Each year, CNYC presents a day long Housing Conference
where participants can select from among dozens of workshops
and seminars that explore virtually every aspect of operating
housing cooperatives and condominiums today. At the 22nd
annual Housing Conference in November 2002, there were three
seminars on building safety and emergency preparedness.
The following article reviews the midday session about advance
preparation for the building, its staff and residents to
help them confidently face emergencies. Again at CNYC’s
23rd annual Housing Conference on Sunday, November 16, 2003,
there will be workshops on safety and security.
Since September 11, 2001 safety has occupied a new position
in the minds of many people. By now, most cooperative and
condominium boards have certainly thought about the prospects
of terrorism at or near their buildings. However, chances
are that many are not adequately prepared to face such situations
or even to handling the far more likely lesser emergencies,
such as utility failures, severe weather situations or evacuations
due to bomb threats, and carbon monoxide leaks. Responsible
boards are seeking to address these potential situations
and to develop and communicate a well-formed plan to deal
"It behooves us all to start to pro-actively think
about how to handle emergency situations" said Harry
Smith, director of management for Gumley-Haft. During the
seminar entitled Be Prepared: Safety Plans and Drills at
CNYC’s 22nd annual Housing Conference, Smith, FDNY
firefighter Jimmy Lanza, and New York Association of Realty
Management executive director Margie Russell stressed that
no building should be without a practical set of plans for
many eventualities and procedures for determining which
plan to follow. In a fire, for example, people must be reminded
that they are generally safest remaining inside their own
apartment as long as it is not the site of the fire. In
other emergencies, it is important to be able to quickly
implement an orderly evacuation plan. Smart boards, they
said, should not completely rely on fire or police departments
to provide critical guidance during an incident, direction
must come from within.
Unlike schools, commercial buildings, and hospitals, residential
buildings aren’t designed for large-scale evacuations.
Stairways tend to be narrow and elevators (which can be
used when the incident is not fire-related) are generally
small. Thus, it is vital to develop evacuation plans custom-made
for your own building.
An evacuation plan must be easy to understand and based
on common sense. "There’s no point in having
a structured plan that nobody is going to be able to follow
or that nobody wants to follow," said Jimmy Lanza,
who has served 24 years as a firefighter and for almost
as long on the board of his cooperative. "You want
to be able to do it, follow it, and make it work."
He advised against relying on your management company or
the building staff to make safety decisions at the time
of a crisis; instead, you should make full use of their
expertise and their advice as you prepare a detailed evacuation
plan. This plan should be clear and explicit, and it should
be clearly communicated to everyone who lives in the building.
Smith stressed the plan should include a designated meeting
place where residents are to report once they are outside
the building, and that all residents should know its location.
At the meeting place, a board member or volunteer can take
count of those present and give further information. It
is also a good idea to establish a secondary point, in case
the magnitude of the emergency prevents people from safely
assembling at the primary meeting spot.
Following the 9/11 attacks, many New Yorkers purchased
supplies for emergency kits. Now that nearly two years have
passed, said Mr. Lanza, boards need to remind residents
to inspect and refurbish old kits or, for residents who
never had them, to create them. The kits should consist
of a portable radio, flashlights, extra batteries, water,
and a first-aid kit, copies of necessary prescriptions and
a small supply of necessary medication for each family member.
FORMING AN EMERGENCY COMMITTEE
The speakers recommended that buildings appoint an Emergency
Committee to take charge of the planning effort, and to
help maintain calm if an actual emergency should occur.
Committee members could include building employees and residents,
but all should fit a certain profile. "I think that
you should interview the volunteers just as if you were
interviewing a superintendent," said Ms. Russell. “In
an emergency situation, volunteers should be able to put
employees and tenants at ease. They should be leaders, but
also remain empathetic to those who may be frightened or
injured.” The following criteria, taken from a management
handbook, will help in evaluating emergency committee candidates:
- Do they make people feel that they are working with
them rather than for them?
- Are they fair and tolerant?
- Do they have high morals? Do they tend to be loyal
individuals? Do they know right from wrong?
- Do they follow the rules?
- Do they put the interests of the building and others
ahead of their own?
- Do they keep their promises? Are they reliable? Do
people feel they can depend on them in a bad situation?
- Do they show that they like people? Do they join in
conversations? Do they treat each person as an individual?
- Are they tactful, and are they kind in correcting or
criticizing? Are they considerate?Ms Russell added that
there are a few red flags to watch out for: Individuals
evidencing these characteristics are not likely candidates
for an Emergency Committee.
- Do they complain about matters that were previously
of little concern? Do they show displeasure with the way
things are going, even going out of their way to find
things to be angry about?
- Do they tend to respond negatively to almost everything
that is said, even from the start?
- Are they quick to take the opposite side in a discussion?
Are they always taking an opposing viewpoint?
Once the committee is chosen, the board should consult
with the building’s insurance carrier to find out
if an addendum to its policy is needed "because this
committee will have people’s lives in its hands, and
thus should be covered accordingly," said Ms. Russell.
