response. Micro-emergencies can affect just one or a minimal number of properties or residencies – a broken pipe, a fire at an individual residence, a storm that knocks out power, a gas leak, for example. Then there are macro-emergencies that can negatively affect whole communities and neighborhoods – a flood, tornado, pandemic, riot, wildfire, or earthquake. Regardless of the emergency’s size and scope, it’s up to the HOA and the property management team to maintain an updated action and response plan that considers the many “what-ifs” to ensure the safety of residents.
Start planning and preparing for an emergency.
The Emergency Response Plan needs to cover a range of short and long-term issues and lays out the board, management company, community employees, and residents’ guidelines. Questions surrounding the direction of HOA funds specific to handling broad financial and approval processes, such as special emergency assessments and reserve fund borrowing, need to be addressed. The main lesson taken from living through the COVID-19 pandemic is the importance of having a cohesive plan in place that accounts for a range of circumstances so the response can be swift and meaningful.
Ten questions for the HOA to consider when preparing for an emergency:
- What is expected from the board, the management company, and the community manager?
- What resources are available for communities to help prepare for an emergency, respond to it, and aid with any recovery?
- What are the response procedures, and when will they be put into action?
- What are the communication protocols (with and without power) for a short or extended emergency?
- If an evacuation is required, what will be the evacuation route?
- How will we handle residents who need special assistance?
- How will emergency supplies be dispersed?
- Where is the safest place for residents to congregate?
- What safety equipment do we need, and what is already in use?
- What services, such as trash collection and security, will continue, and for how long?
There’s much ground to cover, but taking a holistic approach that focuses on residents’ safety and community protection will undoubtedly be one that works. Even though this is truly a team effort, one person needs to oversee and direct the team members. The HOA, property management team, community manager and staff, and trusted vendors will be all hands on deck. Having input and agreement from all parties involved during the planning phase will lead to an appropriate response plan.
The plan will vary depending on the type of community. For instance, a highrise building will differ significantly from planned developments. You should also consider the location and natural landscape and the residents’ demographics (age and capabilities). Ultimately, the earlier the emergency preparedness begins, the greater chance it will mitigate damage and protect the residents.
Create detailed emergency checklists
Because of the scope required in creating a thorough emergency response plan, it’s good to have multiple checklists outlining and defining the various procedures. Breaking them down into three categories can help you quickly navigate.
What the HOA must do in preparation for an emergency:
- Plan out the responsibilities for each community employee during various emergency types.
- Make digital copies of any important documents and store them in a file-sharing cloud service. Keep originals in a fire-proof case.
- Ensure there is a current site plan with shut-off valve locations for water and gas and back-up generators’ location.
- Mark all emergency exits and fire-safe stairwells. Depending on how large the property is, diagrams may need to be hung in some areas.
- Have maps showing the location of strategically placed fire hydrants and extinguishers with instructions on how to use them.
- Agree on where the best place is for an off-site office if needed.
- Designate a location where you can place the debris during any cleanup efforts.
What to have on hand in preparation for an emergency:
- A large enough space to store all emergency essentials, including:
- First aid kits, safety equipment, flashlights, flares, ladders, extension cords, ropes, canned goods, cleaning supplies, headlamps, duct tape, and a battery-powered radio.
- Walkie-talkies that are battery-powered in case cell service is not available.
- A script for the association’s voicemail with instructions for residents.
- A list of animal shelters ready where residents can temporarily keep their pets if they cannot access their home.
- Up-to-date photos of any common areas for insurance purposes.
- An updated list of contact numbers for all residents. Assuming cell service is available, a mobile phone app may be ideal for communicating.
What to share with residents of the community:
- A repair and reinstatement list, so people know what will be in working order first.
- A mobile app for staying connected and to provide updates (if the community uses one)
- The safest place to meet in the community, depending on the emergency
- An emergency contact list for local police and fire departments, and how to contact the property managers during off-hours
- Evacuation routes and/or exits (will vary depending on the community)
- Basic instructions for more “likely” emergencies, such as not using elevators and closing doors if there’s a fire or standing under doorways during an earthquake
- Window decals to indicate whether a resident has pets, what kind, and how many
Make sure to consider residents with disabilities and the elderly as they will almost certainly need extra assistance. Things often change, so set a schedule to review regularly.
Getting the word out to residents
Please make sure all residents are aware of the emergency response plan and have easy access to it. Have the information available in different places and different formats (paper/electronic). Alerting residents using a phone app geared towards communities, posting information in commonplaces, including it in newsletters, and adding it to a board meeting agenda are all excellent ways to keep emergency preparation front and center. New residents should also receive emergency-related documentation upon move-in, along with a quick overview from a member of the community team.
How residents can plan
Encourage residents of the community to have their plans and supplies to counter an emergency and keep their households safe. Having an emergency preparedness kit in the home and knowing how to utilize everything can make a big difference. This site has all the information residents would need to prepare appropriately.
Cover all the basis
Consulting and doing walk-throughs with experts like engineers, landscapers, and other vendors familiar with the community will help keep tabs on any potential trouble areas. Also, collecting advice and resources from local insurance agencies, police and fire departments, and the Red Cross will help formulate a complete plan and make sure no stone is left unturned.
Insurance is something that needs to be addressed too. A disaster can cause significant damage; property damage, loss of income, and, in worst cases, the loss of lives. Be sure that your association has the appropriate amount–and type–of coverage to protect against natural disasters that are common in your area, and even those that are rare. Your property management company can help coordinate an insurance review to ensure that your coverage limits provide the level of protection needed.
Lean on your dedicated property management team
The property management team plays a vital role in developing and carrying out an emergency plan. Working with an experienced team to provide the “boots on the ground” response the community needs will make the difference. The property manager may often choose to organize expert-led meetings and/or training sessions that provide CPR, safety training, and evacuation plan development. These programs can save time and lives in the event of an emergency.
The property management company will be a great source of support after an emergency befalls a community too. There will be plenty of important tasks to complete, such as securing insurance disbursements and coordinating vendors for cleanup of property damage. The right property management company will communicate what responsibilities they are covering and help HOAs create an operating budget with an adequate emergency fund that covers all emergency-related expenses.
What to do after an emergency happens
Remember to keep reviewing and updating the emergency plan at a minimum once per year. When the plan changes, make sure residents are notified of the revised plan. Regardless of whether the plan changes, sending out a reminder once per year through a newsletter helps make sure residents are aware and knowledgeable.
The worst position any HOA can find themselves in is lost in confusion and fear as they see things unraveling across their community. The response can only be as good as (what was) prepared by a dedicated and cooperative property management team. Remember, it does take a team; homeowners, the board, vendors, and property managers all must work closely together, communicate openly, and stay on the same page. After all, during an emergency (and we are living during a noteworthy example), people’s lives are impacted when the right planning doesn’t happen.