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A Recipe for Disaster

April 2021

Where it concerns protecting residents and properties from emergencies and disasters, failing to plan is planning to fail. 

The last 12 months taught apartment companies to be ready for anything. Disease, flood, fire and freezing cold all threaten their buildings – and the people who live in them. Property managers need to carefully and deliberately plan to keep them safe.

“If you can imagine a scenario that puts your people or property at risk, then you have the responsibility to plan for it,” says Patrick Appleby, President of WinnResidential, based in Boston.

Plan For Everything

Apartment companies start by creating a strategy for what to do in a crisis – including all the potential emergencies they can think of. “The key is to have a plan in place ahead of time so that you know who is in charge and the specific resources that will be available,” says Elie Rieder, Founder and CEO of Castle Lanterra Properties, based in Suffern, N.Y.

These plans are customized for each property and constantly updated.

“You update at least annually - it’s an opportunity for the site teams to familiarize themselves with it,” says Tim Kramer, Vice President and Director of Operations at Draper and Kramer, Incorporated, based in Chicago. “Our properties all have emergency binders onsite.”

Once an apartment company recognizes a new disaster that has already begun or is likely to strike soon, they put together a task force to handle the crisis. “They essentially create a hub where they track the progress of the emergency event and provide real-time updates to residents,” says Phillip Boatwright, Executive Vice President of Property Management at the NRP Group, based in Cleveland.

Apartment companies also might determine which industry or other sources can guide them if they have questions during a crisis. For example, during the coronavirus pandemic, in spring 2020, Draper and Kramer would turn to authorities like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Illinois Department of Public Health and other dependable state and local resources, Kramer said, especially when a lot of information was coming in at once. Tapping into these organizations’ knowledge helped Draper and Kramer make the best decisions possible at the time, he added.

Focused leadership strategies like these can help an apartment company adapt to even an unexpected crisis like the spread of the coronavirus.

“If 2020 taught us anything, it was the importance of preparing for the unexpected,” says Raymond van Beveren, Senior Managing Director of Construction and Facilities Services for Cushman & Wakefield.

Keep in Touch with Residents and Staff

Leading apartment companies also plan to keep in constant contact with their residents and their staffs during a crisis.

“When you get tired of repeating yourself, you are right on the cusp of just enough communication,” says Mike Brewer, Chief Operating Officer for RADCO Residential, based in Atlanta. “In an emotionally loaded crisis, you cannot over-communicate.”

But emergencies like storms or floods often damage technologies that make communication possible, like telephone lines, internet connections and the electrical power grid.

“We believe the best emergency plan is to assume a total shutdown…  no land lines, no cell phones, no internet,” says Rieder.

Even in this worst-case scenario, apartment companies can still reach their staffs. “There are situations where you may have to physically travel to their homes,” says Appleby.

The staff who work at apartment communities can also contact each other in emergencies, even when communications technologies fail, if they plan ahead to meet at a designated place and time. “Ultimately, everyone should have a physical meeting point at or near the property that they know to go to if communication networks are down,” says Appleby.

Disasters like hurricanes and severe weather events can also make it hard for staff to enter or leave an apartment community. “In the event of lockdowns, curfews, road closures, shelter-in-place orders or inclement weather, it is prudent to have a designated staff member stay onsite in a model home or guest suite,” says Rieder.

Property managers also need to be able to communicate with residents in a disaster by any means necessary. “In some cases, you may have to be prepared to go door to door as our property teams often had to do during the California wildfires,” says Appleby. “The residents are our responsibility and there is always a way to get to a property to assess health and safety. You can’t abandon your people.”

Property managers can also use whatever technologies are working to reach residents. “Technology plays a more and more important role in how we communicate with residents,” says Kramer. “It used to be a phone call… then email… then text… now social media.”

Property managers are better able to keep in touch with residents if they are already in the habit of communicating frequently and successfully. “If you have trouble reaching residents for a lobby event, then you will have trouble in an emergency,” says Kramer.

However, just because property managers are able to send an email, they should not assume residents are necessarily checking their inbox. “It’s important to realize that residents don’t live online, so we can’t assume they will see an email as quickly as we would hope,” says Appleby.

Good communication can save lives. It can also prevent very expensive damage to the properties. For example, residents and staff members can help prevent water pipes from freezing and breaking during winter storms.

“The big repeat lesson related to extreme cold lies in educating team members to keep water pipes flowing and warm.... The damage from one busted pipe can be catastrophic,” says RADCO’s Brewer. “Managers must use all the communication tools available to educate residents about preventing water damage.”

Managers can also prepare an apartment building themselves for stresses that are likely to come sooner or later. “Properties affected by hurricanes, for example, have created hardened areas to protect against high winds,” says van Beveren.

In any location, heating, cooling and water systems, and emergency generators should be out of the way of potential threats like flood waters. They should be running well with easy access to replacement parts and multiple repair vendors willing to quickly respond.

Strong Relationships Help During a Crisis

Property managers do their best to make sure that vital supplies are available during a crisis. However, many cannot pre-position emergency supplies beyond a small amount of nonperishable food, first-aid kits and blankets, simply because most apartment communities have limited onsite storage space. “That’s why it is important to maintain excellent, working relationships with suppliers and vendors, locally and nationally,” says Appleby.

Apartment companies also rely on first responders and government officials in their area in a crisis. “Having a good relationship with local government is invaluable,” says Kramer. “Go to the local firehouse. Introduce yourself to the local police department.”

Bendix Anderson is a freelance writer.