While every homeowner association hopes for a community that runs smoothly and safely, HOAs must remain aware of the possibility of disasters and dangerous situations in order to provide their residents with the greatest amount of safety and security. Thomas Engblom, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, ARM, CPM, PhD, outlined a plan of action for homeowner associations, detailing what to do prior to a disaster, and how to manage if disaster does indeed strike. Disasters can include anything from weather-related incidents, including hurricanes and tornadoes, to man-made disasters and emergencies, including bomb threats. While each scenario differs in how an HOA must react, there is a certain amount of preparation that an HOA may do to help ensure the well-being of its residents, first and foremost, and to help reduce damage to property.
Before enacting disaster preparation within an association, what exactly qualifies as a disaster? “A disaster is anything that would be unplanned,” Engblom said. Some common disasters include fire, flood, tornado, electrical malfunction, etc., which of course vary in scale. “You should always plan for something that would be abnormal to your area as well. Planning for a disaster, geographically you may have fire, flood, or tornado, but you should prepare for the unknown.” Consider any weather events that typically occur in your area, but also consider aspects of your surrounding area, including, for example, train tracks or chemical plants. Simply because a certain disaster or event has not occurred near an association or is quite rare, the association should still consider it a possibility and plan for it. Being over-prepared for a variety of disasters is a better plan of action than being completely unprepared. Bigger properties, with more units and residents, will need to prepare differently than smaller properties.
Placing the burden of preparation entirely on the residents themselves is not an option. The association has a responsibility to its residents in the event of a disaster. The responsibility of the board is covered in the association’s governing documents. “This goes back to the board, and the board is the governing agency. The board has a fiduciary responsibility to maintain the common elements. How do you maintain those common elements? They essentially need to restore the common elements to the condition that they were in before [the disaster],” Engblom said. “You want to protect the association, and the bigger concern is that you don’t want any loss of life.” To illustrate this, Engblom gave the example of an association where the power went out. The association did not want residents to walk up to their units in the dark through the stairwells because residents could injure themselves. In addition to jeopardizing the safety of residents, such a hazard could become a liability to the association.
When actually planning for hypothetical disasters, Engblom suggested that associations prepare for different components of any problems that may arise. Additionally, disaster plans should be updated on a regular basis by trained professionals. Parties involved in the review process of a disaster plan include maintenance, management, the board of directors, or residents with a relevant skill set (fire personnel, tradespeople, medical personnel, etc.) to provide input. “You as a board member might not have the expertise, but if you call the fire department or the police department, they can give insight to some of the basic information that would be a part of this.” Engblom further noted that, if you have people involved in any of these fields within your own association, you can tap into their knowledge.
Insurance companies should be involved in the process as well. “You want to know how much they will cover and what authority you will have,” Engblom said. The insurance company can provide the funds necessary, depending on the situation, to prevent any additional damage after the disaster. He advised that the association should first call 911 in the event of an emergency before contacting any other involved parties (including restoration or insurance companies).
Engblom also noted that FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) provides information regarding disaster plans, including how to make a disaster preparedness kit and how to act both before and after a disaster occurs. They also provide booklets that can be kept by associations and their residents. The booklets cover a range of topics related to disaster preparedness, including what should be kept in preparedness kits — including water, flashlights, rope, plywood for boarding up windows, etc. Detailed information can be found on FEMA’s website at www.fema.gov.
Associations should establish command centers to prepare prior to, and to coordinate following, the disaster. “A command center can be in the office or it can be in a different location so that everyone who is filtering through — such as contractors and emergency response personnel — can be briefed,” Engblom said. In the emergency disaster plan you should also have a meeting place. “It can be down the street. Maybe it’s at a church, maybe it’s at a school. You want it conducive to your situation. You want people to go there and meet so that you can have a head count,” Engblom said. Meeting locations may change depending on the season or the type of disaster. The main component is that the meeting place will serve as an information and treatment point as well as a refuge for residents.
Engblom noted the importance of establishing if any residents have special needs or circumstances that would be affected by certain situations. For example, if the power goes out and a resident needs an oxygen tank, having that knowledge on file allows the association to better ensure that resident’s safety. Associations should provide evacuation plans for residents and stipulate specific plans for non-ambulatory residents. If your association allows pets, provide a plan for them. Local pet hotels serve as a good option for boarding. Planning for every type of disaster requires that the association plan for the aftermath of every scenario as well.
