The massive floods that occurred in southern Alberta and the Greater Toronto Area in 2013 are just a few examples of the rising prevalence of natural disasters. These events wreaked havoc on unprepared buildings and communities.
But it doesn’t take these big storms to cause major problems for a residential condo tower. In fact, smaller scale events such as a fire, burst pipe, or power outage can be extremely challenging for a number of reasons.
Perhaps most important is the leadership structure in residential towers. Condos don’t have the same type of central management as office buildings, nor are they guided by the same regulations. This can create a great deal of confusion when it comes to developing and maintaining emergency response processes.
So, how can these situations be handled in Toronto’s condo buildings? There are four basic steps that those responsible for a property need to take to manage disasters as effectively as possible.
1. Establish leadership
Every good military and police operation has a strong central command, because it helps control the flow of information and the allocation of resources. Disaster response is no different.
Defining jurisdiction will help prevent paralysis following a disaster and improve the chances of effective management of the recovery process. When a condo building’s parking garage is flooded, who manages the disaster? Is it a property manager? The condo board? Or is there a separate committee that deals with these situations?
Before a condo is hit with an unexpected event, establish who is responsible for managing what. Then clearly communicate this to residents to streamline the response process. Also make residents aware of where the building’s responsibility ends and the unit owner’s responsibility begins.
2. Develop and test plans
Office buildings are mandated to develop emergency preparedness plans and conduct evacuation drills. But that’s not the case for condo buildings. Condo buildings are required to test and maintain a working emergency alarm — nothing more.
A working bell is hardly adequate preparation in the event of a fire. Often, the elevators will be shut down, and residents — confused and panicked — will stampede down the stairwells. This is an extremely dangerous situation, not to mention the fact that there may be elderly or disabled residents who have trouble or are unable to make it down the stairwells unassisted. Keep an up-to-date list of residents detailing their requirements in the event of an evacuation.
Developing and testing an emergency preparedness plan is undoubtedly in the best interest of both the property manager and residents. Then, when a disaster hits, condo buildings should immediately put that plan into action. This includes issuing clear evacuation orders to residents and enabling the flow of people out of the building in a safe, controlled manner.
3. Communicate next steps
The first thing to break down during an emergency is communication. Having clear and strong leadership helps, but much more can still be done.
One of the biggest frustrations for Calgary condo residents following its massive flood in 2013 was a lack of understanding of what was happening. Residents didn’t know how to access their belongings or whether they could get to their cars in the parking garage. Thousands were left in the lurch, out of their homes, without a plan for returning.
Residents should know what will happen after an evacuation order is issued and who to contact about next steps. The condo board, the property manager, or whoever is in charge, needs to distribute news via their website, newsletters, social media, or some other vehicle so that residents are aware of the situation in their building. Also pre-determine alternate meeting places so residents know where to get in contact with management.
4. Mobilize resources
After a disaster hits a condo building, mobilize specialized resources to properly mitigate damage and start a safe and healthy path to recovery. Depending on the type of disaster, these resources could include professional technicians with water pumps, power generators, dehumidifiers, disinfection equipment, moisture monitors and mould detectors.
Management should have a professional restoration provider on speed dial who will arrive immediately, assess the situation and enact an emergency mitigation plan. The sooner this process begins, the sooner residents can move back in.
Failure to bring in specialists could result in individuals taking incorrect actions, possibly endangering residents as well as lengthening the recovery timeline. Often, these professional service providers will even be able to map out and track the progress of the damage, which can speed up the insurance claim process.
When it comes to disaster management in condo buildings, the mandated minimum is far from good enough. Until government standardizes the requirement of emergency plans for condo buildings, it will be up to building management to make it a priority. By establishing leadership, developing and testing plans, communicating next steps and mobilizing resources, companies will be far better equipped to respond to disaster and restore their properties.
John Stephenson is vice president, property management services, at FirstOnSite Restoration. John led the first Emergency Response Team within the property management industry and conducted the very first high-rise office evacuation drills in Toronto.