Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums
CNYC Newsletter

Published: Summer 2003

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 with them.

"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.

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.

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 off-hours.
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 when needed.

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.


Jimmy Lanza, 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:

Fireproof Buildings: 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.

Non-Fireproof Buildings: 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.


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