Associations must also consider how to communicate information and updates to residents in the event of a disaster. Engblom said, “You may have a dedicated cable channel that you can utilize. You can call people at home, by cell phone, or email them.” Automated technology that utilizes email or phone to send out blasts of information to certain groups of people is a good choice. This can be customized to fit the needs of your association as well. If a task force exists, they can be sent information specific to them while residents can be sent their own relevant information. Note that some lines of communication will cease functioning during certain scenarios (i.e. if there is a fire, updates by home phone is not the most efficient choice).
In order to best prepare residents, the association should have meetings to go over the disaster preparedness plan. They may also want to hold a mock-drill. Inform residents of the potential of upcoming events, such as fire drills and town hall meetings. Forms can be provided for residents to complete. “Consider having owners acknowledge receipt of the plan with a signature page,” Engblom said. The plan can be included in association documents, such as the rules and regulations, and can be mailed out on an annual basis with a summer communications or annual meeting packet. Ensure that the plan is included in your resale disclosures.
In the event of a disaster, an association should hold meetings on a regular basis to keep residents informed and to discuss what damage has been addressed and how the situation should be dealt with. This harkens back to maintaining open lines of communication. “If you’re with a management company, they will be the conduit for the communication that you have.”
Following a disaster, the association demonstrates their responsibility by liaising with a restoration company to repair any damage that occurred. The restoration process is discussed in detail in the next chapter, but here is a briefing of what typically should occur. If the disaster covered a wide area, a restoration company will need to prioritize a list of their own, which may delay repairs within your association. “The question becomes, do you have multiple restoration companies as a backup?” Engblom said. As will be detailed in the next chapter, associations should be prepared with information about restoration company contacts to help speed up the process of fixing any damaged common elements and returning the community to a place of normalcy.
Associations also should be aware of security issues and put measures in place to prevent burglaries if units will be unoccupied. “Call your vendors to make sure they are ready, willing, and able to perform board-up services and begin interior dry out,” Engblom said. While security of your residents remains the priority, securing a building against theft helps to mitigate the stress following a disaster. Associations should further secure their important documents, including insurance policy documents, checks, owner lists, banking information, and a complete set of the governing documents.
As far as documentation of the disaster itself, associations need to report any damage to their insurance company. This process is detailed in Chapter 10 — Insurance. Briefly, the extent of documentation is done on a case by case basis and depends on the type of disaster, Engblom said. Insurance companies typically ask the date and time that the event occurred and what steps you are taking. Engblom recommended that you schedule an adjuster to call as soon as possible. If possible, require your restoration contractor or other vendor to meet with the adjuster on site to verify damage; try not to allow the adjuster to visit the site unaccompanied. Get the claim number as well as your insurance company contact’s email address so that you can immediately follow-up with them, noting all of the information previously exchanged over the phone.
As part of preparing in advance, associations should catalog specific building information. Keep a file of the brand, model, and serial numbers of pumps, motors, appliances, swimming pools, and any other major equipment. Conduct a physical inventory of items such as furniture and equipment. Engblom added, “Videos of these items [before a disaster] will be invaluable.”
he media may show up at an association in the event of a disaster. Engblom suggested letting a representative from the management company deal with the media, as they are more likely to have the expertise and the knowledge necessary to adequately address any questions. Engblom also suggested keeping the media off of the property, as they may only exacerbate ongoing problems.
While disasters can occur on a vast scale and vary greatly in type, associations do have the power to mitigate damage and panic to a certain extent. Preparing for a wide range of scenarios can help provide residents with a greater sense of security and can help the association fulfill its responsibility to the residents.
- First aid supplies
- Emergency cordoning tape
- Sheets and blankets
- Battery-operated megaphone and whistles
- Portable AM/FM radios
- Spare batteries and manual battery
- Poster board and markers
- Blockades and flashing lights
- Bottled drinking water
- Water purification tablets
- Non-perishable food
- Plywood Sheets
- Portable generators
- Hygiene products
- Filtering face masks
- Tool kit
- Plastic sheeting and duct tape