Disaster Relief Emergency Preparedness 101

Disaster Relief

 When Superstorm Sandy slammed into the East Coast at the end of October, hurling  a record breaking 13 plus-foot water surge at New York City, knocking out power  to millions of residents and devastating parts of Queens and Staten Island, how  prepared was your community? Was your building well-stocked with emergency supplies? Was an evacuation plan  in place? How about a communication system?  

 While the basics of preventing—and surviving—common disasters like fires or blackouts should be well known to anybody living  in an urban apartment building, the reality is that each building is different,  with varying physical equipment, divergent building materials, and unique  escape routes for emergencies. Since in some worst case scenarios each building  can become practically its own island during an emergency, it’s important for board members and management to devise customized emergency  plans for the community. That way if the unthinkable happens, everyone can  escape quickly and safely.  

 Plan First

 Dan Wollman and Harry Smith, CEO and director of management, respectively, for  Manhattan-based management firm Gumley Haft, recommend that a building’s board of directors establish a Disaster Management Plan, which should include  a command center, rally points, and evacuation plans, to name a few items. The  colleagues should know, since two of the buildings their company manages  suffered frightening emergencies in the summer and fall of 2006. In the first  emergency, an explosion in an Upper East Side condo destroyed the building—and in the second instance, a small plane crashed into a multifamily building.  

 While more common crises such as power outages in winter or flooding in  low-lying areas are likelier for many residential buildings, the elements of  readiness are the same for any emergency. Boards and managers can draw up  customized emergency plans for their buildings, but they must know where to  look to find the right information and with whom to work to make the plan  implementable. Soliciting the advice and the involvement of the key players who  are called on in a building emergency—such as the property manager, the superintendent, the building’s security chief and others—is the foundation of any effective plan. With some buildings, even more expert  help may be needed.  

 Expert Consultations

 In most cases, emergency response professionals will come to your door to help  long before you need them to execute an evacuation. Though the American Red  Cross is an organization known for helping those affected in the aftermath of  disasters, the group also works to educate people in how to respond to  disasters before they strike.  

 “We offer training for residents and also for condo owners,” says Michael Devulpillieres, a spokesman for the American Red Cross, Greater  New York Region.  

 A course teaching the basics steps necessary for emergency preparedness in a  multi-family building is offered free by the local American Red Cross. The  course can be brought to a condo, where a Red Cross representative will teach  residents how to prepare by having the right supplies, by being ready with a  plan for emergencies, and by informing themselves during an emergency as well  as before it. More in-depth planning also is available through the  organization.  

 “We have corporate preparedness programs and will go in and do a full facility  audit. We generate a report which includes recommendations,” says Lynn Duddy, training specialist for the American Red Cross. More  information on the training can be found at www.myredcross.org, under “Take a Class.”  

 The auditing process includes evaluating the building’s emergency action plan, and creating one or selecting a better template for one  if the current plan is unworkable. A full assessment of emergency preparedness  plans requires knowing what type of equipment the building has, obtaining  evacuation routes, and assessing individual residents’ special needs in an emergency,” Duddy says.  

 It’s about being what the organization calls “Red Cross Ready”—meaning having supplies on hand such as food, water, and medicine, to use in an  emergency situation. You should have supplies such as flashlights, extra fuel  (if necessary for a boiler or generator), and other necessities ready for when  the emergency happens. A designated person in the building should be  responsible for replacing those building supplies and ensuring that they are  usable.  

 Preparedness also amounts to having a plan for residents to shelter in place—i.e., for them to stay put in the building for a while, if needed. A proper  shelter in place plan should account for the building community’s needs for at least a period of three days. That means having adequate drinking  water, food, batteries, flashlights, first aid supplies and even extra clothing  for residents, in case it is needed.  

 For Vernon Rupert Grant, owner of Crisisology Group International, an emergency  management and planning company, another start to preparing for an emergency  involves reducing the possibility of a crisis. Working to prevent a fire should  be the object of any building manager, and a manager can begin to accomplish  this by eliminating building violations such as inoperable emergency exits,  maintenance problems that could pose fire hazards, and the like.  

 “The superintendent is the first line of defense in a building emergency,” Grant says, adding that every building should have a Mitigation Plan, to lessen  the possibility of an emergency.  

 A building’s manager and superintendent should walk around the building and assess the  potential hazards. Such problems as a faulty fire alarm system, inoperable  doors, windows that cannot be opened or fully closed, and bad wiring or  plumbing that could create a hazard all must be noted when the super and  manager investigate the building as part of their mitigation plan. After noting areas that should be addressed, the building staff should remedy  those problems as fast as possible.  

 Jim Long, a spokesman for the FDNY, says preparation for fires and other  disasters is each resident’s responsibility. “Having working smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors is crucial, as is  proper signage, clear exits, fire drills when applicable, and above all,  communication between building staff, management and occupants,” Long says.  

 Expecting Contingencies

 The main types of emergencies a building should plan for are fires, power  outages, and in some areas, flooding. Boards and management can begin to plan  for emergencies affecting their building by simply getting the dialogue  started.  

 “The superintendent should begin a dialogue around the neighborhood, and the  property manager should be talking with other property managers, people in the  neighborhood, and city officials about crisis and emergency planning,” Grant says.  

