A natural disaster or chemical outbreak can happen at a moment’s notice, so it’s essential tenants and building staffers know what to do in case of emergency. Depending on where you live, the risk for specific natural disasters varies, so preparation and mitigation steps vary as well.
Develop a Plan
To develop a sheltering-in-place plan, a property manager must begin with the basics. All windows and doors need to be shut and locked, and any HVAC systems need to be turned off. Everyone in the building should go to designated sheltering rooms, which should have at least 10 square feet per person and have as few windows, vents and doors as possible.
In the event of a chemical outbreak, all windows, vents and doors in the room should be sealed with sheets of plastic and duct tape. A TV or radio should be in the room to listen for further instructions and the “all clear” signal. A phone should be present as well. When the all clear is announced, windows and doors should be opened, HVAC systems turned back on and people moved outside until the building’s air has been exchanged with clean outdoor air.
Checklist of shelter-in-place essentials:
- Plastic sheeting that fits over windows and vents in the sheltering area
- Duct tape to secure plastic sheeting
- Battery-operated radio with fresh batteries to hear announcements
- Bottled water for drinking
- First aid kit
Who Needs To Be Involved?
An emergency management team should be formed based on authority, knowledge and skill set, says Cynthia Belton, an emergency management specialist for 15 years and former community disaster education & mitigation specialist for the Red Cross. Duties should be assigned to specific employees and everyone assigned a task should have at least one or more backups.
She adds that, in a more general sense, the facility manager, building engineer, maintenance staff, building insurer, representatives from the resident community and on-site security personnel all should be involved, or at least consulted, with the plan.
Local authorities and emergency response personnel also should be called to help. For example, local fire and police departments can provide direct assistance in conducting fire or emergency evacuation drills. They can also assist residents in acquiring and/or testing the functionality or detection devices (e.g., smoke detectors, fire extinguishers) and can provide guidance in picking the best sheltering room.
Communicate the Plan
The success of any shelter-in-place plan also depends heavily on how it’s communicated.
“In communicating a plan to staff and tenants, the property manager should seek to raise the level of awareness of staff and tenants about known and unknown potential risks, creating a culture of monitoring and preparedness,” Belton says.
Norman Smith, an owner/manager of properties for people with disabilities in central New Jersey, uses meetings, handouts and a newsletter to educate his tenants about preparedness and sheltering in place. Conducting meetings — with emergency professionals for support — and posting the plan online are useful tools. Regularly conducting drills and exercises is an easy way to reinforce the plan and allow tenants to ask questions, Belton says.
Many communities have local resources that property managers can use to communicate a plan. Smith brought the Progressive Center for Independent Living into his area to conduct shelter-in-place training because it specializes in working with people with disabilities.
Another example is Wally the Wise Guy in Deer Park, Texas. Wally is a mascot turtle developed by the Community Education Task Force, a consortium of local emergency planning committees from along the Houston Shipping Channel. Wally makes personal appearances at schools and civic events to teach chemical emergency shelter-in-place techniques to children and parents.
There are federal resources to help with disaster preparedness that deal with natural disasters. FEMA offers emergency preparedness certifications for businesses, nonprofit organizations and universities. The American Red Cross’ Ready Rating program also provides education and resources for businesses and organizations to better prepare for natural disasters.
Visit FEMA's Ready.gov site for more in-depth pre-emptive measures you can take for specific disasters.
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