Communication Seasonal

Worst Case Scenario: How to Prepare for Emergencies

Everyone in the Washington, D.C. area knows that the time-tested way to prepare for severe weather is to rush to the store and stock up on bread, milk, and toilet paper. While this addresses some of the common concerns people face when confronting a hurricane or snow storm, it falls short as a comprehensive emergency response plan.

Communities can be prepared for most foreseeable emergencies.  Here’s how.

Identify the Most Likely Perils

For most communities in our area, the most common perils, listed in general order of likelihood, are:

  • Frozen or broken pipes
  • HVAC system failure
  • Power outage
  • Severe weather – extreme heat or cold, hurricanes, or strong wind
  • Fire
  • Flooding
  • Falling trees
  • Information or data loss

How each of the above emergencies would affect a property varies with location and specific circumstances. The community should analyze how these events could affect the property, and what measures can be taken to prepare for them.

Many effects are foreseeable but not immediately obvious. Examples include:

  • A pool or fountain may overflow during a heavy rain. Part of the preparedness plan may include draining water from the pool before an expected severe storm.
  • Handling accumulations of debris during an interruption in trash removal services during a snow storm may present a significant challenge at some properties.
  • Flooding can affect underground garages or basements. If main electrical panels are located in these areas, there could be utility disruptions to residential units even if the main utilities are not affected.
  • Where buildings have sump pumps that are essential to keeping occupied basements dry, backup power systems may be needed to keep the pumps running when power is out during a heavy storm.
  • Irrigation systems that keep running during heavy storms can exacerbate flooding.
  • Surface water flow across planting beds may wash mulch into clog site drains, blocking the drains and creating floods. This has been a common problem where large trees create shade that kills turf areas. Landscaping techniques need to evolve over time to adapt to the changing site conditions.

Collect Information

Information that will be needed during and after an emergency may include:

  • Written plans for addressing the most likely disasters
  • Emergency contact information
  • A list of board members, management, and maintenance personnel
  • A list or database of resident information
  • Information on the building systems and equipment
  • Location of utility shutoff valves and switches
  • Locations of keys and access control devices
  • Building and site plans
  • Insurance information
  • Information on association finances, accounts, and agents
  • List of residents with special needs that may need assistance in emergency response

Minimize Risks Where Possible

Many risks can be minimized with good property management practices including:

  • Implementing preventive maintenance programs for critical systems and equipment
  • Maintaining storm water management systems
  • Pruning tree limbs away from buildings and removing trees too close to buildings
  • Conducting fire evacuation drills in multi-family buildings
  • Training the maintenance staff in preventive maintenance and emergency response procedures
  • Storing hazardous or flammable materials in appropriate containers and locations
  • Removing accumulations of combustible materials
  • Cleaning out storage rooms
  • Keeping emergency exit paths clear
  • Clearly identifying exit paths, locations of fire alarms, and locations of fire extinguishers
  • Keeping fire lanes clear
  • Maintaining an up-to-date supply of emergency response items
  • Backing up data and preserving building plans
  • Implementing a program to inform contractors working at residential units on appropriate procedures and equipment

Fire Marshalls can be helpful in identifying and mitigating possible risks. At properties where annual fire alarm system testing is performed, the tests can be good opportunities to review emergency preparedness plans.

Another good resource is insurance companies. Most firms have experts in assessing physical risks at buildings and they will help identify concerns and recommend preventive maintenance.

Identify Responsibilities and Lines of Communication

A chain of command, control, and communications should be designated for emergency situations. This is especially important in large, multi-family buildings where special knowledge may be needed to handle many situations involving complex building systems.

For buildings with fire alarm systems, it is important for management and residents to understand what happens with fire alarms are activated. Some systems will automatically report to the fire department or a central monitoring facility, and some only sound a local alarm.

There may be confusion about responsibilities in emergency situations.  Residents may assume that someone else will report a leak or broken item.  During medical emergencies, it may be unclear who should call for an ambulance.  A complete plan will clarify as many of these issues as possible.

Prepare Finances

Reacting to and recovering from disasters can be costly. Having funds readily available will greatly mitigate the effects. Steps communities can take include:

  • Have appropriate insurance in place
  • Conduct periodic reviews of insurance to make sure that coverage remains appropriate as circumstances change
  • Maintain a contingency fund for costs not covered by insurance and to have cash readily available for rapid response to emergencies

It is very important that residents understand the limits of coverage for the association’s insurance policies and what coverage they should maintain individually. Both owners and renters need to be advised on these limits. Experience at most communities is that the residents do not have a clear understanding of what the master policies cover and what insurance they should maintain as individuals.