 To this end some neighborhood organizations are coordinating and planning for  emergencies. The Association of Residential Boards, Ltd., and its president  Jacqueline Watkins Slifka, have led the way in forming the Community Emergency  Response Coalition (CERC), which is intended to better prepare New York City's  communities to respond effectively to natural and man-made disasters. CERC will  disseminate information and best practices and mobilize private businesses,  schools, universities, corporations, cooperatives, condominiums and faith-based  organizations to enhance New York City emergency programs; support hospitals  and other institutions most affected by emergency events; and enable  communities to be self-sufficient for as long as possible after a major  disaster. The Association of Residential Boards is an organization representing  co-ops and condos on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  

 According to Slifka, this initiative actually grew out of a lack of interest, “When I first presented the idea nobody was interested in organizing CERC, there  was no interest at all. I then spoke with Jim O'Connor with Douglas Elliman Real Estate and he helped to  get the ball rolling.”  

 “The first part of the initiative was to create a pilot program in my  neighborhood,” says Slifka, “an area from East 68th Street to East 71st Street from Park Avenue to York  Avenue to demonstrate the potential benefits of advanced organization and  communications among neighborhood residents in preparation for emergency  events. We've gotten a lot of support. I've been working closely with Dr.  Robert Bristow, chair of New York-Presbyterian Hospital's Emergency Management  Committee.”  

 According to Slifka, the key to being prepared is communication and planning.  There has to be a thoroughly mapped out plan and a clear strategy of  communication. It has to be comprehensive, she says. Thankfully, her area was  spared the wrath of the recent hurricane but that doesn’t mean that the planning was unnecessary.  

 Making the Plan

 To approach emergency planning in a comprehensive way, assemble an emergency  team, comprised of co-op or condo board members, the facilities manager,  building security personnel, and the building’s superintendent or chief engineer. The people in charge of the group, and in  charge during an emergency, should be trained in both CPR and first aid. The  property manager should be the team leader during a crisis situation.  

 Individual residents of a building need to make preparations, and have an  emergency kit, which Red Cross officials call a “Go Bag.” The bag should contain prescriptions, some food and water, money, clothes and a  few other necessities. Regardless of a building’s evacuation plan, residents also may want to make their own exit plan, given  the unique circumstances of many families. What if a disaster happens during  the day, when mom is at home, and dad’s at work and the kids are at school? Each member of the family should know  where they will meet if the building is evacuated or they are separated due to  an emergency.  

 And one of the most important things to do during an emergency, is to stay  informed, Devulpillieres says. But informing oneself can begin long before a  crisis. Residents can visit www.nyc.gov to determine if their neighborhood is  prone to flooding. They also can see whether their building will have a  mandatory evacuation route, what the route will be, and where the nearest  evacuation area will be located.  

 Residents need to recognize the necessity of having a plan for their pet, too.  Where will they house their pet and who will care for it if they are evacuated?  

 It’s also a good idea to team with New York City’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM). They have developed neighborhood  outreach through their Community Emergency Response Teams. Today, every  community board in New York City has a CERT program, the largest of which is  located in Battery Park City and boasts 400 members. OEM also has what’s called an “Advance Warning System,” which is designed to alert individuals with special needs to various types of  hazards and emergencies affecting New York City.  

 During an emergency, the management team should know who is in the building and  who is not. That understanding will be informed by crucial data the team  compiles long before a crisis. Through a survey of the building, the team  should know how many people live in the building, which of them have special  needs or lack mobility and will need help evacuating, who has small children,  who has pets, and who works from home. This evacuation list should include  names, phone numbers, and apartment numbers of all residents.  

 Specific considerations may need to be made for a building’s “special-needs” residents, such as the elderly, ill or disabled individuals, or households with  young children who might not be able to follow the same evacuation/emergency  protocols as more able-bodied residents. To help such people, members of the  management team, and/or a group of resident volunteers, must be designated to  assist these folks in a crisis.  

 The evacuation list should be backed up remotely, not simply stored on-site.  That way, if anything happens to the property manager’s computer in the building, the info can be sent directly to another laptop or  device during an emergency.  

 Any residential building also should have rally points to go to in an emergency.  Rally points are places away from the apartment building, but close to it,  where residents will gather in an emergency to relax, deal with what happened,  and plan a course of action. And just as having a small radio in your Go Bag is  important to stay informed, rally points also are places where building  management can distribute information to residents.  

 Crisis Management

 Needless to say, a building’s management could be held liable if proper planning isn’t carried out and tragedy results due to an emergency. Preparedness is not an  option. It is part of a management team’s fiduciary responsibility to the building.  

 Preparing for hurricanes, 100-year rainstorms or monumental blizzards, and other  less-common emergencies, also should be a priority of the management team. This  might seem obvious, given that two tornadoes actually struck New York City in  early September 2012. So it is clear that such natural disasters, while rare,  do happen, and neglecting to be ready for them could be a violation of a  manager or board member’s responsibility to the community.  

 Samantha Burns, marketing director for Woodbury, New York-based insurer Mackoul & Associates says that to prepare for hurricanes and other crises, every resident  should have a list of contact information handy. The list should have info for  the emergency management office, police, hospitals, local utilities and the  homeowner’s insurance agent.  

 Residents should take inventory of their possessions, noting all major household  items and valuables. This list will be essential for insurance purposes, if  possessions are destroyed or damaged. Residents also need to protect their  important documents, by keeping copies of irreplaceable documents in a safe,  dry place.   

 Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The  Cooperator. Associate Editor Liam P. Cusack contributed to this article.


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