Why Emergency Planning Needs to Be Part of Your Business

Whether it be flooding, fires, earthquakes or hurricanes, the past year has been challenging for multifamily operators, who must protect residents while preventing destruction of their communities. The first step is having an efficient and updated plan. It may be time to review yours.

Night long exposure photograph of the Santa Clarita wildfire in CA. The Santa Clarita Valley mountains has drawn firefighters and emergency crews in the hills toward Acton. So far, the fire has burned 38,346 acres.
Night long exposure photograph of the Santa Clarita wildfire in CA. The Santa Clarita Valley mountains has drawn firefighters and emergency crews in the hills toward Acton. So far, the fire has burned 38,346 acres.

An astounding 212 natural disasters have walloped the U.S. since 1980, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, resulting in more than $1.2 trillion in damages. This year was especially bad, with 15 weather- and climate-related disaster events as of Dec. 1—three times the annual average—with losses exceeding $1 billion. Whether it be flooding, fires, earthquakes or hurricanes, the past year has been challenging for multifamily operators, who must protect residents while preventing destruction of their communities. The first step is having an efficient and updated emergency plan—a course of action developed to mitigate damage and safeguard staff and residents. It may be time to review yours.

The basics

Step 1. Risk assessment: Evaluation of the property and possible risks is at the basis of every emergency management plan. The owner should work with their insurance agent to walk the grounds and compile a list of possible threats, starting with common hazards such as fires and electrical outages.

Step 2. Natural hazards: Climate and landforms are other factors in risk assessment. If in the Northeast, blizzards, flooding and hurricanes might be high on the list. Same goes for the Midwest with tornados and the West with wildfires.

Step 3. Outsourcing: Most property managers don’t have the expertise or the time to develop a proper emergency plan, according to Jeff Lapin, vice president of property management at Coastal Partners. Lapin suggests using outside resources to create an efficient strategy. “You have to pull out everything you’ve got: maintenance plans, alarms, evacuation meeting spots. You can start building from there and work with a qualified consultant to fully develop these plans.”

Communication plans

There are two groups of people involved in managing disasters, according to Debbie Mistick, vice president of Circumspex. One is the emergency response team in charge of handling evacuations, updating residents and conducting training. The other addresses media relations and includes the CEO and regional managers. “This is a huge point that many companies don’t think about. You need someone out there making comments, addressing the situation with those outside of the communities. That way, the information is handled accurately, and the boots-on-the-ground team can devote all their time and resources to managing the problem.”

Social media is an important communication bridge between staff and residents, and should be constantly updated, emphasized Melissa Cannata, vice president of property management for Carroll Management Group. Providing a text message group or social media page just for residents is an easy way to keep them updated during calamities. It can inform them about ways to prepare their homes, when to evacuate and when it’s safe to return. Conventionally, preparations and communication should begin two days prior to a potential disaster.

Employee involvement

When it comes to making sure a property is prepared for emergencies, it’s important to keep all team members fully involved. Other recommendations for increased efficiency include updating plans annually to reflect community changes, regional hazards and staff shifts, but also training employees every six months to a year via drills, review of guidelines and handbooks, and so forth.

“Set up different scenarios that might take place on the property and run through what the procedure would be, what employee is in charge of what aspect of the emergency—whether it be a fire, flooding, hurricane evacuations. Keep escalating the situation so that no matter what hits, the team has a plan developed,” Mistick advised.

She insisted that these operations should become routine and attached to something that needs to be updated regularly, such as budgets or property inspections.

Safety net

In mid-November, the House of Representatives passed a bill dubbed the 21st Century Flood Reform Act, after months of negotiation. The bill renews the National Flood Insurance Program for five years, updates federal flood mapping requirements and seeks to bolster an emerging private flood insurance market. The initiative provides insurance to residents of flood-prone areas, where such precautions are federally mandated.

“Partnering with an insurance agent and taking advantage of that service for a second set of eyes is the best thing property managers can do,” Lapin explained. “There should be a section of the emergency plan on what to do in terms of incident reports, notifying insurance companies and dealing with claims.”

Semper paratus

Past experiences are helpful resources when preparing for future emergencies. Melissa Cannata shared her process when one of the communities was affected by Hurricane Harvey. “We had to remove water from the site, cut power, assess damages and unit livability, communicate to residents, do an immediate storm clean-up to reduce liability, assist with relocations and then rebuild.”

The preparations checklist should also include increasing supplies regularly and making sure emergency contact information for all vendors that can assist during a crisis is easily accessible to all team members.

Precautions on the premises should consist of cleaning out the gutters before winter so heavy snow can melt off, making sure there isn’t any dry brush around a property prone to wildfires or investing in hurricane shutters.

Originally appearing in the CPE-MHN Guide to 2018.