She also suggests that committee volunteers be assigned
shifts, when they are to be on call. During the day, building
employees can be on call; a more equal balance of employees
and volunteers can generally be assigned to the evening
shift. For the overnight shift, find volunteers who are
consistently at the building.
The committee should gather regularly to practice exit
drills and work on finding different ways to exit the building,
taking notes as they go along. Ms. Russell recommends that
the superintendent and at least one board member be in attendance
at each meeting, and suggests inviting all building residents
to participate in the drills. She also recommends having
floor captains in high-rises, much like those in commercial
buildings. Also, the Emergency Committee should make sure
to have a ready supply of first-aid kits and flashlights--stored
where they can easily be accessed in an emergency.
Finally, the Emergency Committee should know that they are
to serve as a link between the building and the emergency
services, and as a liaison with the city’s command
post. Mr. Smith said the group needs to talk to the local
authorities ahead of time, informing them of their evacuation
plan and notifying them of people who may need special help
in an emergency.
WHAT THE EMERGENCY SERVICES NEED TO KNOW
According to Mr. Lanza, shareholders can do their part to
make emergency responders’ and firefighters’
jobs easier. For instance, some resident members of the
emergency committee should know about the basement. In almost
all buildings, this is where potential fire sources (such
as the boiler and compactor) are located, and frequently,
that area is under the command of the superintendent and
maintenance staff. Because such staff often live off-site
and sometimes far away, the fire department may not have
anyone to give them direction if an incident occurs during
Unlabeled basement doors can further complicate matters:
firefighters would be wasting time searching for the source
of the fire – and destroying the building in the process.
Make sure there is an extra set of keys available for the
fire department or any responders in the event the super
is not present. To prevent the keys from getting into the
wrong hands, make sure that the concierge, doorman or handyperson
knows where they are, and knows to only give them to emergency
responders. Thus, once they identify the door they need
to go into (thanks to it being clearly labeled), they will
have the keys and can simply open the door, as opposed to
breaking it down.
Inform your local fire company, as well as local authorities,
of any mobility-impaired residents, or if the building has
unique features that could be hazardous in the event of
a fire (i.e., a pool on an upper floor). Mr. Smith and Mr.
Lanza both noted that the Emergency Committee needs to learn
where any hazardous materials in the building (including
oxygen tanks that individual residents may have for health
reasons) are located, so that they can inform the fire department.
Mr. Lanza recommended that board members relay these concerns
to the fire inspector responsible for their building. He
pointed out that special cards are available at the local
firehouse, which can be completed to indicate where residents
who cannot evacuate themselves are located.
Have emergency numbers on hand for all the board members,
your property manager and the management company, and members
of the maintenance staff, in case something goes wrong during
the weekend or off-hours. "If you can get to the right
people to make the right repair at the right time,"
said Mr. Lanza, "it saves you a lot of money and aggravation,
and it makes the quality of life better for the residents."
Finally, a board member should be designated to receive
the fire department or EMS when an incident occurs. This
can be a member or members of the buildings Emergency Committee.
Communicating with residents during an emergency is crucial,
and there are several ways to get information and instructions
to people in the building. Cable companies often give larger
buildings a dedicated closed-circuit television channel
of their own, which can be used as an internal emergency
notice channel when an emergency occurs. Mr. Lanza suggested
writing emergency messages on a dry-erase board and then
broadcasting them to the apartments. Ms. Russell added that
some buildings have intercom systems that can be upgraded
to automatically send an audible message into every apartment
Mr. Smith suggests purchasing walkie-talkies to be used
specifically in an emergency situation. For instance, during
an evacuation, volunteers can be stationed in the stairwells
so that they can report incidents (such as blocked egress
and injuries) to the person in charge. In buildings without
high-tech resources, the board should designate volunteers
on each floor to go from door to door when an evacuation
has been ordered.
While the importance of preparing for emergencies is common
knowledge, having a clear and effective plan will help everyone
cope when problems do occur, making the jobs of emergency
personnel much easier and perphaps even saving lives.
FIRE EVACUATION PROCEDURES BY BUILDING TYPE
who has served for more than 24 years in the
New York City Fire Department, offered the following
procedures for reacting to fires in buildings
made of fireproof and non-fireproof construction:
Stay in the apartment unless the fire is directly
below, or unless conditions become intolerable.
If there are any concerns (such as difficulty
breathing or children in the apartment by themselves),
call 911 and the operator will get in contact
with a fire dispatcher who will relay the message
to the incident commander on the scene. The
commander will try to send one of the on-duty
firefighters to the apartment for help or reassurance.
"You’re not bothering anybody; it’s
part of our job," said Mr. Lanza.
Unless the fire is in your apartment, or in
the apartment next door, below or above yours,
stay inside your apartment until instructed
to leave. By leaving on your own, you may be
walking directly into a "line" –
a void where the fire can spread. An example
of a line is the space in the floor where the
plumbing comes up. The priority for the firefighters
is the apartment where the fire is emanating
from, as well as the adjacent apartments. If
you are elsewhere in the building, carefully
evaluate the situation and get prepared to leave
in an instant.