Communicate Plan to Residents

The disaster management plan needs to be communicated to residents in order to be effective.  Use all appropriate means of communication for your community including discussion at association meetings, distributing written plan summaries, placing reminders in newsletters, posting on community digital networks, and placing notices in prominent locations. One time is not enough; the plan needs to be resent periodically.

The response to emergencies will be better if residents are individually prepared.  Part of the outreach effort should be to advise residents of resources and actions they can take to prepare themselves for emergencies. Residents with pets and children should have plans for what to do with them in common emergency situations.

Residents with special needs – such as mobility restrictions, hearing loss, or visual impairment – should be identified and appropriate plans made to help them where possible. These residents should also be encouraged to make disaster action plans for themselves.

Care should be taken in preparing communications with residents. A plan that is too detailed and contains too much information is likely to be ignored. Make the plans as simple as possible and focused on events that are most likely to occur.

Appropriate reporting procedures should be identified. For example, if resident sees a leak during a weekend, sending an email to the manager is probably not a good response. Usually, there will be an emergency number to call and residents should be made aware of this.

The plan should also address appropriate responses to suspicious activity on the property. Many residents do not have a clear understanding of when it is best to call the police or fire department instead of reporting it to the management office.

A prominent part of the communications to residents should be a clear and concise explanation of what insurance coverage the association maintains, and what insurance coverage an individual resident, whether owner or renter, should have.

Update Plan Periodically

Over time circumstances at the property will change and the plan will need to be updated.  Insurance companies and experts in building systems are good resources for identifying potential problems and items that need to be updated.  The plan should be reviewed and updated using lessons learned from actual emergencies that occur at the property.

You can’t be prepared for everything.

There are some disasters with a low probability of occurring on any specific property in our area. These may include:

  • Catastrophic gas or chemical explosion
  • Sudden structural failure
  • Vehicle hitting the building
  • Severe hailstorm
  • Tornado
  • Mud slide
  • Severe earthquake
  • Airplane hitting the building
  • Terrorist attack
  • Bomb or shooting threats
  • Civil disturbances
  • Meteor hitting the building

Some of these may be addressed through insurance.  However, the community should decide on the appropriate level of effort and expense of preparing for unlikely disasters.


All of the local jurisdictions have useful emergency preparedness information on the internet.  Searching for “emergency preparedness” and your county or local jurisdiction name will lead to the information.

Other resources are at the websites for these agencies:

  • American Red Cross
  • Centers for Disease Control
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency
  • U.S. Department of Homeland Security
  • National Weather Service

CAI publishes a useful guide for emergency preparedness – “Natural Disasters: How Community Associations Protect Themselves”.   This is available through the national CAI website.


Special Considerations for High Rise Buildings

Because of their size, construction, and resident population density, high rise buildings have concerns that usually don’t apply to HOAs and low-rise buildings.  These include:

  • Elevator failure
  • Flooding from pipe breaks on upper floors
  • Flooding from obstruction of drain pipes
  • Flooding from washing machines
  • Accidental activation of the fire sprinkler systems
  • Failure of water booster pumps
  • Failure of a central hot water system
  • Fire emergencies affecting multiple units or floors
  • Vehicle fire in a parking garage
  • Difficulty in evacuating residents with mobility restrictions
  • Patio furniture blowing off of balconies
  • Contractors working in residential units inadvertently causing damage because they do not understand the building systems or equipment
  • Resident renovations unintentionally created hazardous situations
  • Improper use or installation of natural gas-fired equipment

Special knowledge and skills will probably be needed to effectively manage many emergencies.  Knowledge of the locations of shutoff valves and electrical disconnects may be critical in responding to pipe breaks or electrical power disruptions.  Responding to many emergency repairs will require special knowledge, tools, and equipment.

At high rise buildings, it is advisable to have a clearly-defined chain of command for providing direction when responding to emergencies.  Contact information for contractors that may be needed in emergency response need to be readily available.

Residents also need to be informed about how to respond during emergencies.  For example, in buildings with modern fire alarm systems, residents may be given verbal instructions by the Fire Marshall through the fire alarm system to stay in place during fires.

It is advisable to have a review process for renovations in residential units to make sure that the modifications do not inadvertently create hazardous conditions or compromise critical building systems.

By Doug White, P.E.

Doug White has over 30 years of diversified experience in engineering design of buildings, structural engineering, building investigations, reserve studies, forensic engineering, construction project management and administration, and construction cost estimating. He is a technical expert on building structures, structural repairs, façade restoration, water intrusion, waterproofing, roofing, failure investigations, historic buildings, and building construction. He is a registered professional engineer in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina.

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